Clamour for glamourContrary to popular belief, not all women are empowered by beauty contests
More often than not, what captures the imagination when one thinks of a ‘beauty queen’ is the image of a woman with gorgeous looks, with rock-solid body whose hair flies like there is some voodoo magic being performed on her. Like it or not, beauty pageants are contests based on physical beauty on the garb of personality and their presence of mind during the answer to the judges round.
If these contests did not outrightly draw romanticised associations between their pageantry and women’s empowerment and, instead, treated their events as simply ‘show business’, then that would be a different story. But because these associations are continually drawn, especially by the ‘big four’ international beauty pageants—Miss Universe, Miss World, Miss International, and Miss Earth—then it is pertinent for the public to engage in dialogue about the dangers caused by the narratives they continually peddle.
Not for all
Beauty pageant defenders often hark on the point that the contests instill confidence in women but it is important to challenge this narrative too. It is not anyone’s place to decide whether or not something contributes to the agency of a woman except the woman herself—because every woman understands her agency differently.
While the contest may improve the confidence of a few number of girls through personality development trainings and the international platform it provides, it has also led to the shattering of confidence and self-esteem and confidence of millions of other girls around the world.
People who don’t fit into conventional standards of ‘beauty’ are barred from the opportunity to ‘represent’ their country. From body measurement specifications to strict age requirements, many International pageants have quantified what it means to qualify for auditions and, by proxy, what it means to be beautiful.
Having read heartbreaking accounts from women who were turned away from auditions because of their crooked teeth’ or ‘large nose’, it is clear that the process alone causes plenty of distress for some aspiring contestants. Then it is safe to assume that only a negligible amount of brilliant, inspiring, and beautiful women would meet the criteria listed for entering into the audition for Miss Nepal. This proves the immateriality of that defense.
If the intention was really about empowering women, as they claim, and about taking contestant’s intelligence and personality into consideration, why are the questions asked during ‘question-and-answer’ rounds predominantly surface-level and cliched? The questions are often constructed in ways that corner participants into answers that suggest that they will embark on whirlwind efforts to eliminate hunger, corruption, and poverty—all in a year.
Furthermore, in the case of Miss World, the association of the ‘Beauty with a Purpose’ challenge with the larger institution driving the contest reinforces the conventional assumption that women need to be beautiful to serve a purpose. Why should appearance matter for women to be talented or socially motivated? What sense does it make to expect people who are contributing to humanitarian projects across the world to be aesthetically pleasing?
Beauty standards also differ across cultures. For instance, in Nepali society, the traditional concept of beauty lies in fairness, slim nose, and slim lips. In African cultures, these exact features characterise an absence of beauty. It, therefore, seems imprudent to judge women representing various global conceptions of beauty against each other through a standard rubric.
Another common defense for pageants is qualified when people say, ‘these women chose to stand and participate.’ While that is a fair point and while it is important to respect and promote self-made decisions, it’s also important to question the impact caused by this choice.
In choosing to participate in the pageants—a stage that many women are barred from because there is an incredibly limited number of women that naturally possess the body type that the pageants glorify—specific standards of beauty and personalities are promoted, and millions of girls are made to feel deeply unfulfilled and inadequate.
This has given rise to negative body image, which is linked to conditions such as eating disorders (such as anorexia and bulimia) and poor self-esteem. And it’s affecting women from all over the world. According to Ruchi Anand, a professor at American Graduate School, over the decade, the promotion of man-made Western beauty ideals have manifested in alarming rates of eating disorder conditions among female youth. In his words, ‘they are literally fighting for the size zero, which was never known as beautiful in India.’
Shatter the assumption
Shrinkhala Khatiwada, the current Miss World contestant from Nepal, and an architect engineer by profession, is also a beautiful and talented woman. However, in her introductory video as a Miss World contestant, she promotes a problematic narrative about beauty. Proffering a plethora of examples, she discusses how she successfully transformed herself from being a ‘nerd’ to becoming Miss Nepal and how she hopes that the position will enable her to be heard and to fulfill her dreams. By drawing this parallel, she promotes the presupposition that beauty, unlike intelligence, is an ideal that needs to be sought after; that people need to transform into beauty by ‘following the glamour and the make-up.’ The challenge that women in Nepal and around the world face today is the need to shatter this assumption and challenge the narrative that their appearance is the vehicle to success and that they need to resort to standard conventions of beauty to ‘serve a purpose’ and ‘be heard.’
The extreme attention given to women’s bodies is one of the core reasons for the persistent violence against women and girls in Nepal and around the world. As long as rape and sexual harassment continue to be a part of the social fabric, and as long as women do not gain control over their own body and opinion, beauty contests—which basically put up women’s body for public gaze and consumption—cannot claim to empower women. Nor can they claim to represent their country and the women at large.
Kattel is a student at Cowan University, Western Australia.