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?
Reading through my views and the facts cited in the first (read here) and the second part (read here) of my article on the world of pageantry and the ‘glittering’ glamour industry, if my dear readers have made this final concluding part of the article, I wholeheartedly thank them for their overwhelming support and salute their ‘ardent’ courage to learn the unpleasant truths, which many a times are unpleasant and bitter.
Moving to the last part, I, again, humbly disagree to the pageant supporters, whom I would continue to refer as ‘Fans or Beauty’ here too. Well, let’s continue exploring ‘rationally’: how ‘truly’ empowering beauty pageants are for women?
Following the ‘revolutionary and bold’ step taken by Miss World in 2014, Miss World America, Miss World Australia, Miss America, Miss Teen USA, Miss India etc, too have axed the (empowering) swimsuit round. Ban on Swimsuit rounds in several such beauty pageants did not go down well with many ‘fans of beauty’, who very assertively described the decision as ‘risky and bad’. The very ‘traditional’ foundation of the beauty pageants had started to shake which of course hurt the sentiments of many stakeholders, mainly those who refuse to accept the ‘change’. However, there was enormous support in favour of this ban of from several former winner of pageants, contestants, media and advertising personalities etc., from all corners of the globe including India. However, some other pageants successfully capitalized on this opportunity of ‘absence of swimsuit clad women in rival pageants’ to grow their business by leaps and bounds, like the Miss Universe, while Miss Earth continues to save Earth through swimsuit and evening gown clad beauty queens. Miss England still peddles its notion of inclusiveness through ‘optional’ Miss Beach Beauty rounds and not the least, Miss Great Britain is reinforcing the standards of ‘perfect beauty’ through confident, unapologetic bikini clad female bodies.
Delving further, let’s learn what other incidents lay before us in a final attempt to understand the untold aspects of the beauty pageants, including the episode when the ‘host’ not being so welcoming towards their ‘guests’.
HOST OPPOSING THE MISS UNIVERSE 2020-21
In the backdrop of Miss Universe 2020 event hosted by Israel, Times of Israel ran a report titled “In 2021, should Miss Universe still be a thing? Those involved weigh in”, which highlights some rational views on the credibility and the role of beauty pageants in the present society. The report begins with an opening question :-
“How is there room in today’s world for a primetime spectacle of women parading on stage, in front of judges, in evening gowns and skimpy bathing suits, until one is crowned the winner?”
Linor Abargil, a former Miss Israel and Miss World 1998 (often referred to as brave Miss World since she won the crown just few weeks after being raped at gunpoint in Spain and still could muster the courage to fight for the justice she deserved) was bold enough to put across her blunt dissenting views on Miss Universe 2021 type pageant being hosted in her country which according to her, is an institution for objectifying women in bathing suits. In her words via Instagram:-
“The year is 2021 and women are walking in bathing suits while people objectify them and choose the one who will be Miss Universe — really?? It’s simply a disgrace that our girls have to live, even today, with the idea of external approval of their bodies.”
Abargil further added that “the day will come that we will look back and not believe that competitions like this ever existed — a disgrace!”
Well, her ‘no nonsense’ words surely won’t have gone down well with Miss Universe Organization, several former pageant winners and countless ‘fans of beauty’. However, her words, I hope, would have opened the bedazzled eyes of young aspirants who have been thoroughly brainwashed to look upon swimsuits as road to women empowerment, strength, confidence, fitness….blah…blah…blah…
Even the Tourism Minister and the officials from the Israeli Tourism Ministry admitted that hosting Miss Universe pageant was to be seen as merely a pragmatic decision to rejuvenate their tourism industry affected due to the COVID pandemic, and not necessarily an endorsement of such pageants.
Israel’s Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov, a father of two daughters, who initially championed the beauty pageant , appeared to retract on his initial enthusiastic support hours before the contest began.
“As a father to two daughters,” Razvozov told Channel 12 news in response to complaints about the event, “perhaps today I would look at it differently. Maybe I would make a different decision about this event.”
Sara Salansky, the director of overseas marketing for the Tourism Ministry, too, concerned for her daughter’s upbringing, said, “I myself wouldn’t go and I wouldn’t send my daughters to go.”
However, she opined that since people still watch pageants and it is still a platform that attracts interest worldwide, it is good for the Israeli tourism industry.
Well, I am sure not only these two Israeli parents, but many round the globe, must be having genuine apprehensions and reservations for their daughters, as far as the ‘real’ intentions of Miss Universe type of beauty pageants are concerned.
The Times of Israel also reported some lesser known incidents from ‘behind the scenes’ of the one of the most watched pageants.
One report reveals about how a local production manager for this year’s Miss Universe competition in Eilat said the Israeli team tried to convince the show organizers to replace the contestants’ traditional swimsuits with sports gear.
“We suggested that instead of swimsuits they would go up [on stage] in sportswear,” Tali Eshkoli, one of the Israeli production managers, told Channel 12 news in an interview. Eshkoli then revealed that the organizers didn’t accept the suggestion. “We failed with that,” she said.
Meg Omecene, the director of communications for the Miss Universe Organization said, such a conversation on swimsuit round did take place, but it was never seriously under consideration. She further went on to defend their stand that contestants were given a ‘choice’ in choosing swimsuits suiting their personalities.
Seriously? If it is so, why Miss Universe Bahrain was scored down for wearing fully covering jumpsuit in swimsuit round and why the hell are these rounds done multiple times as elimination rounds on-stage before the contestants face their IQ testing rounds at the end? Is it so mandatory for the brain to put on a skimpy bathing suit before even winning the opportunity of being judged for what it’s worth of?
COURAGE TO SWIM AGAINST THE TIDES ?
The best yet cliché kind reason pageant organizers like Miss Universe, Miss Great Britain etc (including several former winners) always cite for not dropping the swimsuit rounds is the overwhelming preference among their contestants and former winners in support of these rounds and their conviction that they feel most strong and confident while competing in swimsuits and bikinis. Well, any rational mind will not buy this argument, for it is obvious that most of the contestants on record will never share their dissent and reservations honestly against the swimsuit rounds with the organizers and the media due to fear of being chastised and penalized in the contest and risk being boycotted as ‘arrogant’ and ‘asking for too much’ type girl who is not bold enough in the glamour industry.
Most of the former winners will prefer to sound supportive of this round to avoid being called hypocrite or unprofessional. Psychologically, they feel extending their support to these rounds as a means to justify their past choice and not feel regretful for the same. After all, who will dare to swim against the tide and risk drowning??
Such conflicting emotions are pretty much evident in this following example of Israeli Miss Universe 1976 winner, Rina Mor. When many of her countrymen including a former Israeli pageant winner, some Govt. officials and a minister from Tourism Ministry and some from the local pageant organizer were up in arms against the swimsuit rounds in Miss Universe 2021, Rina Mor, the only Israeli Miss Universe winner took a diplomatic stand during her interview with Channel 12 news, cautiously mentioning that her feelings about the legacy of the competition are “complicated,” and she does not regret taking part, though she admits she preferred to quickly leave behind the world of modeling and entertainment and practice law. Finally, she ends up consoling herself saying that the competition provided her with the opportunity of a lifetime.
In a relentless pursuit to justify their version of women empowerment in pageants, especially on the swimsuit rounds, pageant organizers like Miss Universe, often broadcasts staged (one sided) debates among their contestants who appear passionately advocating the ‘role’ of beauty pageants in empowering the present day women and how swimsuits makes them confident and strong against their insecurities. Shockingly, there are many naive ‘fans of beauty’ in the audience who believe such half truth videos blindly without even reasoning that whether any pageant organizer ever risk his business by airing an unbiased, fair debate that may have slightest potential of getting their most revenue generating, viewership drawing round axed in their show ?
As projected by the pageant organizers often, most of the top posts in Miss Universe like pageants are occupied by women, which makes it an organization run by women, for women. However, a critical analysis of such claim will reveal that these women at top report to their conglomerate bosses who mostly are serious businessmen, and these women simply play the game by the rules made by their male dominated bosses, over generations, to retain and grow the viewership and sponsorships for the pageant, capitalizing on the ‘perfect, beautiful’ bodies of the contestants, thereby conforming to the stereotypical ‘empowering’ beauty standards.
As uninformed to many, Miss Universe (and also many of other major and minor beauty pageants) have two primary evaluative competitions- in evening gowns/wears and swimsuits in both preliminary and final rounds, and Q&A sessions in semi-final and final round. Interestingly, these Q&A sessions happens only among a few handpicked gorgeous looking, swimsuit confident, ‘supposedly’ hyper-intelligent beauties (selected after multiple rounds of eliminations in swimsuits and evening wears) whose IQ is judged only in 4-5 mins. of on-stage Q&A session, in which the questions are often trivial (based usually on their fields of
interests and hobbies they chose to indicate in their bio) and answers are predictable and too well rehearsed.
Many may say that there is a preliminary one to one interview round before swimsuit round. Yes, it is there but is it not evident that a well rehearsed introduction in the preliminary interview round mostly won’t be enough to get a correct insight of a contestant’s level of intelligence? Interestingly, the introductory message of the contestants is often played in the background when the contestants parade down in a swimsuit on the ramp, as if her other off- stage accomplishments need validation of her body in swimsuits first ! I wonder how many (including judges) would be seriously concentrating on other achievements of the contestants while they catwalk in their bathing suits!
INTELLIGENCE TEST IN BEAUTY PAGEANTS LIKE MISS UNIVESE..
At least, some former winners have been honest about the real objective of pageants, like below.
If the words of Miss India-Asia Pacific 1995 and Miss Asia Pacific 1st runners-up 1995, Ruchitra Malhotra Makhni are to believed, who is of view that undue weightage is being given to the question-answer round in beauty pageants where she finds most of the answers being ‘very rehearsed’ and ‘predictable’, it definitely puts a question mark on the popular claims of beauty pageants being yardstick of judging beauty of brains also. This unapologetic statement of a former beauty queen explains as to why she is such a vocal supporter of swimsuit rounds as integral part of beauty pageants and wonders for what good reasons it has been banned in some global and national level pageants.
Also it should be noted that Miss Universe does not have any Talent Round, remaining true to the ‘vision’ of their founding company, who stopped funding Miss America only because a pageant winner decided to stop posing in swimsuits during promotional events. So contestants, who prefer to demonstrate their talent and other unique capabilities and be confident in a way other than parading in swimsuits, will be at disadvantage always in such pageants.
If we still believe beauty pageants are not body contests, then what real purpose does it serve to the society and the cause of women dignity and empowerment? The answers are there within us, if introspected honestly and rationally.
MISS WORLD SURRENDERING TO THE DEMAND?
Finally, threatened by loss of business and iconic status built over decades of selling the idea of ‘young well proportioned, beautiful women being empowerment’, in garb of being a charitable organization, Miss World finally in mid of 2021, seems to have capitulated to the obsession of the crowd to appreciate women as mere beautiful bodies who should confidently ‘present’ themselves in exposing and elegant outfits before the world.
A spokesperson of Miss World Organization recently in an interview with Sun UK informed that they are introducing a beachwear competition, to be held in beach only, as a non-evaluative part of the fast track Miss World Top Model sub-contest in which contestants may participate if they wish, as a choice, with no effect on their scores and chances of winning the pageant. In other words, those who choose not to participate will not be scored down or penalized. Even if there seems to be a choice, how many ‘national level beauty queens’ will actually chose not to don a swimsuit or bikini in this event of ‘choice’ and then, risk to be singled out or taunted by fellow contestants and organizers/judges, as timid and unprofessional who shies away to put her body on display.
PUSHING THE STEREOTYPE OR CHALLENGING IT ?
Peer pressure and media ‘expectations’ often overpowers the contestants’ original decision and they tend to succumb to the ‘demands’ of meeting the beauty, fitness and body confidence ‘standards’ in the pageants , thereby contribute towards driving viewership. I recall again an admission of a contestant during the bikini round of an audition for Miss India 2011. She admitted on camera that although she had been on ramps wearing skimpiest of the clothes , she particularly is not at all comfortable in bikinis but since this is a contest where ‘emphasis’ is on body, the contestants have to wear them.
An instance that comes to my mind is of a contestant from Miss Diva 2015 pageant. While competing in the Miss Beautiful Body (swimsuit round) sub contest, she walked as confidently as possible but one of the judges observing her thicker, rounder thigh and calves muscles commented that she is not toned enough. The contestant, though visibly anguished, managed to suppress her emotions and later responded on camera backstage, that these muscles are her natural assets and even if she appears not toned enough, it does not mean she is not fit. This reveals as to how most of the judges in pageants tend to measure the fitness of a woman body in terms of how toned it appears, disregarding the fact that a fit body can have stronger, larger muscle mass too. In nutshell, a woman has to have a Barbie doll type hourglass figure to be declared fit in swimsuit rounds. Such misplaced understanding of fitness!
This is how stereotypical (often unhealthy) misplaced fitness concepts and inflexible pageant rules for judging ‘fitness’ and ‘body confidence’ work to prevent contestants from making any decision which can be most comfortable, healthy and pleasing for them.
DON’T JUDGE US, BUT WE CAN MOCK YOU
Some ‘You Tube based pageant experts’ argue that success lies in coming out of comfort zone. My reply to them: Yes, it is Correct but why this comfort zone has to be measured in terms of amount of skin a female model has to show and how many heads turn seeing her body? Can’t a model be attired more, the way she chooses, to achieve the zenith of her career, while presenting herself truly confident and unapologetic? And most importantly, to what extent this rule is valid to male models compared to females?
Interestingly, pageant experts are of view that contestants competing in bikinis should not be judged. Well, is it not true that when the contestants appear in bikinis on stage, they allow themselves to be scrutinized by the public at large ‘willingly’? If yes, they should accept and respect both positive and negative judgments, without complaining of being objectified, and please, Pageant Experts, stop defending the organizers that it is only the viewers who objectify the contestants and not them. In fact, it is the organizers who facilitate objectification by sticking to swimsuit rounds and other related rounds, for the sake of viewership and business.
Also ironically, these experts are also the ones who ridicule and judge those women (as old fashioned or ‘behenji’) who prefer a more modest, sports attire in place of skimpy bikinis to showcase their fitness and healthy body. Why you guys don’t advocate for free choice in such contests where a contestant does not have to fear being scored down or penalized for choosing the more sensible ‘health and fitness’ attire which gives her the maximum comfort and confidence in the contest ??
If you can’t, then please stop peddling lies that beauty pageants score on confidence of a contestant in bikinis and not how (skimpily) they wear. Also, the way you guys stress on bikinis, it is becoming more and more evident as to where the success in pageants lie – a performing body or how the body looks and what it is wearing.
TRULY CHALLENGING THE STEREOTYPE
Challenging the popular view of many pageant experts including the ‘IT professional turned YouTube pageant winner cum expert’ that swimsuit or bikini can only make women body confident, free from self-doubt and truly empower them, Miss Lancashire 2018, who went on to be in the Top 20 of the Miss England 2019 pageant, having posed in neck to ankle covered surfing wetsuits on beach for Miss Beach Beauty sub contest, once said unapologetically, “I wanted to show a different take on swimwear, and that you don’t have to wear a bikini to go to the beach. Empowerment is a personal feeling, and not wearing a bikini does not mean I am not confident about my body”.
My sincere request again to all the pageant experts, please stop shoving your own narrow version of women empowerment and body confidence into the minds of young girls and women, and learn to support and encourage those who choose to cover few inches more than what you recommend for success in pageants and glamour industry, because after all feminism (which you claim you stand for) is about giving choices and more importantly, not judging the more ‘modest version’ of empowerment and respecting them without penalizing them or trying to coerce or lure them into your definition of empowerment.
RIPPLE EFFECT OF MISS WORLD RETURNING TO SWIMSUIT ERA
Such an announcement from Ms. Morley for bringing back a Swimsuit Competition, which appears like going back on her words, has already started discouraging and making many pageant aspirants apprehensive applying for Miss India or Miss World pageants in future, though it is still a non-evaluative round.
WHITEWASHING THE REALITY
Let me cite an instance of how a certain group of pro-pageants are trying to whitewash the real intention of the organizers of giving in to the ‘desire’ of ‘fans of beauty’ to see women in a way that is most ‘pleasing’ for majority of them.
Miss England 2009 winner who went on to be a finalist in Miss World 2009, and was also a serving member in British Army during her participation, led a protest and got swimsuit round banned in Miss Great Britain in 2010, citing reasons that she was not comfortable in the compulsory bikini round with no choice for women whether to wear or not. However, in 2021, after becoming mother of two daughters, she managed to walk down the ramp in a swimsuit covered in stretch marks and with bit of weight ‘unapologetically’. This single participation excited and overwhelmed her so much that her entire past opinion on swimsuit rounds as a young, self respecting woman reversed. She now welcomes the Miss World’s move to bring back the swimsuit round, with a non-evaluative ‘choice’, and even justifies it as an important round for boosting ‘confidence’ of the contestants as well being instrumental for re-gaining popularity of the pageant.
In my view, her stand is just a PR stunt who is desperate to be accepted back in the cabal of ‘ultra progressive Pageant winners’ and appear less hypocrite after choosing to participate in one such similar pageant which she had opposed so vehemently earlier. Quite possibly, she longing for some validation on her body and physique which might be plaguing her after two child births. She also claims that nobody in the Ms. Great Britain pageant made any untoward remark on her appearance and she was judged solely on her presentation style and ‘confidence’. If this is what she is so sure of happening in all beauty pageants, let her now attempt to participate in Miss Great Britain or Miss Universe, with all additional weight and stretch marks (without trying to cover them by make ups), and then let the world see whether her application is even accepted now or if she is able to even make it through the introductory round. It’s a well known fact (even admitted by some Miss India officials & judges) that Miss Great Britain or Miss Universe type pageants would never entertain such contestants, risking their brand value and going against the deeply ingrained stereotypical viewer’s choice. Let’s also keep in mind that as a recent contestant in a pageant, she would never dream of even uttering an honest word against the organizers and endanger the newly gained recognition and anger the sponsorships she might land up in this intoxicating glamour industry.
With so many opinions and appreciations coming from contestants, former and present winners, reporters, women rights activists, victim testimonies and even some organizers, in favour of removal of swimsuit rounds in beauty pageants and overhauling the judging criteria to allow “a wider spectrum of participants”, it is unjust and impertinent for the sake of the entire women race, to continue defending the indefensible and continue promoting an objectifying and commodifying version of ‘women empowerment’, as envisaged in Objectification Theory, by Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997 and researched further and cited in Dr. Sophia Bratu’s work in ‘Gender Representation In Advertisements-Analysis & Metaphysics’.
In a way that perfectly sums up the essence of beauty pageants generally, Matthew Murchie, in a South China Morning Post article, wrote, “While many beauty contests nowadays attempt to incorporate qualities such as intelligence and social awareness as judging criteria, all the winners are [still] very [conventionally] attractive. Far from shifting the focus away from physical appearance, the ‘crowning moment’ merely reinforces people’s belief that a woman’s physical beauty is her most important quality.” He asserts his view that the disadvantages of beauty contests far outweigh its pros.
My question to all women-of all ages, round the globe : Do you honestly believe benefits of beauty pageants (if at all it is there) outweigh the harms it is causing to our young generation of girls and women and boys and men now and in years to come ? And are such pageants really the best possible route to female empowerment available, as claimed by some former ‘Beauty Queens’ ?
Is the ‘hard work’ and ‘risk’ really worth taking for some fame and name based on unrealistic standards that promotes toxic culture of external beauty and yearns for constant validation from viewers and the industry, promoting the stereotypical notion of placing the value of women in her appearance primarily, thereby objectifying them, instead of focusing in her opinions, talent, intelligence and her inner persona, and not the least, endorsing traditional body positivity (that stresses on how stunning a body looks) in place of evidence based body positivity which emphasizes on how a body performs .
Even if it is, is it really worth the price to pay, for all the benefits it claims of ?
Before wrapping up the article, do ask your conscience: how do you honestly value a woman? Perhaps, it will help in grasp the reason as to why Dr Neena Gupta, 2021 awardee of Ramanujam Award for Mathematics, could not attract even half of attention of youth, compared to Miss Universe 2021’s crowning?
As you ponder for the answer, do spare a minute to read what Lynsey Clarke, Sun UK columnist, says in her article, ‘End of this world is nigh..’ about the role of swimsuit rounds in beauty pageants in light of recent decision of Miss World Organization to bring it back as a competition in a non evaluative optional format :-
“SUPPOSE that’s it then, ladies, let’s throw in the (beach) towel.
We should thank Miss World, I guess. They gave it a good go, persevering without a beachwear round through seven years of falling audiences. But in the end it seems that, regardless of what might be going on in our heads, all anyone really cares about is how we look in a cossie.
In the world of pageantry that is, anyway.
And I get it – Miss World is a business, and without viewers there is no competition.
But rather than the organizers moving backwards on the 2014 decision to end the swim-wear round, isn’t it time they moved on?
Look what happened over at lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret. The televised annual fashion show of burger- starved models parading around in frilly undies peaked in 2001, with millions tuning in.
But in 2019, amid plunging ratings, declining sales and criticism both for objectifying women and a lack of diversity, it was axed.
Since then the brand has had to diversify its marketing strategy, as today it takes a whole lot more than a pert pair of boobs to sell something.
Maybe, just maybe, pageants have had their day?
Or if these events must continue, let’s just admit it – it’s a body contest.
Spare us the spiel that donning a swimming costume with a pair of heels is somehow “empowering” or that because competitors now have “the choice” it makes it inclusive.”
Undoubtedly, Ms. Clarke is a strong and steadfast woman whose views can’t be so easily swayed and standpoint so conveniently influenced, especially when it comes to women’s dignity competing in swimsuits in beauty pageants.
And let us not forget the powerful words of Miss Lancashire 2018, who once said unapologetically while competing in Miss England 2019 pageant , “Empowerment is a personal feeling, and not wearing a bikini does not mean I am not confident about my body”.
As popularly paraphrased from the legendary Greek philosopher, Plato, and expressed first by an Irish novelist in the 19th century, we often demonstrate our liberal and civilization values by quoting “Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder“, while at the same time, we have allowed an institution to internalize, epitomize and objectify beauty, generation after generation, as “hour glass towering physique, with hairless, smooth skin, glowing in bikini and swimsuit donning toned, well proportioned body with mile long legs, adorned with well developed chest, rounder hips, perched on a pair of high heels with pretty face masquerading behind multiple layers of high end cosmetic products and voluptuous lips trained wear perpetually a superficial smile….“ !!! Is it not the ultimate irony of the millennium?
Miss World Canada 2019 has shared recently the words of Ms. Audrey Hepburn, the late actress and humanitarian, in her verified Mobstar social media account, pertaining to what the late actress replied when asked about her beauty tips :-
“For attractive lips….Speak with words of kindness,
For lovely eyes…Seek out the good in people,
For a slim figure…Share your food with the hungry,
For beautiful hair…Let a child run his or her fingers through it once a day,
For poise…Walk with the knowledge you will never walk alone.”
She further defined the beauty of a woman: “People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed and redeemed…Never throw out anybody.”
Greatest irony is how much really a man or woman cares these words in the present materialistic world, especially in the pageantry and glamour industry??
In one of the revered Upanishads (Vedanta theology based philosophical texts) from Sanatan Dharma, beauty is defined as “सत्यम शिवम सुन्दरम” (“Satyam Shivam Sundaram”), meaning “Beauty alone is in Truth and Goodness”. It further describes true beauty as pure and eternally blissful that never withers away.
However, how often do we really strive for the ‘true beauty’ in our lifetime?
SOURCES, REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
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.