“Beauty Contests” – whether or not they demean women, objectify women – whether they are regressive or progressive – this is one of the questions that has pivoted the feminist debate for years. And once again it is in focus – with the spotlight on Harnaaz Sandhu – our 1st Miss Universe pageant winner in 21 years.
Let me first clarify my stand – I consider myself a feminist – but I am an avid watcher and enjoyer of the grand shows these pageants entail. I was most excited when Sushmita Sen was crowned winner almost 30 years back, and I tip my hat to Harnaaz who has oozed confidence and charisma on world stage. Notwithstanding the fact she was not a celebrity to begin with, that she didn’t have any connects or family background in the glamour and beauty business, she has made her way to the very top from the very bottom on the dint of her own hard work and ambition. She deserves every embellishment and every diamond on her glowing tiara.
What about the counter-questions? The objectification of women? The lip service to environment and world poverty? The degradation of intelligence? Well, objectification of women in terms of their physicality and perfectness of visual attributes has not stemmed from beauty contests. It has been deeply ingrained in human society for centuries, and it needs generations of awareness, education, equal opportunities and evolution, to be corrected. Beauty contests are a very recent phenomenon, and I see them more as entertainment events of the glamour and show biz world. Yes, these contests reward a chiseled figure and an aesthetic look, but they reflect the standards and do not define them. Conventional beauty contests are currently popular but once our future generations move to more inclusive beauty definitions, they will probably change and adapt. And finally, the question is also about choice. Nobody compels the contestants – they choose to participate, and the structure offers them a huge “door-opening” opportunity. The data shows that women of varied backgrounds have tapped the beauty contest route to gain fame and fortune. It is not a socially obtuse practice like the debutante’s ball, which prevailed for centuries, and was selective by class. In a Miss India or Miss World (or Miss Universe) pageant, you win by competing with others – in that sense it is meritocracy. Yes, some people start out more advantaged – and some physical characteristics will probably not even make the cut to gain an entry. But a threshold created by ‘natural advantage’ is often the case even in other arenas. Brains and education are also a function of birth, circumstance and genetics. Some people have an edge. But they need to hone it and compete and prove themselves. For almost all global beauty pageant winners from India, starting from Zeenat Aman, this was a tipping point that paved their way, enabled them to gain a foothold in show biz, without godfathers and family connections. Instead of villainizing them, we can try to see beauty pageants for what they are: a grand spectacle to enjoy, and for women who chose to use them, a platform to make it big. We can respect the choices of these women – they are no less feminists for having opted for a certain medium in their profession. And we should simultaneously be secure of our own personal beauties as we see them. In our day-to-day conversations and ideas, let us not promote or be influenced by the “perfectness of beauty” as measured in these contests – they are not asking us to do that either. We can have some harmless fun from the momentary entertainment they provide, and not chastise the choices made by the contestants, without compromising our own.