Disempowering Beauty Pageants

miss universe

The 70th Miss Universe pageant was held recently in Eilat, Israel and there is a lot of celebratory chatter going on. After 21 years another Indian, Harnaaz Sandhu has won the crown. The celebration is for Chandigarh’s daughter having won the title. The last time an Indian won the said beauty pageant was 21 years ago — when Lara Dutta beat contestants from across the world at the turn of the millennium. However, the sentiment of national pride — both on and off social media — is clouded by the larger debate around beauty and competition. Can we celebrate an Indian success at a global platform, whilst being completely aware of the harm beauty pageants have inflicted on generations now?

Beauty pageants have long been a contested part of our culture: some see them as a hangover from a far more patriarchal era, while others defend them for helping women of all ages to feel more confident and to know their self-worth. The British film Misbehaviour, which was released last year tells the story of the infamous 1970 Miss World contest from the dual perspectives of then Miss Grenada who earned a historic victory, and the members of the Women’s Liberation Movement, who protested against the competition.The film offers up a nuanced portrayal of all the key players: beauty contestants, feminists, contest organisers, are all given an opportunity to reveal their motivations and differing opinions on the Miss World institution, gender equality and intersectional feminism. Other movies like Miss Congeniality, have also tried to delve deep into the fictional lives of women competing in beauty pageants.

At its core, Misbehaviour asks: are pageants inherently misogynist or toxic, or can they even be empowering? Of course to say that beauty pageants are designed to serve the male gaze would be to state the obvious. They are a means to put on a display sexualised versions of women for the male gaze, under the guise of celebrating women’s beauty. What are we celebrating when we call a woman a beauty queen? Isn’t it to honour someone for what is largely the result of natural selection? Youth and beauty are not accomplishments. In Miss Universe and other similar pageants, women are rewarded for being beautiful. It’s no coincidence that the cosmetics industry in America( and eventually globally) emerged at the same time as beauty pageants; seamlessly promoting a culture of beauty to girls and women. Beauty pageants were like walking and talking hour-long advertisements, masquerading as art and entertainment. But beauty pageants went much further than imposing just physical beauty standards. Looking pretty wasn’t enough. You had to conform to society’s idea of what a “good” woman was, too. For decades, Miss America had a “purity” rule, which meant all contestants had to never have been divorced, or had an abortion.

In response to this criticism, some have said that beauty pageants have greatly evolved over the years, pointing to the opportunities they create for women to also showcase their intelligence and character. For the winners, this is as a potential escape from unfavourable living conditions, and a launchpad to pursue one’s dreams — especially for those women who find themselves trapped by their circumstances. Not only are they a great platform for young girls to build their confidence, but they also teach women how to get their point across, how to work for a cause, and how to make a difference in the world. Beauty is apparently secondary. The contests are not for displaying objectified bodies but for providing the community with a positive role model. Pageant apologists argue that this can be empowering for women. But can’t we find more meaningful ways to empower women, because certainly the efforts and resources put into staging these competitions could be of better use. The idea that beauty contests somehow give young women a platform with new opportunities implies that not only would success be impossible without beauty, but — since only the most beautiful women are showered with scholarships, funds, and attention — it would be undeserved.

The argument js that such beauty pageants are usually not just about female beauty but also overall personality inclusion intelligence, poise, and elegance. Maybe when smart, talented, and friendly but obese women get accepted as candidates, this argument will begin to hold some credibility. Beauty pageants are a space where women get objectified and sexualised. They are told to line up and literally get scored based on how they look. They lose their name, and are assigned with a number, or the country they represent. They are paraded exactly like products at a fair. Equally dangerous are the standards for beauty and femininity these pageants are propagating. The women must have perfect skin, and ideal height, waistline and an hourglass figure. They must be able to carry a gown and a two-piece swimsuit well. They must always have a smile on their face. In 2019, a collage of the finalists of the Miss India contest was criticised because of how similar the women looked — fair skin, long, black hair — a point that is particularly striking in a country where fairness is still desired despite the diversity of our cultures and communities.

Empowerment that comes only with a tiara and a score sheet, for only certain women, is never empowerment but oppression in a different outfit. Women are judged by a subjective standard of physical beauty often on a score out of ten that says very little about their personalities, interests or passions, and a lot more about what they look like. In today’s society, we cannot continue to accept the narrow beauty standards of competitions where beauty is all too often blonde, thin and completely unrepresentative. Even in competitions where personality, charity or skill are taken into account, these qualities remain only secondary to physical beauty. Moreover, any charitable work or other achievements that might result from beauty contests could have easily happened without them. despite this supposed evolution, beauty pageants do not belong in a world where feminist ideals are gaining greater acceptance; where women are assuming more positions of power; and where the idea that people are worth more than their looks is finally being normalised.

Shantanu Dutta is a Former Air Force Doctor and is a development worker for the last 25 years.


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