Do Beauty Pageants Really Celebrate Women?

I’m not sure about you, but when I was younger I was under the impression that beauty pageants belonged to only those women who resembled Barbie dolls. When Aishwarya Rai took part in the Miss World Pageant, the world saw a Cinderella-like woman prancing across an extravagant global venue decked up in rhinestone-embellished attire. Her effortless catwalk, flawless facial features, proportional physical attributes and docile answers (nobody really spoke about this part anyway) captured the judges’ hearts and got her the Miss World honour.

Do Beauty Pageants Really Celebrate Women?

The world celebrated her as she stood with the coveted sash and tiara on the beauty pageant platform that ingrained the notion of what an ideal woman should look like for millions of spectators. Years later when I was playing dress-up in fifth grade with my friends, one of them thought it would be a good idea to emulate a beauty pageant scene and sashay around as contestants. To dispel the confusion of which one of us gets the honourable crown, my friend had a solution, “Let’s make Neha the beauty queen, she is thinner and taller than all of us”. Rubbing shoulders with body shaming at that young age is bad enough, but realizing that it was indeed body-shaming years later, is probably worse.

Also Read: Do We Malayalis Have A Culture Of Shaming?

Today, when India clinched the crown after two decades and the predecessors of Harnaaz Sandhu were squealing with joy on social media, these scenes lingered in my mind. It also asked me: In today’s times of body and age positivity, how relevant are these beauty standards?

Do Beauty Pageants Really Celebrate Women?

If you take a peek at the current eligibility criteria of some of the most prestigious beauty pageants it tells you that you need to be at least five feet three-inch tall, younger than 25 and unmarried. Of course, let’s not get into the ‘skin tone bias’ discussion of some beauty pageants, and how they were being under the radar for selecting only fair-skinned women. But, why don’t women from different walks of life, who have diverse body types unite on a platform that celebrates not just their outward appearance but also shed a spotlight on their intrinsic beauty, intellect, achievements and interpersonal skills?

The onus is on us to welcome this level of diversity. We need to break the “pageant material” stereotypes of beauty standards that are thrust on applicants. If the purpose of a beauty pageant is to empower women, then it should walk hand in hand with feminism. It should not retrograde itself to evaluating a woman’s worth on the basis of patriarchal ideologies such as the slimness of their waist and the sway of their hip. The emphasis then should not be on having them parading the ramp in revealing bikinis. Or, flashing their skin to be an object of mere display and gaze only to analyze them from bust size to poise.

Each time there is a hue and cry over this aspect, the pageant organizers would bring in a quick fix to the hitch like doing away with the swimsuit or bikini round for the Miss America 2018. But what actually needs to change is the mentality of the people evaluating the contestants. Beauty pageants must be a celebration of feminism, not aestheticized femininity. Demanding such unrealistic standards of physical appearance have left major dents on the self-esteem of potential applicants, gives rise to self-loathing, eating disorders and even drives several women to depression. 

Flip this coin and lo, I do see beauty pageants give women the confidence to put forth their views, groom them and build their soft and social skills. The competencies that they pick up during these pageants will probably take them far in life. In fact, it will open new doors and provide them with ample opportunities ranging from making a difference to humanity (at least that’s what they say!) to placing these women on the launchpad for a fulfilling career. But how problematic is it that even today factors like physical appeal, age and marital status are put on a pedestal while an individual’s personality has no value? This is age-old patriarchy screaming that you need to first and foremost have a comely figure and mind-blowing looks and only then do other attributes matter. Unless, of course, you’ve crossed the pageant’s age bar or are married or even divorced!

To begin with, the fact that we segregate women on the basis of marital status is something utterly counterintuitive in this time and age. Okay, so basically the eligibility criteria tells me that a 5 feet 4 inch, 26-year-old married girl is not beautiful because she is ineligible for partaking in a beauty pageant? And who decides the age at which women stop being beautiful? Not sure if you’ve heard of this, but when Pushpika DeSilva was about to earn the title of Mrs Srilanka World, they dethroned her owing to her marital status. Yeah, how ironic is it that an event aimed at rejoicing womanhood ended up humiliating someone just because she is a divorcee! Is that what determines the true beauty of a woman?

As Priyanka Chopra, who won the Miss World title in 2000 once said, “The world needs to be trained to see beauty differently.” I think what we need to focus on is the spark that shines within every woman, the aura that she radiates to the world, the statements that she makes through her attire as well as those that she verbally puts forth.

True emancipation comes from giving women opportunities to discover themselves, advocating for a cause they care about and voicing the gravest problems that 21st-century women face today. What it does not come from is giving them a wardrobe makeover, getting them to use the ‘right’ styling products and training them to slay a carefully choreographed catwalk in high heels. The change starts with developing a more open, inclusive and diverse forum that challenges the perpetuating norms of patriarchy.

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