I am not a Number: Prison Beauty Pageants

Womens’ correctional facilities are the ultimate sleep-over party with all the trappings: pajamas, bunk beds, in-fighting, sloppy joes, getting touched up under the covers, and being told when to go to bed. Some prisons even let the girls play dress-up. Miss America, meet Miss Demeanor:


To be fair, it’s primarily inmates who organize these shows. It’s an increasingly popular phenomenon, with womens’ prisons hosting beauty pageants in Russia, Brazil, Peru, Honduras, Angola and the Philippines, amongst others, with working titles like Miss Captivity. The idea is to ‘boost’ the self-esteem of (at least the better looking portion of) the prison population.

There is arguably an obvious exploitative angle in this, one which perpetuates gender and class divisions in a place where women are their most vulnerable. The media is only too happy to join in, throwing the spotlight on the tragedy of a pretty young woman in distress, putting herself on display. A beauty contest under these conditions probably does next to nothing for the self esteem or prospects of the contestants in any meaningful way.

It’s almost a perverse caricature of a parole board hearing in a Van Halen video, an effort to charm your way into garnering favour from you captors and respite from your situation by any measure necessary. Having said that, spending years trapped like an animal in a gray, clinical dorm framed in razor wire, any warm-blooded woman would thirst for anything beautiful in her world. Participation in these productions transiently refashions the contestant from a shoplifter or drug addict into a graceful, sophisticated and beautiful person of seeming worth, if only for one evening. Who could condemn the contestants for their humble aspirations and for enjoying an event which breaks up the tedium of Gilligan’s Island re-runs on prison TV?

Trailer for Miss Gulag, a 2006 Documentary:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/G5uhg7oaFBw" width="400" height="330" wmode="transparent" /]

9 Responses to “I am not a Number: Prison Beauty Pageants”

  1. Tequila Says:

    This is a tough one…cause you really have two types of prisoners. Those railroaded into the place and career criminals. It’s all well and good that it breaks up the grind of the prison lifestyle (and in some of those countries mentioned it’s nothing short of brutal) but at the same time it doesn’t help the reality of why some are there. The ladies may look nothing short of saintly on camera and in pictures but the stories that come out of these places is chilling. That has to be part of the allure to this idea…like seeing a Tiger at a zoo. They look beautiful and at times charming but you know they’ll kill you if you turn your back on them. Prisoners don’t do anything without ulterior motives, that’s just the reality of their world…so one has to wonder what the real gain is from all this.

    Wonderfully interesting all of it.

    That said I don’t feel bad about watching all those female prison exploitation films in High School now…

  2. ampersandpilcrow Says:

    Hnh. I don’t know whether to find this horrible, disgusting or uplifting. You’re right, Mil — it is exploitative (but then, so is prison itself), but at the same time, it shows that people will find a way to scrape together some small measure of beauty even in the harshest places.

    I’m surprised this hasn’t made it to the US yet, with 1 in 100 people in prison. I suppose it’s only a matter of time.

  3. Nadya Says:

    “I’m surprised this hasn’t made it to the US yet” I know! But don’t worry, when the US has it I’m sure you’ll see a reality TV show about it.

  4. James Shearhart Says:

    Well, so long as they don’t start performing a massive choreographed dance routine of “Thriller”, is what I say….

    Which, of course, begs the question: is there a talent segment to the pageant, and exactly what kinds of talents would be displayed?


  5. Milly von Hilly Says:

    My initial reaction to hearing this story was admittedly anger. I believe that prison activities and programmes really need to be designed with rehabilitation, education and therapy in mind. Learning to pull off a chartreuse bikiki and a fucking crown isn’t in keeping with that at all, and has the potential to actually be demoralizing. Generally prison populations are disproportionately filled with low income inmates, and treating the women like simpletons and peasants will not make there time on the outside any easier, and surely that’s the objective.

    But again, although clearly the prisons approve of this activity, the girls seemingly want to do it. We all make mistakes, and some amongst us get caught up in circumstances which see us incarcerated at some point in our lives. With that in mind, though, these women are here for a reason: they’ve done something wrong. They’ve caused injury to another person, behaved irresponsibly or otherwise broke the law. Your entitlement to fun is non-existent when you make the decision to rob someones house or stab them in the eye. Any fun activity allotted to you really should be in preparation for your re-entrance into society and these pageants serve no one but the voyeurs and the exhibitionists who take part, and the media who can point and laugh at the losers on stage trying to pull off ‘fabulous’.

    I’ve been in prison for an extended stay, so I think I have a more tolerant perspective. If they really want to do this, and no one has a problem with it, then let them have their fun. No they’re not entitled to anything, they’re criminals after all, but they’re also people and perhaps treating them as such will benefit them more than is seemingly obvious from such an activity.

    I’ll have to have a word with Diz about the reality show idea. You have a calling at Endemol, Nadya ;)

  6. Skerror Says:

    Well, it sounds like this is a pretty novel idea and it has potential. Hopefully a few of these pageants go by and some wise, grizzled lifer…the female equivalent of Shawshank Morgan Freeman…sees this potential. She uses her seniority to take over control of the pageant, institutes a Q & A segment, and as the years go by expands this segment and weights the judging accordingly. A few years of this go by, and you have an academic decathlon bracketed by swimsuit contests. Everyone wins!

  7. Milly von Hilly Says:

    Skerror: That sounds like a Tarantino movie. Sell that shit.
    James: I think there’s a lot of potential in combining the two ideas.

  8. Tequila Says:

    “…I believe that prison activities and programmes really need to be designed with rehabilitation, education and therapy in mind…”

    That use to be the general idea and lead to a lot of prison reform. It’s still a theme in prisons that deal with the non-career criminals at that. Of course what gets most of the attention are the federal prisons where they function as holding bins and crime colleges.

    Still one has to admit as exploitative as it is…people LIVE for that now with so many talent reality shows dominating the airwaves. So as sordid as this would have seemed a decade ago I honestly think people would accept it as a good and rehabilitative thing provided all the skills needed in such pageants were properly taught.

    I’ve little idea what those skills would be mind you but given how pageant culture is big in the states there has to be SOME industry around it right?

  9. meardearna Says:

    Although every girl like a good old dress up – a great escapism. What skills for being an upright citizen would such an vain exercise teach inmates? Rather than self-confidence or self-esteem, I see a beauty pageant generating a lot of rivalry and jealousy instead.