To what extent will a group of incredibly beautiful, young women parading a glamorous stage in their glitzy dresses empower a hesitant 14-year old mind? How relevant will the platform be to the girls and women watching from the sidelines? Above all, how will they define success after watching these women being objectified and scored for how they have presented their bodies?
With the crowning of Harnaaz Sandhu as ‘Miss Universe 2021’, the conflicting opinions on beauty pageants was brought back into the spotlight. After Sushmita Sen and Lara Dutta, the 21-year-old Sandhu stands as the third Indian to win the crown. Just as Sandhu orchestrated history, proud proclamations flowered upon her, on making India regain the title after a dry spell of 21 years. However, the event once again rang a bell in the conscious minds, who questioned the significance of such contests. People pondered upon its impact on the lives of women who did not meet the conventional standards of beauty.
The earliest beauty pageants are known to have been originated during the Greek civilization, although the historical evidence does not mention the inclusion of women. Instead, a yearly event called the Euandria was held for the men as a contest based on their physique. The first modern beauty contest, staged by one of America’s greatest showmen, Phineas t. Barnum, dates back to 1854, which catered to the audience’s desire for commercial entertainment. Thenceforth, beauty pageants impenitently perpetuated the concept of the “fairest of them all,” with their racist eligibility criterion. Whether it be in 1923, when the first feature of African-Americans in the contests was as slaves during a dance performance, or in 2019, when contests like Femina Miss India shortlisted only fair-skinned women, reinforcing India’s obsession with the problematic notions of “fair and lovely”.
Other than the skin tones and body measurements, pageants have also dictated the age, marital, and motherhood statuses, with “morality” being a prominent criterion to participate. For instance, until 1999, married, divorced, and women who had undergone abortion were debarred participation in Miss America. As contests continue to stipulate these rules to meet the inane beauty standards, one expecting change over the years returns in the doldrums. Rajiv Desai deprecates the narrow interpretations of beauty in a 2019 article for the Swaddle: “A woman who is old enough to be considered legally an adult, but still young enough to look overtly youthful, unencumbered by the duties of marriage, totally sexually available, and god-forbid, clearly not burdened by the ugliness of motherhood.”
Even with issues like body positivity attaining the deserved media attention, pageants continue to be an exclusive clique with minimal representation of plumper figures and stretch marks; which perhaps is more standard and relevant for the masses.
Thus, putting the idealized versions of beauty on a competitive stage, beauty pageants have traditionally focused on ranking and judging the physical features of the contestants, in return for a royal title along with a considerable sum of money to the winner. However, with the revolutionizing views of the world, these contests have subsumed aspects of talent, personality, and intelligence within their judging criteria, to an extent. Moreover, the four major international pageants have claimed to step ahead of their makeup rooms, and glide with the environmental consciousness wave. The reigning titleholders are given the role of spokesperson for environmental organizations, wherein they dedicate the year to address issues of concern. Miss World was lauded for the introduction of “beauty with a purpose” round in the 1970s, wherein contestants shoulder charity work in their countries.
However, this raised another question. Short of pictures with slum kids and flowering speeches, to what expanse can a miss universe be considered a human rights advocate? “Let’s talk about more important things happening worldwide,” said Sandhu, whilst participating in an event in Israel, blithely forgetting the country’s vicious settlement and suppression policy against Palestinians; an ‘important issue’ which neither the organizers nor the participants took up. Amongst global concerns and boycott calls, some contestants used a “visit Israel” hashtag while posing with Palestinian costumes and food as the systematic erasure continued. With a touch of politics, the event came to a successful end.
The humanitarian aspect appears as a farce to many, in the context of a massively financed and marketed event that is calculatedly endorsed by leading brands of cosmetics and couture. Home to the booming beauty and cosmetic business, India’s valuation of beauty markets is estimated to be close to USD 30 billion by 2025. As these markets continue to nourish the unrealistic beauty standards, self-esteem lessens, leading to an eventual growth of body image issues.
In a response to another criticism of such contests, Miss Universe Iraq described the event as an opportunity, which women choose, to empower themselves. Although the route may be empowering to some, one is bound to question the worth of it in the face of increasing poverty, corruption, and mental health. Moreover, can the route to celebrating feminine beauty be something else than creating a perfect mannequin?
Maryam Hassan is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Zaina Shahid Khan
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Jamia Review or its members.