India may have won the Miss World crown, but beauty pageants have a dark side

By Anindita Mukhopadhyay

An Indian woman has finally been crowned Miss World 2017 after a dry spell of seventeen long years, since Priyanka Chopra also from Haryana, in 2000. ‘India’s newest Daughter’ Manushi Chillar, an aspiring doctor, bagged the coveted title at a glamorous event in China. She beat the top five contestants from England, France, Kenya, and Mexico to do so. The 20 years old’s endearing response declaring a mother’s role deserving of the highest salary won her the crown as well as millions of hearts.

The Indian Beauty Obsession

Manushi is the sixth Indian to win the Miss World title, following in the footsteps of Priyanka Chopra, Yukta Mookhey, Diana Hayden, Aishwarya Rai, and Reita Faria. This brings India at par with Venezuela, having brought home the most number of Miss World crowns. The first few international accolades at these beauty pageants drew the attention of international cosmetic giants to our country. India has now become home to a booming beauty and cosmetics business, which in part has been responsible for the increasing interest in beauty products and pageants, especially in small towns and rural areas. This, coupled with the rising health and fashion consciousness amongst the middle-class, has led to the valuation of India’s beauty market at more than Rs. 80,000 crores.

As the cosmetics industry has burgeoned, so has our obsession with beauty and absolutely inane beauty standards. This is reflected in the eligibility criteria of the Femina Miss India contest. Young women must be taller than 5 feet and 5 inches to compete, while the average height of the Indian woman is barely more than 5 feet. Of course, beauty comes with an expiry date, hence only ‘young’ women between the ages of 18 and 25 can have a shot at winning the title. Marriage obviously robs a woman of her youth and beauty hence, only single, unwed women need apply.

However, not all beauty pageants have such strict guidelines. In fact, there may be a pageant for every woman out there. Aside from the ‘Big Four’, the four major international beauty pageants, India conducts almost ten beauty pageants catering to various regions and categories of women—Mrs. India Queen of Substance for the married women, Miss Teen India, Miss Diva, Miss Transqueen India, and more.

Conception of beauty pageants

Beauty pageants are contests that have traditionally focused on judging and ranking the physical attributes of the contestants, to win the titles, tiaras, sashes, or sceptres, along with a considerable sum of money. These contests later incorporated aspects of talent, grace, poise, personality, and intelligence within their judging criteria. However, such contests have invariably been aimed at girls and women, with similar events for men largely focussing on body physique, and never really garnering as much fame and attention.

Women have been judged for their physical beauty since times immemorial, with some of the earliest records dating back to the Greek civilisation. Kallisteia, a beauty contest much like the modern-day pageants, judged women on their appearance. The earliest, glamorous beauty contests date back to 1854, with the first contemporary pageant staged by Phineas T. Barnum, of Barnum and Bailey—the American travelling circus. However, the contest was widely protested, compelling him to settle for judging daguerreotypes—photographs of an earlier age, of beautiful women, rather than women themselves.

Evolution of modern beauty pageants

The modern American beauty pageant debuted in 1921, with a bit of a mouthful of a moniker, ‘Atlantic City’s Inter-City Beauty Contest’. Beauties from the east coast were judged by a panel of judges as well as by the applause of the attending crowd, to win a trophy. This contest later morphed into the modern Miss America pageant. The pageant has been courting controversy for decades, with their racist eligibility criterion which allows only white contestants. In fact, African Americans first featured in the pageant in 1923, as slaves during a dance performance.

The Big Four, the four major international pageants—Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss Earth, and Miss International—have been mindful of the changing views of the world, and have endeavoured to step ahead with the times while retaining their identity as beauty contests. Miss Earth, an environment-themed beauty pageant was conceived in 2001 to remain abreast of the environmental consciousness wave. The reigning titleholders dedicate their year to address issues concerning the environment, within their role as spokesperson for UNEP and other environmental organizations.

In the 1970s, Miss World introduced the ‘beauty with a purpose’ round, wherein contestants undertake charity work in their countries. This year, Manushi Chillar initiated ‘Project Shakti’, with the goal of raising awareness about menstrual hygiene in rural India. In addition, the Miss World contest ditched its much-criticised bikini round in 2014, as Julia Morley, Chairwoman of the Miss World organisation, stated “I don’t care if someone has a bottom two inches bigger than someone else’s. We are really not looking at her bottom. We are really listening to her speak.” However, it has been replaced by a ‘beachwear’ round which is a repackaged version of the same sexist objectification.

Being beautiful—Inside and out

Every woman is now pushed to look her best at all times, with an ever-increasing array of cosmetics designed just for her, to make, and keep her ‘fair and lovely’. Women are conditioned to believe that these cosmetics and beauty treatments are essential to unearth our underlying ‘fair’ inner beauty. Pulchritude is now just skin deep, with values like honesty, empathy, humility, and compassion having become mere masks to don and present to the world.

In the words of author and feminist Jessica Valenti, “Beauty pageants are just another opportunity to ogle gorgeous, scantily-clad women and pit them against each other.” Nevertheless, beauty contests do open several doors for contestants, including scholarships, and instilling skills like leadership, poise, public speaking, in addition to an often-added sense of self-esteem. The contest and titles serve as a platform to aid the global community via its charitable endeavours. However, these perks are reserved only for those considered physically beautiful, with money to invest into fees, photography, wardrobes, coaches and a litany of other beauty and travel costs. On the surface, the contests appear to empower women, providing them with opportunities and renown. However, this system of fickle fame relegates these women to mere objects of beauty and compassion, not brain. Celebration of women solely for their beauty and physical characteristics is an affront to the fight for gender equality. The continued support of beauty pageants sends the message that self-worth lies in physical beauty, not brains, personality or talents.

Featured Image Credits: Wikimedia