By Raiyah Butt
Growing up and experiencing how the beauty standard has evolved has been like walking through a haunted house of wacky mirrors. You know the ones which distort your appearance, making your face and body all different shapes. With the complete take-over of social media as now the defining space for how women “should” look, it’s hard to keep up with what body shape and features are in trend nowadays. But I remember a time when this wasn’t the case, when there was just one acceptable way to look. The Traumatising Early 2000’s. The Golden Six Pack revolution in Bollywood. The dominance of Victoria Secret before Rihanna wiped them off the map with Savage Fenty. A time when America’s Next Top Model contestants were ridiculed as too big if they were anything more than a size four, to the point where now there’s a running Twitter joke that former contestants should be in a documentary called Surviving Tyra Banks.
Whilst there has been a shift in the last decade that has come with body inclusivity, positivity and diversity movements, I sometimes wonder if that one acceptable look has really changed all that much. When we think about beauty pageants that are still taking place, that question becomes even more prominent, because we get a stark reminder about what’s expected of women. At least on the surface.
Two months ago in December 2021 when India’s Harnaaz Sandhu won the Miss Universe pageant, social media erupted with nationalism. How proud everyone was that India could claim this world title again after a long 21 years since Lara Dutta took the crown. Sandhu was ecstatic, of course, who wouldn’t be? It’s probably the highest form of validation of your appearance that a person could ever receive. Until they invent a Miss Cosmos or Miss Multiverse.
Speaking to The Tribune about when she won Miss India Punjab a few years ago, she said “I got to know in that competition what it meant to be representing your country. I developed a purpose and since then worked on achieving it.” She also said that after her wins, she likes going back to Punjab to have mithi lassi with malai, or order a big thali with rajma-chawal, makki di roti and sarson da saag. She’s a small town Punjab girl just like the rest of us, aside from being crowned the most beautiful person in the universe.
Now don’t get me wrong, Harnaaz Sandhu is beautiful and it’s not her fault that she’s hailed as such. But celebrating India’s win comes with a dose of reality about the place beauty pageants hold in today’s society. There’s an uncomfortable reflection to be had when we think about the values that beauty pageants promote and uphold, and the effect this has had over decades both culturally and to us internally as individuals. Is beauty always going to be what’s shown in pageants, or are they irrelevant in today’s world? Should they have ever had relevance in the first place? As beauty competitions take baby steps into being more inclusive, it’s worth asking whether there is a path of progress to even be had, or whether the road should just close.
First, a little bit of history.
Beauty pageants have been a platform for women who are now recognisable, household names: Aishwarya Rai, Priyanka Chopra, Halle Berry, Michelle Pfeiffer. Even Oprah Winfrey had her pageant days, winning Miss Black Tennessee 1971 at age 17. But they began as “who is the fairest of them all" contests from Ancient Greece, to settle disputes such as who was the most beautiful between the goddesses Hera, Athena or Aphrodite. As beauty and aesthetics were important to the Ancient Greeks, they did have beauty “contests” for both men and women to be judged on their looks. The tracings of more pompous, pageant based events stem from mediaeval European festivals or the United States May Day traditions. The first modern beauty contest that judges women in the way that we know it today were in the United States in 1855, held by famous showman Phineas T. Barnum. Back then the showman used to also have various animals, flowers and even babies on display to be judged for paying audiences, so it really puts into perspective the way society values adult women for us to be on that list too. Funnily enough, Barnum’s beauty contests were met with protests because people thought it was beneath high society. But he didn’t give up (even though maybe he should’ve). Eventually, pageants did take off, with the first Miss America beauty pageant held in Atlantic City in 1921.
It’s safe to say that the history of pageants is a little bit problematic. It’s significant that their lineage stems from Europe and America, as this is where the ideals of what beauty consists of were formed. Behind the tears and tiaras, beauty became a set of criteria you had to fulfil. Most prominently, beauty was to be white, to be skinny, and to be a very one-dimensional type of feminine. When pageants began in America, non-white women were not allowed to compete. Specific pageants such as Miss Black Tennessee that Oprah won, or Miss Black America, were formed because of the lack of Black women in the mainstream Miss America pageants. It wasn’t until 1984 when Vanessa Williams became the first Black woman to win Miss America, until she was forced to give up her title early when unauthorised photos of her were published in the press. It was only in 2012 when a rule came into effect that allowed openly transgender women to enter Miss Universe as long as they won their local pageants. The first transgender contestant to make the competition was Ángela Ponce of Spain in 2018.
So, have pageants changed from their problematic past?
Well, it’s kind of like a one step forward two steps back situation. Pageants have tried to keep up with the modern age by adopting the empowerment discourse. Beauty is empowering for women and therefore competing in pageants is too, it’s a simple logic that plays into a popular narrative that partaking in beautification for oneself is an Uno-reverse on the patriarchy. And it’s not just about their looks (even though it's the primary thing they’re judged on). Women throughout the years have had impressive qualifications, but it is a much bigger talking point now as pageants have been critiqued for basing a woman’s worth on her beauty. 2020’s winner Andrea Meza of Mexico has a degree in software engineering, Pia Wurtzbach from the Philippines who won in 2015 speaks four languages, and when India’s Manushi Chhillar won Miss World in 2017 she was only 20 years old and in medical school. Let’s not forget the question and answer round, which allows the women to show off that they’re not just beautiful, but they have opinions and world views too (who’d have thought we could do both!)
But despite this, many things are still as exclusionary as in the past. Since Miss Universe began in 1952, there’s only been six winners who are of African descent, with the most recent being Miss Universe 2019, Zozibini Tunzi from South Africa. Whilst the pageant’s eligibility doesn’t state-specific weight requirements or body measurements, it acknowledges that judges look for “evidence of physical fitness and proper body care and maintenance”. Especially since there’s a swimsuit round for a contestant to show “her dedication to a healthy lifestyle”. This obscures the fact that health and fitness does not have just one body archetype, instead opting for the fatphobic trope that thin equals fit and healthy. Plus it’s not just how fair or how thin, it’s even things like height which can be exclusionary. Miss India’s height requirement was 5’5”, above the average Indian woman’s height. This was only changed to 5”3 recently in 2020. Most of the winners still stand to be above 5”5, which in comparison to body type or ethnicity doesn't seem as much of a big deal, but as someone who’s only 5 foot tall, I’m a little bitter. The ideal of beauty and femininity hasn’t evolved much either despite the fact that women of all different ethnicities compete in the Miss World and Miss Universe pageants, and win. Miss India’s pageant has been criticised because all the contestants are just “slightly different versions of the same women”, with the same glossy hair, same fair skin, and the same features. It really is a narrow pool considering what a beautifully diverse country India is.
It goes beyond appearance-based exclusions too - pageants are very expensive. Not just dresses and shoes, but the cost of fitness and diet routines, the cost of training in whatever a competitor’s skill set may be, the cost of promoting yourself. I feel like I’m breaking the bank when I spend a little on the occasional trip to my eyebrow lady, so I can’t imagine the true cost of upkeeping yourself to Miss World or Miss Universe standards. That makes them exclusionary in an economic way too; you can’t just be beautiful, you have to have monetary means to compete.
So should we abandon pageants altogether?
When trying to answer this in a somewhat conclusive way, I think it’s important to make a distinction between the pageants as an organisation and the women who participate in them. The problematic past and present of beauty pageants is not an individual woman's burden to carry. Do I think that women in their position should maybe think about how they perpetuate harmful beauty standards? Yes. But it’s also the case that a lot of these women, just like Harnaaz Sandhu, compete in pageants as their way of making it in the world and they use their beauty and resources to do so. I can’t blame them for that. But that’s the thing - beauty is a resource. Beauty is a social currency that can be used in a transactional way to move yourself forward in the world and to sell yourself as a brand. How much of that social currency you have is based upon how close you are to a certain beauty standard that is rooted in colourism, featurism, fatphobia and binary femininity.
This doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but is one smaller piece of a giant puzzle with a long history of prejudice, now repackaged by corporations and wealthy individuals to sell you products and sell you beauty in a way that generates the most profits for them. Pageants and competing in them isn’t the big money generator for most women, sponsors are. Sponsors from corporations, businesses and brands who not only provide the pageants themselves with money to run, but then sponsor the contestants who come out of them. That means they have an active interest in who gets to represent beauty, who gets to then be on billboards, Instagram pages and magazine covers, who gets to sell their brand. So they’re likely to keep picking people who will promote that narrow form of beauty and body standards, with maybe a racially ambiguous model thrown in there to satisfy the diversity quota. Pageants aren’t a show of beauty, culture and female empowerment, but a test of who’s the most marketable. Plus, Donald Trump owned the Miss Universe contest between 1996 and 2015. The same Donald Trump who said he’d date his daughter if she wasn’t his daughter. It was reported he had a big hand in selecting finalists, to no surprise favouring women to his personal taste, often denying non-white women the opportunity. Based on that alone we should’ve retired beauty pageants a long time ago.
Beauty is no longer in the eye of the beholder, but in the Copy-And-Paste-Face that is being sold to you by corporations and endorsed on social media as what you should aspire to look like. And although the goalposts for the “ideal” woman are always slightly shifting with social circumstances, it always finds a way to reinvent itself accordingly. Even if we no longer watch beauty pageants and we understand that to be Miss Universe is unattainable for most, corporate beauty has rebranded into the Instagram It Girl who borrows her features from across different continents and sells you her beauty regime because if you try hard enough, you might be able to look like her instead. So when we wonder if we’ll ever look like those we see on screen, or wonder when we’ll have more representative beauty, we shouldn’t look to biassed competitions or industries to do this. Because by design, it’s not made to be truly achievable. So log off. Close that tab. Step away from the mirror. The beauty you see in yourself is the only one that’s important.
About the author
Raiyah is an International Relations graduate and one of TLP’s writers and editors. Follow her on Instagram @raiyah.blog