This week, another Indian girl was crowned Miss Universe. While many Indians went ga-ga over the new beauty queen, I will not share the euphoria, as beauty contests have always raised my hackles. Even as a teenager, I had found them abhorrent. The feelings only got stronger over the years as I came to understand the agendas and motives of the huge beauty and fashion industry behind these contests. And now, I am just irritated.
I have never understood how anyone can ‘judge’ beauty? For that matter, when every girl is beautiful in her own right, how can one be a winner and another a loser? The society already does enough damage to a girl’s confidence by delineating external attributes as parameters for beauty. The organisers only take this formula and make it more ‘product-based’ so that they can push the sponsors’ products to create perfect artificial beauties and then grade them. What I find most offensive is that these winners are supposedly the representatives of the women of their countries. As if an artificially ‘finished product’ can represent the vast majority of natural beauties of any country! It is not as if they are sportswomen who have slogged it out at their sports, represented their country and won a gold.
Coming to the genesis of beauty contests, it is founded on the insecurities of a girl about her beauty. No matter how beautiful she is, there is a craving for validation from the outside world. What better than when the validation comes from an international body that creates the ‘most beautiful’ women and crowns them? Among the small and big beauty contests, the Miss Universe is the biggest and longest running one, having been started in 1952. (Read about it here). But the oldest one is Miss. USA, which was started in 1921.
In the absence of the magic mirror of Snow White’s stepmother, the contestants are predominantly judged on their physical attributes going by even the ‘supplementary’ titles like Miss Beautiful eyes and Miss Beautiful Smile. These parameters were changed over the years, making them more and more unrealistic and widening the gap between the average woman and a contestant. This has given rise not only to unhealthy practices like eating disorders but also unethical ones like corrective surgeries and implants to make the cut. Where is the ‘beauty’ with so much ‘preparation’ prior to the contest?
While these contests are supposedly ‘empowering’ and confidence-building exercises, the ugly truth is that they is all about big biz, big bucks and big agendas, with a lucky (?) few getting their fingers on to the huge pie.
Remember the double bonanza of Miss Universe (Sushmita Sen) and Miss World (Aishwarya Rai) in 1994? Not to take away from either girl’s success, it smacked of a big agenda. Post the economic liberalisation of 1991, India had suddenly become the biggest market for FMCG and beauty products. And what better way to consolidate the market than to give, not one, but two beauty crowns to Indian girls in the same year? How else could one explain the fact that there was not a single winner after 1966 — when Reita Faria had won the Miss World title — till the ‘double bonanza’ of 1994? It was certainly not for the lack of participation or the dearth of beautiful women.
Having exposed the country to the lures of big money and glamour of the beauty business, the organisers hastened to consolidate their gains. So, there were two more Miss World titles in 1997 (Diana Hayden) and 1999 (Yukta Mookhey), which were quickly followed by another ‘double’ crown in 2000, when Lara Dutta won the Miss Universe and Priyanka Chopra won the Miss World crowns respectively. The organisers had hit upon a goldmine that would keep them in business for decades!
How the cosmetics, fashion, beauty products and other related industries and services boomed after that first ‘double’ in 1994! Young and old Indian women with a lot of disposable income, thanks to liberalisation opening up big job opportunities eagerly gobbled up designer brands like L’Oréal, Pantene, Lancôme and Maybelline. At the other end of the social spectrum, cheap and spurious cosmetics bearing the uncannily similarly spelt names, targeted the lower income group girls. Beauty parlours mushroomed in lanes and even slum clusters, never mind if the owner had no formal training in beauty routines.
It was as if natural beauty had vanished from the face of the earth. Beautiful girls with flawless skin and shining eyes turned into ghastly pantomime versions of the painted circus jokers of yore. With internet having reached the remotest corners in addition to the ubiquitous TV, girls from even tiny hamlets began dreaming of becoming another Aishwarya Rai or Priyanka Chopra. Suddenly there was a glut of Miss This or Miss That in every town and city. A scourge had gripped the country and girls were falling to it like ninepins.
Soon mass production of assembly line ‘beauties’ began to be created to conform to the new standards of ‘beauty,’ which were unnatural and unrealistic. It used to infuriate me when I was younger, but now only saddens me. Who will shake some sense into the girls, especially those with promise in other fields or those who can’t afford the beauty circuit, to tell them that they are not horses or cattle to be paraded and graded on various parameters of beauty, by the manufacturers of cosmetics and beauty products?
But I am furious at the attitude of women’s groups towards these contests. These so called ‘feminists’ rush to protest against anything and everything — ‘Brahminical patriarchy’, ‘commodification of women’ and a plethora of real and perceived gender issues — but are curiously unmoved by these blatantly sexist events. They designate something as being regressive or empowering, without any logic, depending upon their agendas and who they are aligned with or against at that moment. Oh, but they offer lip service against these events and platitudes to girls to be ‘comfortable in their own skin’ and be proud of who they are ‘from the inside’.
Barring the year 1968, when women’s groups purposefully protested against the Miss Universe contest held in Atlanta, there have been no significant opposition or protests during subsequent years, that could have made a difference. Otherwise, with their voice and reach, they could have put a stop to these events, unless they are complicit in some way. Perhaps they are mulling such events for each of the 60+ genders they have created (so far) in the interests of ‘inclusivity’.
Other than the multinationals selling fashion and beauty products, the organisers of these events and the handful of ‘winners’, the rest are big losers on a journey to nowhere. And the price paid is way too big in terms of monetary loss, loss of confidence and self-esteem and worse. How many of them pick up the threads of life and move on? How many go into severe depression or get pulled into the underbelly of the society and go on a downward spiral?
At the end of it all, Is it worth it?