Miss Sea Party, Miss Panela (Sugarcane), Miss Fish Season, Miss Potato, Miss Coffee Farmer, Miss Good Shepherd… these are just a few beauty pageants you could attend if visiting Colombia.  And, do not forget the grandest competition/festival/month-long obsession of Miss Colombia herself.  During the entire month of November, people flock to Cartagena to catch the competition festivities of Miss Colombia live or watch the progression of events on the daily news (which brings in almost as many viewers as the World Cup).  The pageant winners are instant celebrities and featured prominently in the news, including Natalia Navarro, who (gasp!) refuses to get a nose job even though many Colombians insist it is necessary or Maria Fernanda Nuñez, who had acid thrown in her face by an unknown attacker.  I thought Colombians were even a bit more “pageant-obsessed” than the creepy parents forcing their children into pageant stardom on “Baby Beauty Queens” on BBC, until I stumbled upon the following video clip…

Bogotá Prison Beauty Pageant

El Buen Pastor (Bogotá) Prison Annual Beauty Pageant
Contestant in El Buen Pastor (Bogotá) Beauty Pageant

The women of El Buen Pastor are just as obsessed with their appearance as the contestants of the Miss Colombia pageant with only one major difference.  The contestants in El Buen Pastor are killers, guerillas, traffickers, or locked up for any number of offenses in one of Colombia’s roughest prisons.  One documentary (“La Corona”) has been made about this annual event and delves into the lives of some past and present prison beauty contestants.  There’s Maira, an ex-assassin for a Colombian paramilitary group, Viviana, serving six years for guerilla activity, and Angela, a professional thief.  I have mixed feelings about the prison beauty pageant.  On one hand, I think it is a good idea to keep prisoners active and empowered; However, I disagree on what their empowering them with: beauty.

Colombia is famous for its beautiful women.  That is an undisputed  fact.  You ask any number of traveling men why they are here and one of the answers will be (bluntly or subtly) “the women.”  Many are naturally beautiful, but there are also a shocking number of plastic surgery products walking the street.  A night in Poblado (the richest neighborhood in Medellín) will show you more glitter, butt implants, fake breasts, and hair extensions than you even imagined.  Men and women check out women from head to toe and don’t try to hide it. Beauty is serious here and every day is a beauty pageant.  The obsession with beauty in a country with three million displaced people, a heavy dose of poverty, high rates of domestic abuse, and a drug war that is still up and running (even though there have been great improvements) doesn’t really seem to harmonize.

Carl Bower, photographer, has an entire book (Chica Barbie, www.carlbower.com) featuring striking photographs from Colombian beauty pageants and the contestant’s lives, focusing on the obsession of beauty amongst a country thick with problems.  Many of his photographs are taken in Colombia’s less glamorous cities, where many women are led to prostitution and drugs to survive.  Bower writes:

While the inherent objectification of the contests and the values they convey to young women often provoke outrage and ridicule elsewhere, in the Colombian context the issue is more complicated.  The millions who pack stadiums and follow dozens of national contests on live television often have a vicarious relationship with the queens, clinging to the Cinderella fantasy of magically transcending poverty.  The popularity of the pageants ebbs and flows with the level of violence in the country.  The contests project an image of normalcy and vitality in the face of social upheaval and fear, a refusal to be defined by the violence or to live as if besieged.  In a country rife with conflict, the pageants are a form of both denial and defiance.  They are an escape, wholly frivolous and possibly essential.

Photograph by Carl Bower, Chica Barbie

Bower raises a lot of pertinent questions about the obsession with beauty in Colombia and I highly recommend visiting his website. I really cannot write a lot about the problems in Colombia, because I’ve only been here for three months, have not lived through the hell Medellín went through for many years, and am not an expert in foreign affairs.  I do fully agree with Bower on his ideas that perhaps for these Colombian women involved in beauty pageants, it is a frivolous escape and a possible “out” of the world of prostitution and drugs.  Regardless, I think the obsession with beauty in Colombia is fascinating and wish I could say there is more emphasis put on women’s empowerment in the realms outside of being beautiful.  As entertaining a pageant may be, in a country where 50% of Colombian men admit to abusing their female partners (according to a recent U.N. study), I don’t think beauty pageants can really solve enough.