The pageants of Colombia are a petri dish for examining the nature of beauty and how we cope with adversity. Set against a backdrop of poverty, crime, and the decades of armed conflict, nowhere are the contests more ubiquitous and revered than in Colombia. In these carefully scripted shows of fantasy, beauty as a concept, commodity and singular goal is stripped to its raw elements. There is no ambiguity or pretense that anything else matters.
The queens are celebrities. Many of the roughly 400 contests a year can shut down a small town for days as thousands jam plazas and parade routes for a glimpse of them. Icons of a rigidly defined ideal, the contestants highlight the conflated relationship between beauty and attraction. Many of them seem familiar, stirring recollections of the same perfect features seen elsewhere, along with the identical flirtatious laughter, mock surprise and relentless optimism. In their quest for adoration, they erase nearly all traces of individuality.
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.