photo: Getty

Beauty runs more than just skin deep, but for some Latinas, beauty pageants are the end all and be all. The 2015 Miss Universe pageant raked in 6.16 million viewers last night! A major staple in Latin America, beauty pageants are a critical force shaping young women’s lives in some countries. Girls in Venezuela as young as four are sent to pageant-training schools and set on the road to becoming the country’s next beauty queen. Within the last decade alone, 6 out of 10 Miss Universe winners were Latina.

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But pageants have come under fire in recent years and are often cited as being damaging to one’s self-esteem. In 2014, a city near Buenos Aires, Argentina, sought to ban beauty pageants due to the damaging effects of judging contestants based on their physical attributes alone and the health consequences like bulimia and anorexia that have plagued participants. In recent years, horror stories have surfaced of contestants going to extreme lengths to score the crown, such as drastic plastic surgeries at very young ages or getting plastic mesh sewn on their tongues to limit food consumption. But some pageant contestants say these feelings of inadequacy couldn’t be farther from the truth of their experience competing.

Former Ms. New York America 2012 Helen Troncoso claims that pageants actually helped her body image. Troncoso says:

“While it may not have always been the best experience for me, overall it did help me to develop a positive attitude towards my body. I learned how to present myself, and how to compete, win and lose gracefully. These are skills that have helped me tremendously in the workforce, and even more so as an entrepreneur now."

So how have beauty pageants amassed such a huge following and won over a large portion of the Latino community? It may come down to a passion for beauty. A study recently showed that in 2015, Latinos dropped more money on beauty products than any other ethnic group. From an international perspective, Troncoso feels that beauty pageants are particularly valued in Latin American countries because they help provide a distraction from political and economic issues that may be plaguing local communities.

A photo posted by Helen Troncoso (@mshelent) on

"It can also serve as a short distraction for many countries who are experiencing unrest. For those few hours, no matter what your personal political beliefs may be, you unite with your countrymen behind your chosen representative,” says Troncoso.

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Beyond the physical appearance of contestants, the women featured often have talent and qualities that go far beyond hair and makeup. As glamorous as pageants may seem, Troncoso emphasizes that contestants are much more than just how they look. “We have brains!" she exclaims. "Most of the time we are better equipped to handle stressful situations and intense workloads because we have to juggle school, work, volunteer commitments and maintain a fit lifestyle just to be competitive.”

Unfortunately, racial bias continues to play a part in beauty pageants throughout the world. Cartagena, Colombia, is widely known for its Miss Colombia pageant that mainly features fair-skinned women from higher social classes. Troncoso has found that similar issues plague pageants in the United States. "Once I was questioned by other contestants about where I was from — they were casually feeling my hair and trying to see if it was 'real' — as I tended to be one of the darker (if not the darkest) Latina contestants, and didn’t fit into what they thought a Latina looked like.”

Despite some of the questionable practices and traditions pertaining to beauty pageants, it’s safe to say that many pageant winners gain amazing opportunities and experiences in their post-pageant days.

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"You suddenly get put in a new spotlight and have an instant audience. But it’s fleeting. You have to hustle hard to keep the door open, and open the ones that you want or you’ll be forgotten," says Troncoso.

"Every contestant should ask themselves what their short-term and long-term goals are even before entering a pageant and then go after them fearlessly. I always knew that winning was not the end for me; it was just a stepping stone to my long-term goals."

For the Latino community, beauty pageants go beyond pride and glory. It's always exciting to see a woman from your country win, but more so, it's the legacy of the pageants and the promise they hold for a young woman's future that these contestants are really fighting for.