Beauty Marks

She glides across the stage, her tall, thin frame perched confidently on stiletto heels. Her cheeks remain frozen in the same jubilant grin she has held for the previous 60 minutes, showing her gleaming, Vaselined teeth. Adhesive holds her gown tucked smoothly in all the right places, while expertly applied hairspray and make-up provide the finishing touches for her flawless costume. Commercialized, televised, she is crowned the ideal image of woman: she rules as Miss USA.

mother and young girl near escalator

"Look at the TV, or at most of the media. It's a look at one body type—and one that only a fraction of the population could attain—perpetuated by corporations to keep us buying their products," exclaims Melissa Janssen, intent with purpose. "Really, it undermines potential for women. If you're spending too much time on weight, looks—and building self-esteem on that—you're not focusing time on expanding your mind, spirit, or the rest of your life."

Janssen won first prize in the Visual Arts Option of the 2000 Graduate Exhibition for a photograph in her series "Beauty Marks": an image of a young contestant and her grandmother taken at a children's beauty pageant at a shopping mall (right). Janssen, who graduated with her M.F.A. in photography from Penn State last May, points her camera at events like pageants to allow her a visual type of social commentary. Gender roles are a central issue in her work.

"I chose that image because it incorporated elements I appreciate in other photographers. I used the mall architecture to frame the figures in the picture. It's balanced to create this space where figures are trapped in the middle, creating a visual tension," she explained, pointing out the escalator in the front and the mirror behind the girl and her grandmother. Janssen also used the surrounding space to emphasize the bigger issue she was after. "I'm interested in implicating corporate mentality with beauty pageant imagery. It's very obvious that it's a consumer space —the neon signs. Most people recognize that it's a mall. These things aren't distracting to the piece, but layers of elements.

"One of the most important things I learned as a photographer was to use space—not just to go for the jugular," she said. To have picked a close-up of the grandmother and the little girl would capture only one aspect of the situation, the familial pressures of the pageant industry on young girls. Traditional photojournalism would shun the involvement of outside space as a distraction; Janssen finds this to be the difference between a mediocre and a good photographer. She explained that photographers must "be aware enough to frame space quickly in a such a way that all the elements are relevant to the main focus. It takes time to develop observational skills and comfort with the camera to incorporate those things."

Janssen finished her undergraduate studies at Penn State in 1997 with a degree in English and a minor in photography. After working for a gallery in Washington, D.C. and with a photographer in New York, she returned to Penn State to pursue graduate work in photography. She was interested in cultural events and two years ago began photographing fairs. Most fairs tended to have fair queens, and from there Janssen moved on to beauty pageants. Pageants "hit home," she says. She has worked with children's pageants most often because they are the most prevalent and are usually held in public venues.

"I've always been interested in cultural criticism. It's one way of approaching a couple of different things, like gender roles, beauty ideals and how they're constructed, and who constructs them: corporate sponsors." Janssen's work has been influenced by Diane Arbus, a photographer who focused on people living on the fringes of society in the 1960s and '70s, including dwarves and people suffering from mental retardation. "She made us face our own insecurities by photographing those people." Photographing the pageants, Janssen says, "was a way for me to come to terms with my own demons. Here are people that put themselves on the stage to be judged. I simply find that intriguing—they embrace what I dread most. I'm also searching for answers. I'm a walking contradiction —I generally dislike the beauty industry, but at the same time I feel the need to abide by its standards—and in some ways I enjoy it. I understand the empowered feeling that comes with certain appearances in our society. The problem is, the feeling is fleeting, and goes hand-in-hand with self-hatred." Leaning back in her chair, Janssen pauses before explaining how photographing these shows has helped her by forcing her to delve into that culture. "I don't have such an unyielding view of all pageants anymore, because I've talked to contestants. I respect a person's right to empower themselves through that venue. I don't hold contempt. I've let go of bitterness."

three beauty pageant contestants sitting

As opinionated as she may be, Janssen realizes the pitfalls of using photography with its representational nature as a mode of social commentary. It can be hard when using a camera to not produce the same image through a picture that is presented in a beauty pageant—both involve views of women dressed and made up on display. "Fashion magazines represent women in a certain way in photographs. That's sort of the problem with photography: It doesn't represent the truth, but a fraction of a second. Society tends to view photographs as objective truths—something they can never be ójust as pageants promote the idea that there is an objective standard for beauty. Both pageants and photographs are subjective, socially and contextually." In this way editing serves her purpose. She can choose from an array of images which ones are going to be shown, and in turn what view is going to be represented through her work. "I try not to be reiterating narrowly defined ideals, or even narrowly defined opinions. I don't want to promote parents of kids in pageants as evil across the board," she says. She picks images depicting various gender roles, so that the pictures complement and contradict one another. "I simply want people to be thinking something, to be engaged with the photographs in some way, and not just be a passive audience. Even if they dislike the images . . . at least they've been moved in some way. I at least hope my images cause viewers to think about their own preconceived notions involving appearance, and encourage people to be more tolerant, broadening their idea of what is considered beautiful."

In her exhibits, Janssen juxtaposes images of children's pageants with those she has taken of fair queens, adult pageants, and transvestites in order to induce anxiety in the viewer by presenting contradictory or unusual situations. She hopes that this will provoke her audience to question their own perceptions of gender. "I'm really interested in gender ideals, not just for women, but how narrow allowances are for males."

In the future she would like to examine other cultures, focusing on the increasing homogeneity resulting from America's influence on the global marketplace. Janssen will keep her critical eye on our society by photographing rodeos and wrestling, emphasizing that—like the pageants—she is not looking at the event, but at the action behind the scenes. For example, a wrestler, epitomizing masculine strength, caught on film in a situation that may be considered feminine, would provide this different gender view. "I'm looking for moments I'd consider uncanny," she clarifies. "That's the beauty of photography—seeing what's not clear to the naked eye. you can see these in-between moments that relay a completely opposite idea."

Janssen graduated with an M.F.A. in photography from the College of Arts and Architecture in May 2000; maj133@psu.edu. Her adviser was Marc Hessel, associate professor of art, 210 Patterson Bldg., University Park PA 16802; 814-865-0135; marc5@psu.edu.

Last Updated January 01, 2001