Beauty lies in the beholder - but that beauty is subjective, dependent on cultures and countries. In 2014, journalist Esther Honig sent a portrait photo of herself to freelance Photoshoppers in countries around the world with one request – to make her “beautiful.” Each Photoshopper, be they a professional or an amateur, took their own spin on the assignment, giving Honig a glimpse at what at least one person in each of these countries considers to be beautiful. The results were diverse. With such diverse standards of beauty, then, how can a group of people decide what the ‘most beautiful’ woman in the world is?
The spotlight is back on beauty pageants after the historic win of Harnaaz Sandhu, who won India the Miss Universe crown after 21 years. This year’s event was held in Eilat, Israel. The 21-year-old is only the third Indian Miss Universe after Sushmita Sen and Lara Dutta who won the titles in 1994 and 2000 respectively. South Africa’s Lalela Mswane was the second runner-up and Paraguay’s Nadia Ferreira was the first runner up at the 70th edition of the Miss Universe. One thing that stood out or rather didn’t was the uncanny similarities in all the contestants: Ideal-shaped figures, perfectly done hair and makeup and shimmery gowns. Beauty contests have long been a bone of contention, with many dissing the superficial standards of it, while some justify it as empowering for women. We dive deep into why it’s high time beauty pageants became a thing of the past - and whether it’s constrained to a few numbers in height, weight and age.
Are Beauty Pageants Regressive?
While pageants may be seen as a positive outlet for the participants, many consider it a demeaning exercise that sets impossible beauty standards for women and impressionable young girls. It spreads the dangerous notion that one’s external appearance is of prime importance in order to gain value in society. From ‘Miss Perfect Body’ to ‘Miss Beautiful Hair’, the pageants, in many ways, promote extremely unhealthy definitions of beauty and undue insecurities in young adults. From unblemished skin to flawless body structure, participants are primarily expected to ‘look’ a certain way before even being given entry to these contests.
Right after Sandhu scripted history, social media was abuzz with proud proclamations of India regaining the beauty crown. But, does it actually make any significant difference in the lives of scores of women in India who don’t meet those beauty standards? These shows often reinforce the conventional notions of fair and lovely with people growing up believing that only certain types of body structure, features and colour of the skin is ‘beautiful’. In 2019, Femina Miss India came under fire for shortlisting only fair-skinned women, staying true to India’s obsession with a lighter complexion. In a Hans India article, Mumbai-based stylist Archa Mehta said that she agreed with the pageant’s logic since if ‘dusky’ people are included, they may not reach the final global rounds at Miss Universe or Miss World, where fair skin is considered important.
The pageants don’t just dictate body measurements, but also a minimum age, marital and motherhood statuses. If you’re pondering over what marriage or maternity has to do with beauty, Rajvi Desai in a 2019 article for The Swaddle, explains, “Singledom connotes sexual availability to the viewer, perhaps. These criteria reflect back to society’s basest, most crass, and narrow interpretations of female beauty: a woman who is old enough to be considered legally an adult, but still young enough to look overtly youthful…unencumbered by the duties of marriage, totally sexually available, and - god forbid - clearly not burdened by the ugliness of motherhood.” A 2017 entry form for Femina Miss India then reported by TheNewsMinute found that the competition was also trans-exclusionary, and read, “The applicant should be a natural-born female. Only persons of good health, sound mind and having no medical history of any mental illness…and having a good moral character can participate made herein.”
Beauty pageant winners in the past have also been subject to society’s perceived sense of morality. Title winners have had their crowns being stripped off due to ‘bad behaviour’ which involves dating multiple people or having their private photos leaked, as was the case with 1973 Miss World Marjorie Wallace and 1984 Miss America Vanessa Williams. Just last year, Miss Papua New Guinea Lucy Maino had to relinquish her title owing to her twerking video being posted on her private TikTok account. Alicia Machado in 2020 had opened up about her struggle with anorexia after winning the Miss Universe title in 1996 as an 18-year-old, and then and being threatened by pageant authorities of removing her crown unless she loses the weight gained.
Although the swimsuit round was cancelled from Miss World in 2018, it still continues to be a part of Miss Universe. Although having a healthy body is what everybody strives for, the bikini body display has come under intense scrutiny for objectifying women and marking them based on ‘desirability’. Even as the body positivity movement has taken over the internet, pageants have largely remained an exclusive clique with no representation of real women with plumper figures, unshaved body parts, stretch marks and what perhaps is more ‘normal’ for the majority.
Why Miss Universe 2021’s started the Internet debate again
After Miss Universe 2021 grabbed the limelight, people took to social media to express their disapproval of the regressive pageant system, with people lashing out at its blatantly sexist elements and questioning the need for beauty pageants in 2021.
Beauty is a capitalist patriarchal myth. The day a woman with belly fat / stretch marks / disabilities / body hair / frizzy hair / pigmentation wins #MissUniverse I’ll change my mind about what beauty contests commodify. Till then, nothing to celebrate in India winning the crown.— Radhika Radhakrishnan is offline (@so_radhikal) December 14, 2021
Beauty pageants business is strictly cosmetic. The feminism, activism, social justice & such masala just added to make it more marketable & less sexist. It should be strictly seen as reality tv show. I would rate dance completions & singing competitions way too higher than this.. https://t.co/PRWNzB0ALn— Keh Ke Peheno (@coolfunnytshirt) December 14, 2021
Beauty pageants are sexist. They openly objectify women and rank them on the basis of how “pretty” (European) they look, then ask them stupid questions that one wouldn’t even ask a 1st grader. So, no it’s not “empowering” or “patriotic”. Plus it was in *Israel* ffs#MissUniverse— angrygal (@navvyaa1) December 13, 2021
The existence of a swimsuit round is proof that beauty pageants are just about objectifying women and their bodies. No “beauty with brains” narrative can change the fact that beauty pageants are sexist and problematic.— Amena (@Fashionopolis) December 13, 2021
Many also pointed out the huge consumerist market that benefits from perpetuating body image insecurities that, in turn, help them sell cosmetic products and how an Indian winning the crown doesn’t change that status quo.
Because unrealistic beauty standards aid in creating low self esteem & body image issues thereby creating markets for products. These pageants come across as dated / sexist & only aid in objectifying women but hey let’s celebrate because an Indian has won— Chirag Wakaskar (@chiragwakaskar) December 13, 2021
Can we please stop ignoring beauty pageants altogether until they become completely irrelevant? They’re patriarchal relics that should have never been created in the first place. Thanks!— Nida Kirmani (@NidaKirmani) December 15, 2021
Vaishno Roy, wrote in The Hindu that while Sandhu said, “Let’s talk about more important things happening worldwide…,” she seemed to have forgotten about her participation in an event in Israel, a settler country known for oppressing Palestinians. “Although the participant’s bios mention that they work with children or young adults or women’s rights issues, none of them seemed to find anything wrong with an event that forces women to measure up to boxed standards of height, weight, proportions, teeth, nose in order to be declared “beautiful”; an event that unequivocally foregrounds and rewards women for their physical appearance.” She adds that although she imagined the global pandemic would be a catalyst in shifting mindsets towards fashion and beauty, it seems that’s not the case as “Miss Universe continues to peddle itself as a women’s empowerment mission while ignoring the enormous damage done to the female psyche by such idealised beauty myths.”
The Ugly Side to ‘Beauty’
In a way that perfectly sums up the essence of beauty pageants, 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 also added that the disadvantages of beauty contests far outweigh its pros.
Pageants act as a constant reminder that something’s ‘wrong’ with people who don’t conform to the set standards of beauty and feed into low self-esteem. According to Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, Crystal Karges, there is a rise in eating disorders amongst participants of Miss Universe beauty pageants. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that ads featuring beauty products actually lower female consumers’ self-esteem. Basically, unless beauty becomes a competition, brands cannot convert it to business. In an age when beauty is sold in a bottle and a whole crew is at hand to craft the most surreal version of yourself at these events, the only definition of ‘beauty’ that exists is one that can only be impossible to achieve.
In a 2020 BBC article, actress Minnie Driver says she realised that beauty pageants were a ‘way out’ for many women, but she envisions a future where they are turned into educational tournaments without representing females as objects. In the same article, Miss Grenada in 1970, Jennifer Hosten, said that she believes beauty pageants can be an empowering place for women, which begs the question - is that the best possible route to female empowerment and if so — is it worth it?