Picture this: a prison camp in Siberia with 2,000 inmates, twenty miles outside of Novosibirsk, the third largest city in Russia. The women wake at 5:45 for eight hours of sewing police uniforms in the textile factory They walk across the yard, wrapped for the cold in wool as drab and gray as the sky. There’s no hot water. They subsist on a diet of mashed peas and bread.
Now jump to this: an auditorium filled with two hundred people. Balloons decorate the stage. The steps to the podium are newly carpeted. It’s the same camp, but during the annual Miss Spring contest. Behind the scenes, nine women, one selected by each cell block anxiously prepare. For round one, the Greek Goddess, the camp’s expert seamstresses turn their candidate into Mata Hari. Her bare skin shows above her low slung gold skirt; her breasts are barely covered with red and pink; her arms are wrapped in golden straps. In the Flower Round, another contestant wears a gown, again fashioned by her whole block made of hundreds of white cloth flowers, each with a delicate yellow-and-green center. Her glittery makeup, pearls, and white shoes evoke Miss America, but her train speaks of weddings, New Year’s floats, Cirque de Soleil.
Should feminists around the world shake in their boots?
After all, in 1968, in one of the first actions of US feminism’s second wave, protesters gathered in Atlantic City to picket the Miss America pageant and the false icons of beauty it presented. As some unfurled banners reading “Women’s Liberation” inside the hall, others created street theatre outside, crowning a sheep and calling for the end to the oppression of women that the pageant made manifest. Carol Hanisch, who coined the phrase, “the personal is political,” led the demonstrators in tossing what she called “instruments of female torture”-high heels, nylons, girdles, corsets, hair curlers, and false eyelashes–into a Freedom Trash Can. In a 2003 radio interview, Hanish credited fellow demonstrator Roz Baxandall with coming up with the action’s best slogan: “Every day in awoman’s life is a walking Miss America contest.”
However, in Siberian Camp UF-91/9, a woman’s day is anything but a beauty contest. There, dressing up and entering the world of the imagination can be treasured opportunities, respites from the rules and scarcity that usually dominate her life. Although the cliched titles and the concepts of women the pageants promote may seem bizarre to those of us on the outside, almost any activity, when you take it behind bars, acquires a new significance.
The first prison beauty pageant in Siberia took place in 2000, the brainchild of an inmate. It began simply, with costumes created from everyday objects such as plastic bags and fake flowers. These days, the women work together for months before the pageant, which is hardly the competitive, individualistic event implied by the word “contest.” Their interpretations of the themes assigned by the prison administration, such as Miss Spring, Miss Charm, and Miss Grace, are liberating and even, in some cases, downright subversive. Consider the irony of portraying an inmate as a pure lily with giant white calla spathes around her head, her slicked-back hair highlighting the flower’s center, her trim body undulating sensually to form the stem.
As a woman who grew up in the sixties, I used to consider endorsing any sort of beauty contest inconceivable–but that was before I saw two short documentaries about the pageants at Camp UF-91/9, The Contest, produced by the Polish journalist Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, and Miss Gulag, produced by Neihausen-Yatskova and Vodar Films. They show the contenders taking the runway by storm, cheered on by their peers, in a parody of the stale rigidity and lack of sexuality of traditional pageants. “You can be free anywhere, even in a dark cell,” says one contestant, referring to her pageant experience. In The Contest, one woman adds a musical number to the pageant’s dress-up proceedings, packaging herself as a cabaret singer a la Sally Bowles. Commenting on her performance, Dzieciolowski says, “The brilliance in the women’s handiwork is the opposite of the mass production of the factory.”
Beauty pageants are now widespread in Russian prisons. Make up, gifts for the unit, and credits toward early release are the prizes. In Kyrgyzstan, the first contest behind bars in 2005 was juried by a group led by Tursunbai Bakir-uulu, the Kyrgyz human rights ombudsperson. He brought the competitors soap, detergents, booklets on legal issues, and stationary, and the winner received a television set, presumably to watch when she got out.
Yet, even though women themselves originated the pageants, it’s fair to wonder whether the wardens are promoting them for public relations purposes, to boost the idea of a new Russia, devoid of unbearable gulags. At the screening of Miss Gulag I attended this summer in Baltimore, the Russian-American director Irina Yatskova said that in her experience, the prison was still excruciatingly bleak. Although she was allowed to film it, her crew had to sign forms saying they would stick within physical boundaries determined by the camp: no filming anywhere but in approved areas. If they strayed, they’d find themselves in UF-9 1/9, prisoners instead of observers.
Beauty pageants are proliferating behind bars. They’ve been held all over the world: in Mexico, Brazil, Columbia, Peru, Venezuela, Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, Lithuania, and the US. Prison blogger Yraida, whose posted address in 2005 was a Florida federal prison camp, wrote that during the camp’s Hispanic Heritage celebrations in September and October, 21 female prisoners, one to represent each Latin country, were selected to compete for the title of Miss Hispanic. Yraida posted a picture showing the costumes, “dresses designed and made by other prisoners … just gorgeous, long gowns with shoulderless backs … open midsection dresses with prison-made earrings and tiaras.” Like her Russian counterpart, she feels that the pageant offers inmates some measure of freedom.
Although when I contacted the Florida federal prison camp, administrators denied that beauty contests ever take place inside, Yraida described how, in her federal prison experience, Black History Month and the Fourth of July were also celebrated with glorious pageants.
Administrators who endorse the contests claim that they “increase self-esteem.” I have always winced at that term, perhaps because it seems too simplistic, a catchall. According to the BBC News, warden Wanini Kireri of Lang’ata, the largest women’s prison in Kenya, organized a pageant for exactly that reason: to boost her charges’ self-confidence. She had read an article about a pageant behind bars, and sought help from a local beauty college to dress the women in African designs and make them up for the contest. She said, “When I came to Lang’ata, I wanted to make a change. I did not want to get into the usual routine.” The 26-year-old who became Miss Lang’ata exclaimed, “I feel good. I feel excited. Winning the pageant will change my life.” After serving her sentence, she planned to take a hairdressing, modeling, and beauty course offered by the school that helped with the pageant. After that, she said, she might attend college.
Critics might justifiably wonder if hairdressing and modeling courses can really change a prisoner’s life. But research shows that there is more at stake than beauty worship. Some pageants aim to train women so they get jobs upon release. The unemployment rate of women in Russia is seventy percent. According to Human Rights Watch, in Kenya women make up eighty percent of the agricultural labor force and provide sixty percent of farm income, yet they own only five percent of the land. For a Kenyan prisoner, a beauty school education may mean survival. Those who receive such opportunities may feel more confident in their abilities to achieve in other arenas, thus Miss Lang’ata’s intention to “go to university” not insignificant, since female enrollment in universities is only thirty percent, according to Akili Dada, a nonprofit organization that supports Kenyan girls and women. In addition, it is well known that the more education a prisoner has, the less likely she is to return tocrime.
In Latin America, reporters have said that beauty is a “national obsession.” According to USA Today writer Toby Muse, in Colombia, “[a]nnual telecasts of the Miss World and Miss Universe competitions draw ratings on par with World Cup soccer matches.” Women prisoners in Brazil and Colombia, like those in Kenya, participate in pageants to get time off their sentences, cash awards, or in some cases the chance to go to modeling school.
Rebecca Roth is a US citizen who has been incarcerated since February 2006 in the Puente Grande women’s penitentiary in Mexico, where those arrested but not convicted can be held for years. She lives in the same cell with sentenced women. Cockroaches are not uncommon. Almost fifty, Roth came of age when questions about women’s roles were freely in the air. She confirms the observation of Susan Dworkin, the author of Miss America, 1945: Bess Myerson and the Year That Changed Our Lives, that any beauty pageant has a “dark underbelly.” Roth writes in an e-mail, “Even in the slammer women flirt with the male judges in order to gain favor.” Contestants, many of whom are over fifty, some of whom cannot read or write and can barely sign their names, “practiced and practiced,” says Roth, going over “their promenades, dance routines, and beauty pageant smiles.” The women rehearsed musical numbers to “New York, New York,” complete with “styrofoam top hats that we painted black with white bands,” and to “Brazil.” “The ‘Brazil’ girls were given multicolor tulle carioca skirts that tied on with colored bias tape and felt eye masks that they were told to decorate with sequins,” says Roth. (Note that the prisoners were “told” to decorate.) “My moment of truth came where I realized the people in front of me were going to decide if I was queen material based on a dance routine and a walk in my tight blue dress,” she says.
Still, she feels it was “absolutely worth it” to take part in Queen of the Prison, a contest held yearly for prisoners over age 36, because of “the additional liberty from the overcrowded cellblock after 6:00 PM curfew.” For their efforts, participants were allowed to stay outside, sometimes until 8:00 or 9:00 pm. To gain any kind of liberty is precious when a life behind bars is defined, as Jean Harris says of her experience in New York’s Bedford Hills, as having doors opened for you “ninety times a day.” Roth’s sister, who has moved to be near her in Mexico, writes that this year, Rebecca found some freedom in sewing and designing costumes for the pageant.
Certainly some pageants exploit far more than they support. Questionable ones include a “voluntary” singing competition in Maricopa County, Arizona. The prison-based American Idol-like contest is run by the controversial sheriff Joe Arpaio, also known for forcing male prisoners to wear pink underwear, housing prisoners in tents in the desert, and bringing back chain gangs. A sleezy website called “Iowahawk” posts mug shots of women behind bars and, in a nearly pornographic announcement, encourages readers to vote for their favorite “Hoosegow Honey 2007.” These are the kinds of exploitative pageants that led Carol Hanisch and other women’s liberationists of the sixties to picket Miss America.
Nevertheless, prison beauty pageants also demonstrate the immense resourcefulness of women who are locked-up, who live day-in and day-out in cramped spaces, far from their children and other loved ones, without much to cheer about in their lives. During the contests, prisoners grab a momentary respite from conditions that range from the austere to the intolerable; they use their creativity and even gain a leg-up upon release. The women, even if not the pageants, broadcast loudly, with style and pizzazz, that beauty does not have to die in prison.