It’s natural for a slightly silly, man-made concept to run its course in an ever-evolving society, and it should. Horse buggies were the primary mode of transport back in the 1800s. But they were swiftly replaced with motorised vehicles. These days, horse-drawn carriages only make an appearance on mushy date nights, wedding processions and visarjans. It’s only logical; horses are not meant for modern roads and it’s barbaric to strap them to heavy carts. However, there is a practice from the 1800s that hasn’t yet reached its rightful obsolete status – Beauty Pageants. First conceptualised in the 1850s, beauty contests were a marketing tactic used by newspapers to sell cosmetics. Later, they were used by resort destinations to lure tourists for annual beauty fiestas. You must’ve undoubtedly seen images of women being measured, standing on a pedestal in their intimates. Yep, those were literal tourist attractions. Beauty pageants, in the modern sense of the word – with the crowns, sash and question rounds – are the result of this marketing gimmick. What began as selling products and places to selling looks and personalities. Both of which have the same collateral damage – women.
Beauty Pageants And Token Feminism
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The Cosmetic Value Of It All
So how exactly have beauty pageants – a sexist concept with misogynist undertones at the core – managed to stay relevant in 2022? IMO, it’s the popular trend of feminist-baiting that does the dirty work. Shallow spectacle of “empowering” or “inspiring” acts are sensationalised by social media. Recently, a Miss England contestant walked the ramp bare-faced. While it’s a bold move coming from somebody as young as 20, the gesture falls flat given the context. Beauty pageants routinely collaborate with cosmetics brands as sponsors. The flashy event won’t take place in the first place if they cannot sell makeup on the side. So going makeup-free, while a worthy sentiment, ends up being nothing more than click-bait material for news aggregator sites; who by the way, are also selling makeup on the side!
People who endorse beauty pageants often like to stress upon the fact that they are not just a contest of looks but also a scholarship/ambassadorship program. Winning their pageant will give them access to prize money or traveling the world as an ambassador for associate brands. Uhm, maybe just put all of that money into actual scholarship/fellowship programs? Especially in India, where both private and government programs are set up to help female students or entrepreneurs, why make them go through gruelling training periods, makeovers, etiquette training to get the financial assistance? If you want young women to prosper and be financially independent, invest in skill training and fair opportunities. Don’t make them prance around in swimsuit rounds!
The Mind-Numbing Extravagance
NGL; growing up, I made sure to never miss the Miss Universe annual pageant. I remember being glued to the old school 20-inch box TVs, mesmerised by the women from around the world on one stage. As soon as Miss India would walk, my eyes would widen with ambition, “One day. I too will be a beauty queen!”. Blinding lights, humongous stages, booming pageant-y music and an incredible amount of confetti – that’s the “pretty” picture that all the Miss-everything shows present. My pre-teen brain was obsessed, hook,line and sinker. Fortunately, Simone de Beauvoir found me before a pageant scout could. Truthfully, I am a fan of sequin dresses and fabulous stage makeup as the next beauty and fashion industry insider; but not when it comes with a scorecard attached to it.
The system is so outdated that it seems to be exploding within itself. Back in 2019, the otherwise delightful Steve Harvey became public enemy number 1 when he announced the wrong winner’s name. Social media is flooded with question round “fails”, unfortunate incidents where participants fumbled a question. Controversies like secretly married, pregnant or single mothers winning and being asked to give back the crown leave a foul taste in one’s mouth. If you have to take a stab at just how problematic these pageants are – just go through their eligibility criteria. While Miss universe recently announced that marital and parental status won’t be considered for pageants from 2023, we are yet to see inclusivity on other fronts. You will still be put on a cut-off list based on standard sizing, height and age.
The Impact On Impressionable Minds
There’s no doubt that the unrealistic beauty standards set by pageants skew the perception of beauty for young girls. It also teaches them that a concept as problematic as a beauty contest can still stay relevant in an age with incredible progress in women’s rights, if it’s a money-making pit. It perpetuates the whole ‘Beauty With Brains’ trope – that being born with stereotypically beautiful looks will somehow give you an edge over others. The ‘Pretty Privilege’ is real, but not sustainable. You might win a pageant or two, but actual growth stems from the work you put out there, no matter how fierce your catwalk technique is.
We’ll give it to a few pageant organisers trying to effect real change in the concept. Less-prying judging rounds, non-predatory sponsors (we’re never forgetting that Donald Trump used to own the Miss Universe Organisation!) and improved language to converse with the participants are welcome changes. But as long as “sanitary” pageants exist, shows like Toddlers & Tiaras will continue to thrive. Beauty pageants, under all the facades of empowerment and indulgence, are the commodification and sexualisation of women and their personalities. Let’s not subject ourselves to the embarrassing charade anymore; shall we? Thank you, next!