Written by Vedika Pathania, a second-year journalism student
On 13th December 2021, Harnaaz Kaur Sandhu from India was crowned Miss Universe 2021. The crown has been brought home after 21 years, the last winner being Sushmita Sen. And while I, in no way, mean to disregard, disrespect or undermine the achievement and the training that they went through, this again opens the discourse about whether or not beauty pageants remain relevant in this day, and if they are, what purpose do they serve?
I’ll talk about both sides of the coin so that you, dear reader, have the chance to form your own opinion in the end.
The media we consume on a daily basis affect how and what we think about the world around us. Be it films, tv shows, influencers on social media, or pageants, for that matter, create a perception of what people should look like, be like, and even to the extent of what people should wear and eat. Needless to say, these depictions are unrealistic and create unachievable beauty standards.
For example, a child watching the Miss Universe Pageant would be led into believing that ‘the most beautiful woman in the universe’ is only someone who is tall, skinny, and can master any ramp she walks on.
Coming to beauty standards, I want all of you to think about a few questions
Who sets these beauty standards?
What makes someone beautiful, or for that matter, what makes someone ugly?
What I’m coming to is that when young people watch beauty pageants, it lowers their self-esteem.
Another essential thing to understand is that most notions of beauty are patriarchal. The standards of beauty and attractiveness are set by what appeals to men in a patriarchal society.
In short, the value of a woman’s appearance is exaggerated. There’s nothing wrong with taking care of your appearance. However, it is sexist and unhealthy for a society to persuade thousands of women that their appearance is all they are worth. The participants have a height and age limit. Now, this isn’t only ageist, but it also only promotes beauty if it comes in a single, particular way and body type.
Not to mention that these pageants were highly racist, biased towards the white west for many years.
Another issue here is the focus on ‘morals’. These notions of right and wrongs that a woman can commit are also patriarchal ideas.
For a long time, these pageants demanded that contestants execute a very restricted concept of femininity while also belonging to a narrow sector of society. Each time a woman or man who did not fit into the stereotyped picture of being conventionally good-looking, cis, heterosexual, and able-bodied participated, these utopian standards of femininity and masculinity were questioned.
There are arguments in favour of pageants too. Those who advocate for pageants frequently see them as a potential escape from difficult living situations and a springboard for pursuing one’s aspirations – particularly for those who are trapped by their circumstances. Previous winners have spoken about how their experiences helped them embrace themselves.
To counter the inclusivity argument, beauty pageants have recently widened, becoming more accepting and inclusive of different ages, body types, and sexualities.
Some have also applauded pageants for moving away from focusing primarily on beauty and appearances and instead taking into account contestants’ abilities, support for social issues, and intellect.
However, the point remains that despite this seeming growth, beauty pageants have no place in a society where feminist values are gaining traction, women are assuming increasing leadership roles, and the notion that individuals are worth more than their appearance is finally becoming accepted. Despite the inclusivity, as a society, we are far from seeing beyond what we assume is the ‘perfect body type’.
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