A Troublesome Apple and an Ample Supply of Butt Glue

It all started with an apple. Or perhaps it started when Eris, the goddess of discord got her toga in a bunch because she wasn’t invited to a wedding. The problem with offending the goddess of discord is that she’s pretty good at causing trouble. The story goes that Eris crashed the wedding, but only long enough to present a golden apple to the fairest of them all.

The world’s first beauty contest, maybe ever so slightly more risqué than the swimsuit competitions of today. The Judgement of Paris by Enrique Simonet, 1904, Pubic Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Three formidable goddesses (Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite) stepped forward to claim the prize. Zeus wasn’t about to wade into that hornet’s nest by declaring a victor, so he passed the responsibility off to Paris, who faced a very difficult choice. None of the goddesses was keen to hand over the title of fairest and so they bribed their unfortunate judge. Hera offered him the opportunity to rule, Athena offered him victory on the battlefield, and Aphrodite offered him the love of Helen, who was quite a beauty queen herself.

Paris chose the pretty girl because, like Aphrodite, she appeared well-poised and graceful in a swimsuit and high heels and could clearly benefit from a scholarship. She also wanted world peace and “like such as, uh, South Africa, and, uh, Iraq, everywhere like such as…”*

Alas, world peace was not to be, since Helen was married to Menelaus of Sparta, and he didn’t agree that Aphrodite should be given the title of Miss Olympus. War broke out and because the Trojans couldn’t resist a good looking giant wooden horse any more than Paris could resist a pretty girl, it didn’t end well for Troy.

Given the bloody history, then, it isn’t all that surprising that outside of a few small May Day festivals, there really wasn’t much in the way of beauty contests for thousands of years. Then along came P.T. Barnum who, in 1854, thought it would be a great idea to parade women in front of a crowd to judge their beauty.

Margaret Gorman, 16-year-old, 1921 winner of the Bather’s Review, and the first Miss America, without even a single glob of butt glue to keep her swim suit in place. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It turned out it was a pretty good money-making idea, just a little ahead of its time. But what ended in angry protest in 1854, started to catch on almost seventy years later in Atlantic City, as the Inter-City Beauty Contest in which women competed for applause and a chance to parade around in their swimming suits the next day in the “Bather’s Review.”

From these humble beginnings emerged the Miss America Pageant, which is ongoing and will wind up with the crowning of a new beauty in a glued-on bathing suit this Sunday, September 11.

Now, I’m not a big pageant fan myself, and I have never competed in one (frankly, it just wouldn’t be fair to the other ladies), so I have mixed feelings about criticizing them. I do think that, with a few unfortunate exceptions, the contestants of most of the larger pageants today, are smart, talented, and highly-motivated women who are working hard to find a platform from which to make a positive difference in the world.

I don’t begrudge them that opportunity, but here’s my question. If we have so many smart, talented, and highly-motivated women in the world (or even the universe, though I think that pageant is rigged as only Earth girls have ever been crowned), why is it that we need to see them in a bathing suit and high heels? Does their poise and athleticism while half-naked make them somehow more likely to be forces for positive change? Or does their successful application of butt glue somehow make them more worthy of college scholarships?

Homer: a practical history blogger before his time. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Tough questions, I know, and not easily answered by world peace and, like um, South Africa. Too tough for me, a lowly blogger of all things historical, and, evidently mythological. Because, yes, in addition to being among the four fifths of Americans who can identify the United States on a world map, I am also aware that the Trojan War may not have happened at all. And if some version of it did, it most likely didn’t start with an epic godly beauty pageant.

But then again, on the rare occasion that I have flipped on the television and watched part of the Miss America Pageant, I have usually found myself asking if it’s for real, too.


*Actual excerpt from an actual response given by a contestant in the 2007 Miss Teen USA Pageant while answering the question, “Recent polls have shown a fifth of Americans can’t locate the U.S. on a world map. Why do you think this is?” In her defense, it was a pretty high pressure situation and a FIFTH OF AMERICANS CAN’T IDENTIFY THE U.S. ON A WORLD MAP! Likely this beauty contestant is not among them. I suspect she can also find, uh, South Africa, and, uh, Iraq.

10 thoughts on “A Troublesome Apple and an Ample Supply of Butt Glue

    1. Evidently in antiquity there were male beauty contests, much more often than female ones. Though personally, I got more than enough men parading around in Speedos during the Olympic diving events. I won’t be tuning in to watch Mr. America crowned anytime soon.

  1. Beauty for beauty’s sake. The women who sign up for contests do so willingly. I think it’s unfair on men to blame them for being attracted to beautiful women. If we’re being honest we all tend to look at pretty things (don’t women like well-decorated living rooms?). Whether there are beauty contests or not women have a long history of competing against each other for male attention.

  2. I see in the painting that Paris is wearing a sort of skimpy goat-skin bathing costume. And for the benefit of four fifths of the population, I happen to know that the United States is somewhere just off the coast of Mexico. This posting is a delightful snippet of history, thanks Sarah.

  3. margolynndill

    I love how your blog is shaping up. I haven’t been here in a while. 😦 Getting my head out of the sand again. Your voice in this piece is so good. I am thinking you should write a non-fiction history book with that voice. Lots of people who say they don’t like history would like an approach like you gave with this post. I’m babbling, but hopefully you know what I mean. And as to pageants, well, I have mixed feelings. I think it’s because most of these women were probably forced into this type of pageantry from the time they were very young, and not by their own choice–by their mothers. So. . .that’s the biggest problem right there, and could be a whole blog itself.

    1. Thanks, Margo. I think there’s probably some truth to that. Little girl pageants generally strike me as super creepy, because all the little girls are made to look so grownup. Can’t we just be happy for childhood innocence for a while? Also, I have thought about publishing a blog-to-book, maybe to celebrate 5 years of blogging, which I am coming up on this spring. Seems like a good self-publish project, and might be gratifying since I find myself playing the waiting game again with my fiction. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Beauty contests? Men may have ideas re what they like but they’d do well to take a pass on the “opportunity” to judge a beauty contest.

    Others are watching and listening, specifically WOMEN! And they judge (yes, I said it) other women by more than appearance–poise, intelligence, grace (define that term, please), and (already, I’m in deep weeds) “so much more.”

    My comment here rapidly degenerating into incoherency proves the point that we men would do well to let others take on this onerous task.

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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