How truly empowering are these beauty pageants such as Miss India, Miss Diva, Miss World, Miss Universe etc., for young women, as claimed by organizers, contestants & its fans? This question had been bothering me (and I believe I am not alone on this) since a long time. So, I did some research and penned down my honest’ views, which may not be agreeable to the pageant supporters, whom I would be referring as ‘Fans or Beauty’ from now onwards in this article. Well, let us explore some of the less talked alleys in the world of beauty pageants and attempt to understand rationally as to how ‘truly’ empowering they are for women?
Beauty pageants, such as Miss World, Miss Universe etc, though claim to have undergone several gradual ‘constructive’ and ‘practical’ transformation over years since their inception nearly 5-6 decades ago -from being explicitly misogynistic, objectifying, exploitative, sexist, men-pleasing shows to somehow managing to become epitome of women empowerment and body confidence etc (thanks to brilliant marketing skills and massive scale internalization of beauty standards promoted vehemently by organizers and ‘fans of beauty’). – continue to peddle their stereotypical notion of as to how to judge a woman’s beauty predominantly based on her physical attributes, thereby demeaning the role of her inner beauty in her persona and the beauty of her brains and the intellect, which often are found to be not enough to reward her the recognition she deserves, not only on a global stage, but in our day-today lives too.
When Harnaaz Sandhu won the title of Miss Universe recently, most of my countrymen went gaga over her and instantly, media put her on a pedestal of being the epitome of confidence, empowerment & inspiration for young women round the globe. Well, I personally congratulate her for the victory but the kind of attention she draws, is overhyped according to my opinion. Fans of pageant, contestants or organizers are free to differ from me, but please spare the very cliché, “Don’t like it, don’t watch it..”, for when any event is aired publicly for public consumption, it is no more a private affair and so, I, or any citizen of the world, being a part of society at large, have all the right to comment and put across their views – be it in favour or with dissent.
To back my views, let me bring in my learnings from the history and some ‘unpleasant’ facts on beauty pageants from the recent times, which the ‘fans of beauty’ may trivialize as petty price expected from a ‘modern’ woman to pay, for getting empowered and successful in life.
LET’S WALK BACK IN TIME
Beginning with the history of Miss World pageant, it started as ‘Bikini only’ contest, as part of Festival of Britain in 1951, where 30 bikini-clad women competed at London’s Lyceum Ballroom, full of men clad in dinner jackets and clothed fully in formals ‘enjoying’ the ‘beauty’ firmly on display. Some of the entrants came from outside Britain, so it was soon dubbed as “Miss World” pageant. The objective of this bikini contest, as viewed popularly by media during those times, was mainly to promote bikinis among young women, but the founder, Eric Morley, husband of present Chairperson cum CEO of Miss World Organization, Ms. Julia Morley, claimed it was to raise morale and finance for WW-II veterans and of the country as a whole after two devastating World Wars.
In the founding year, the winner was crowned in a two piece bikini which drew flake from several women liberation groups and even the Pope. So in 1951 itself it was the first and last time when the Swedish winner, Kiki Haakonsen, wore crown in a two piece bikini. She is perhaps the ‘only Queen’ in history who was ‘coronated’ and paraded in a half-naked state, among men clad in formal dinner jackets. What a ‘Queen’! – Truly a red letter day in the history of women empowerment!
Then, due to large scale protest, began the practice of crowning contestants in more modest, one piece swimming costume till 1975, before being finally giving way to crowning in evening gowns. One of the primary reasons for dropping the ritual of crowning in swimsuits was due to rebellion among some contestants in Miss World 1975 Pageant who refused to turn around and show their backside to the judges while in swimsuits, on-stage.
In the wake of some self-respecting women challenging the status-quo, Julie Morley, demanded that the contestants should be crowned in their evening gowns. She currently runs the Miss World Organization that organizes Miss World beauty pageant with motto: Beauty with Purpose. So, finally, swimsuits gave way to evening gowns after more than 20 years staying in vogue but the swimsuit rounds continued till completely eliminated in 2014 in the Miss World Beauty Pageants.
For information of readers, Miss America had stopped crowning in swimsuits since 1952 and Miss Universe continued the ritual for 7 more years before axing it finally since 1960.
As customary in beauty pageants of those decades, contestants had to stay clad in swimsuits most of their time on stage as well as off-stage during the entire competition, in rooms full of fully clothed men and women, and they were judged and evaluated predominantly based on their physical attributes and performance in their so called ‘empowering’ bathing suits. Had there not been any protest from some women liberation group including some self respecting contestants, the ritual of crowning the ‘queen’ in swimsuit would have continued till date and the organizers and ‘fans of beauty’ would have justified it as ‘very empowering’ for women.
Seriously ? What kind of ‘queen’ goes through such disgraceful ritual of coronation clad in a bikini/swimsuit in room full of clothed men and women, for the entire world to crudely scrutinize and evaluate her body features?
Going back in history, it is worthwhile to mention about a popular protest in 1970 against objectification and sexualisation of women widespread in Miss World Pageants and other similar pageants in the world. A group of feminists and women liberation group sneaked into the finals of 1970 Miss World and disrupted the event by flour bombs and water guns demanding to stop exploitation of women body. The outrage was further triggered by the insensitive, misogynistic remark by the comedian cum host of the event, Bob Hope, who casually commented on the swimsuit clad contestants:-
“I am very, very happy to be here at this cattle market tonight. Moo!!! It’s quite a cattle market, I’ve been back there checking calves.”, unleashing riot of laughter among the formally clothed male dominated crowd.
Won’t such insulting words against women have angered any self respecting parent (of a daughter) and any lady with at least an ounce of self dignity, back then & even now?
In case of Miss Great Britain pageant, the contest began in the Summer of 1945 under the name “Bathing Beauty Queen”, where the contestants had to participate in the entire event in swimsuits and the winner used to be awarded with small monetary price and a brand new swimsuit, most likely to promote among women the idea of competing ‘confidently’ in swimsuits so as to be declared beautiful! This marketing strategy is still being heavily implemented by women swimwear manufacturers to entrench themselves deeply in psyche of ‘modern ‘women.
MISSING THE ‘EMPOWERING’ SWIMSUIT DAYS AND THE PRESENT STATE
Shockingly and not unsurprisingly though, some of the ‘ultra progressive’ ex-Miss World winners from those times and even from the recent era still curse those protesting ladies of 1970 whose ‘misbehavior’ led to complete abolishment of the ‘crowning in swimsuit section’ in Miss World since 1975. They claim that most of the contestants back in those days loved to stay clad in swimsuits (as calves) while being judged by a room full of fully clothed men (in a cattle market), including our own Dr. Reita Faria, the first Asian and Indian to be crowned Miss World 1966. No offence to her but this is what media perceived of them openly in the days and in an ‘empowering way’ these days. As per their ‘strongly minded, empowering’ opinion, it was and is still unfair to make the young beautiful bodies, for which the contestants have worked so hard, hide under evening gowns and national costumes, thus limiting their scope of being empowered !
The protest of 1970 made the British women liberation group famous globally but were criticized too for obstructing the ‘progress’ and ‘empowerment ‘ of women by certain sections of society. So, they had to publish a book Misbehaving: Stories of the Protest against the Miss World Contest and the Beauty Industry, to speak out their standpoint on why they did so. Hollywood too released a movie, ‘Misbehaving’ starring Kiera Knightly, to speak out their side of the story of the protest night.
Also, please allow me to request the present day readers to introspect and figure out from Bob Hope’s words from 1970, as to who were the calves and what ‘empowering’ event was (and is) a cattle market where especially men had (and are still so eager) come to check the calves, which contestants and the organizers continue to market so passionately as one of the most ‘inspiring’ global stages for ‘strong’, ‘intelligent’ young women to work for social causes and support each other to achieve the ‘unachievable’ while opening doors to unlimited fame, name and glory of life changing stature. All these words were too echoed recently by an ex- Miss Universe & by the current Miss Universe 2021 winner from India just few hours after being crowned.
Miss Universe 2021‘s words, as I quote, while refuting the rising views on degradation of female dignity during swimsuit rounds and in beauty pageants, are:-
“Through beauty pageants we want to embrace each and every woman out there who is watching this, who aspires to be the leader of her life,”
I personally wonder how beauty pageants aim to act as a leadership program for women who aspire to be leaders of their lives, except facilitating them with the much needed limelight to enter into movie, showbiz, fashion and glamour industries, mostly.
My question to her: Does these career options only make women leaders in their lives?? Are physical beauty & outer attributes so important that without them talent and brain won’t suffice motivated women to be leaders in their lives??
I will be curious to know how many such beauty pageant winners have become well known scientists, researchers, academicians, on ground environmental activists, social activists, practicing doctors, nurses, surgeons, lawyers and active military personnel etc. solely based on their pageant experience. Even the official portal of Femina Miss India promotes the beauty pageants as doorway to the world of fashion, glamour and movies.
God knows how many young women and men have truly looked upon her as an epitome of real talent (Miss Universe does not have talent rounds), intelligence and substance, without even honestly blinking an eye on her ‘confidence’ and ‘ability’ in slaying the stage in a swimsuit ‘unapologetically’, and not engaging in evaluating her physical proportions, as she ramp walked in a bathing suit on the ‘global’ stage. Some may argue that she did answer brilliantly at Q&A session on stage. It’s true that this is an admirable quality needed in everyone but in pageants, at what cost? Let us not forget she could reach to those final stages after clearing multiple evaluative and elimination rounds in Miss Diva India & Miss Universe where focus is always on a contestant‘s ‘confidence’ & ‘presentation’ of her body in bikinis and swimsuits on-stage (not in pools and beaches alone), in front of cameras, exposed to global validation and how well she puts up loads of make-up and dresses fancily on almost a predefined body frame of ‘desirable’ hour-glass physique, thereby reinforcing the stereotype that a woman’s voice and brain carries most traction if she is physically beautiful and has attractive swimsuit worthy body. Truly, beautiful body scores over brain.
Many a times, I wonder does anybody in administration and public during their reign take the words of these pageant winners seriously or they are only to be used for window dressing on stages and in events, aiming to attract audience?
Also, I leave this upto the readers to decide how far Bob Hope’s words in 1970 were empowering to women of those times and of the present generation, and how appropriate it is to look upto some pageant winners as youth icons who yearn to be ‘calves’ in a ‘cattle market’, even now, and trust them and the organizers as enablers of women empowerment who in fact merely act as ‘cowherds’, in the words of late. Bob Hope.
A BIT OF MORE HISTORY OF MISS AMERICA AND THE CULTURE IN PAGEANTS
Miss America has its own share of history too, with respect to swimsuit rounds. In 1951, Miss America, Yolande Betbeze, declared after her crowning that she was done with posing in swimwear and would rather want the world to focus on her singing. Outraged Pacific Knitting Mills, a California-based clothing company and manufacturer of Catalina Swimwear, the primary sponsor , pulled their funding—and launched rival pageants in 1952, which later came to be known as Miss USA and Miss Universe, which was (and still is) kept devoid of any talent show or any other round that may have slightest chance of any contestant rebelling or have reservation in not feeling ‘confident’ in a swimsuit.
Thus, it is clear that a Miss Universe winner has to keep her body under ‘contract’ adhering to the beauty standards stereotyped for the market so that she fits into whatever size of swimsuit and dress the pageant’s sponsors desire, and thus, gets to retain the crown, her ‘confidence’ and ‘sense of empowerment’, with absolute no hesitation. Any slight deviation in the contractually defined physical parameters may lead to dethroning. This continues to happen even now too in spite of the so-called rise in sense of dignity and self esteem among women.
Miss Universe 1996, Alicia Machado, was constantly threatened of dethroning if she doesn’t lose the weight she gained, which pushed her into anorexia (eating disorder). She even was humiliated publicly by Trump, ex-owner of Miss Universe Organization and former President of the USA, who forced her to exercise in front of a group of reporters when she gained a bit of weight during her reign, and as revealed by her, the officials of the pageant organizer used to call her by names such “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping”. In defense, Trump simply replied “he saved her job.”
Another incident of how beauty pageant organizers often degrade and objectify ‘empowered’ winners is involving Miss America 2013, Mallory Hagan. A flurry of emails from the then Miss America CEO Sam Haskell crudely discussing Hagan’s weight and sex life, referring her in derogatory words like c**t, surfaced in a Huffpost’s report which led to his resignation along with some men in the top management.
This exposes the misogynistic and commodifying culture prevalent in pageantry world which often remains hidden from the bedazzled eyes of the young aspirants. But hey!, as the pageant experts say, “all these are part of the job. It happens, stop asking too much and focus on the good…”. This is the compromise the pageantry world expects from its contestants and winners.
MATTER OF PAST, THINGS HAVE IMPROVED A LOT. REALLY?
After going through the above arguments and historical perspectives, if some still think those were the matter of past and now pageantry world is sensitive to women dignity and have learnt to portray femininity in a more deserving way, then they may like to read further below so as to learn how the pageantry world has in fact managed to convince many star-struck women to become less ‘sensitive’ to their ‘objectification’ and shed their ‘inhibitions’ by pushing the narrative that ‘lesser they wear, more empowered they are ’ and ‘more they bare, more they will fall in love with their body’ !
Former pageant winners and judges further stress meeting this requirement ‘confidently’ as achieving a significant milestone in the road to success in pageants and show biz. Pageant promoters and glamour industry have normalized terminologies like ‘racing the hearts’, ‘setting on fire’, ‘raising the temperature’, ‘oozing the oomph with grace and confidence’, ‘flaunting hot sexy body’ etc to such a degree that many such ‘empowered’ contestants take them as compliment and a matter of pride to be lusted, desired and often ‘crudely’ scrutinized by audience, thereby further reinforcing objectification of women.
Now a days, even the men are not spared, but they are in a much safer zone presently. Pageantry world is outrageously focused on women bodies than on the males because as obvious as it can be, a female body drives exorbitantly more viewership and sponsorship, while Male pageants, which mostly began not more than three decades ago (and some being held biannually or even less frequently), hardly attracts viewers and sponsors, with almost nil prime time media coverage.
While Male body is also judged in men pageants, the men contestants get to cover their lower body in a much more modest way (like in beach shorts in Mr. Supranational and Mr. World etc) and the focus often stays on various physical activities like cycling, marathon, water skiing, rock climbing etc, thereby emphasizing on how a Male body performs instead of looks and proportions alone, unlike in most of the women pageants.
The women beauty pageants are being organized annually with tremendous worldwide buzz, which indicates the unparalleled obsession of the world with women body, cemented generation after generation by beauty pageants.
In a bid to save themselves from the wrath of women’s rights group and appear appealing to the millennia, the pageant organizers have simply repackaged their actual business objectives with salesman phrases like ‘empowerment’ , ‘inner beauty mattering over physical ones’ , ‘body confidence’, ‘presenting oneself unapologetically’ and ‘bikinis are the yardsticks of beauty and healthy lifestyle’ etc. and have established a charity arm within their organization to highlight their humanitarian aspect which actually is like a drop in the ocean. It’s nothing but classic marketing strategy: selling old wine in new bottles. The moment any rational mind opposes them, they are branded by organizers, contestants and aspirants as toxic feminists and old fashioned chauvinists.
Tracing the history , it is evident that the foundation of almost all major beauty pageants have been always ‘women parading in bikini/swimwear‘, confidently with no inhibition in presenting their bodies to the scrutiny and appreciation of the world. If this very founding stone is shook, the entire pageantry world is bound to crumble. This is what some of the major beauty pageants did in recent decades for which they faced both support and criticisms, which we will discuss later.
Beauty pageants have cemented into the collective psyche of contestants and audience that more a woman willingly and comfortably performs in swimsuits on stages, the more she is confident, strong, empowered and greater are her chances to be heard of and recognized in life, regardless of how intelligent, talented and beautiful she truly is from other perspectives. The fact that many women have wholeheartedly embraced this notion is a perfect instance of what Objectification Theory by American Psychologists, Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997 suggests:-
“Constant exposure to sexually objectifying experiences and images socializes women to internalize society’s perspective of the female body as their own primary view of their physical selves.”
In support of the above female psyche, another psychologist, Dr. Sophia Bratu, in her research paper, Gender Representation In Advertisements-Analysis & Metaphysics, suggests, “although women are often objectified in advertising and media, some women choose to be displayed as such in order to feel empowered.”
Adding further, Bratu says, “The body is portrayed in advertising as the primary source of women’s capital. Possession of a ‘sexy body’ is presented as women’s key source of identity. Some women are more frequently choosing to become sexualized because the “sex body” as Bratu refers to it, is a key commodity in advertising and the possession of the sex body is presented as a key source to a woman’s identity. “
Any rational deliberation on this notion of empowerment will lead to the fact that at the end of the day, especially in beauty pageants the young ‘empowered’ contestants ultimately strive to use their ‘sexy’ body to serve the eyeballs of the market. It also proves that how brilliantly in this age marketers can objectify a movement like Women Empowerment, and convince many women to voluntarily ‘objectify’ themselves for the success they aspire.
However, as many real feminists and gender experts have suggested, this in fact is causing more damage to women’s dignity and ‘right to be heard ’ worldwide, than getting empowered in true sense.
MISS WORLD DITCHING SWIMSUIT ROUND IN 2014
Come 2014, after 13 years of removing the mandatory parade of swimsuit clad contestants on stage and replacing the same with the fast track privately held swimsuit photo shoot and sub contest off-stage in 2001, Miss World Organization stunned the ‘fans of beauty’ by completely eliminating the swimwear rounds from the Miss World Pageant, under rising demand from women liberation activists and feminists from round the globe. Official reason given was: to focus on “brains and personality” not “physical beauty”.
Chairperson Julia Morley told Elle magazine “, I don’t need to see women just walking up and down in bikinis. It doesn’t do anything for the woman. And it doesn’t do anything for any of us.” She further added, “I don’t care if someone has a bottom two inches bigger than someone else’s. We are really not looking at her bottom. We are really listening to her speak.”
Besides her, Chris Wilmer, the national director of Miss World America/Miss United States organization, said in a statement reported by ABC News, “The organization has decided to take itself out of the swimsuit world because it isn’t the path they’re trying to take. It’s not just a beauty contest, it’s ‘beauty with a purpose’. There didn’t seem to be a purpose to have the swimsuit.”
Following this ban of swimsuit rounds in Miss World Pageant since 2014, Miss World Australia and Miss World America Pageants axed swimsuit rounds from their events from 2015. Miss Teen USA ditched swimsuit rounds since 2016. Miss India Pageant also dropped the Bikini/Swimsuit round from their auditions, sub-contests and on-stage rounds since 2017. Miss Mondo Italia dropped the on stage beachwear round on-stage in finale since 2020 but continues to retain it in provincial auditions. Latest to follow the suit was Miss America Pageant since 2018.
However, it is interesting to find while Miss Teen USA realized it is inappropriate to objectify and exploit girls of 15-19 age by parading them in bikinis, which also fails to promote body diversity, thus leading to elimination of the swimsuit round entirely from the pageant and replacing the same with athletic wear round to promote and showcase fitness level and healthy lifestyle of teenagers , Indian organizers of Miss Teen Diva and Miss Teen International (Indian edition) etc. continue to perpetuate the misplaced notion of ‘self-belief’, ‘confidence’ and ‘empowerment’ by making the minor teen girls pose and parade in swimsuits for scoring them on their bodies and ‘fitness level’.
Where are we heading with this pageantry culture, even the minor teenagers are not spared? Are we not, in words of Bob Hope in 1970, preparing ‘teen calves’ for the ‘cattle markets’ in future? Frankly, it seems to me highly demeaning, but others including their ‘progressive’ parents may differ.
This is the first part of my journey exploring the so called ‘empowering’ world of pageantry and its impact on the society overall, especially for teen girls and young women, who in my point of view, should be striving for the kind of empowerment that enables them to be heard, recognized and commended, based on their ‘brains’, ‘scientific knowledge and temperament’, than simply focusing on their physical attributes – for they, as per our Dharmic theology, are the bedrock of our entire civilization and the ultimate nurturer of our race.
Thanks for your patient reading.
To be continued….
SOURCES, REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
1) Bratu S S, Gender Representation In Advertisements. Analysis & Metaphysics, 12166-171.
DISCLAIMER: The author is solely responsible for the views expressed in this article. The author carries the responsibility for citing and/or licensing of images utilized within the text.