The Response: Is there a problem with Miss World?

 
Miss World 2011

Following our piece from classicist Mary Beard, who argued that it's hard to get angry about the Miss World competition these days, two readers give their response.

After supporting the famous protests against Miss World in 1970 as a teenager, Mary Beard admitted in her A Point of View piece that the event no longer made her angry.

The pageant had become a "scantily clad, tabloid version of University Challenge" with many of the contestants students or graduates with a wide range of ambitions and literary interests.

Beard's attitude to the whole idea of how people used their own bodies had changed. "The less I see my own body as a positive asset, the less I have wanted to interfere with what other women choose to do with theirs," she noted.

But here Julia Long, a protester against the current incarnation of Miss World, argues the contests still reinforce sexism.

And Sabrina Sixta, a recent entrant to Miss Universe Canada, suggests beauty pageants are not what the protesters think.

The activist

Julia Long

Julia Long
  • Julia Long is a campaigner and activist with the London Feminist Network and Object

As one of the organisers of the protest outside the Miss World contest, I was disappointed that Mary Beard did not take the trouble to inform herself of the nature of the protest before giving her opinions on its supposed redundancy.

If Prof Beard had read our flyers, she would have seen that the protest was directed against what the contest represents, rather than the contestants. We certainly do not see Miss Venezuela as "the enemy" - rather, we oppose the objectification of women that such contests perpetuate.

Our chants make the links between this kind of objectification and other aspects of women's inequality. The "freedom bin", into which we threw lads mags and scalpels, symbolised new forms of sexism that have become normalised in the intervening years between this and the original 1970 Miss World protest. .

Prof Beard claims that the Miss World contest should no longer be a priority for feminists, but merely refers to her own comfort with her ageing body, and new-found personal tolerance of what she sees as the "bodily choices" of others.

While I'm delighted that Mary Beard is comfortable in her body, to conclude from that that battles around female objectification and sexual commodification have been won betrays a serious ignorance of the ongoing issues of ageist and sexist discrimination faced by women in relation to their appearance.

The beauty industry continues to grow even in times of economic downturn. Increasingly intrusive and risky procedures have become far more common since the original Miss World protest in 1970 - from facelifts and silicone breast implants to "nasal tip enhancement", the "internal bra" (a "revolutionary surgical breast support"), labiaplasties and "breast boosters".

Painful practices such as waxing - not only of legs but also underarms and pubic area - have become near-compulsory for young women, alongside dieting, eyebrow threading, spray tans, false lashes, stilettos and visits to the nail bar and the hair salon.

The Response

The Response is an occasional series highlighting reactions to viewpoint pieces

Rather than opposing the dictates and pressures on women to appear a certain way, Prof Beard argues that it is simply a question of "making those constraints work for you". For feminists, however, simplistic notions of "free choice" are seldom an adequate way of explaining gendered social phenomena, and individual adaptations are rarely a solution to structural inequalities.

For those of us protesting outside the Miss World contest, there is a clear relationship between beauty pageants and a massive industry which thrives on selling a message to women of their inherent physical inadequacy and unattractiveness. Beauty contests normalise the judging of women as objects, in spite of the PR-driven efforts of the organisers to make us believe otherwise.

The groups protesting outside Miss World - the London Feminist Network, Million Women Rise, OBJECT, and UK Feminista - campaign energetically on a range of issues including violence against women and justice for rape victims; the government's spending cuts; abortion rights; and the normalisation of pornography and the sex industry. We don't see the Miss World contest as unrelated to these injustices.

An important dimension to the protest was the presence of several of the women from the original 1970 action, who joined a new generation of feminists singing, chanting and laughing. Prof Beard may indeed have "sold out on feminism" and become more conservative in her late middle age, but luckily, others have not.

The mathematician/beauty queen

Sabrina Sixta

  • Sabrina Sixta competed in the Miss Universe Canada pageant in June in Toronto.
  • She is a student, reading mathematics

I was in Miss Universe Canada and I feel as though there is a major misconception about beauty pageants.

Mary Beard, like most people who don't know much about the pageant industry look at the Miss World competition as women flaunting their bodies in bathing suits (and just recently becoming "swamped by a kind of high-minded worthiness").

But the Miss World and Miss Universe pageants, alike, are competitions. There is technique in everything from walking with grace to holding oneself in the perfect stance. There is a reason why the prettiest girl doesn't always win.

Prof Beard talks about the attempt by producers to focus more on the charity and intellectual aspect of the contestants, but from experience I honestly feel this is primarily in response to the type of girl that seems to enter pageants these days.

They are usually what we would call a "go-getter". Let's take Oxana Federova, Miss Universe 2002, as an example. She resigned as Miss Universe because she wanted to finish her law degree.

There are many contestants who work hard at college and volunteer in their community. Participating in a beauty pageant is simply another thing to add to their list of achievements.

Sabrina Sixta For some young contestants, beauty pageants are like any other interest

Prof Beard also talks about the "importance of physical fitness and social responsibility" not quite ringing true.

But there's nothing to back up this claim. If the strict rules that automatically eliminate any contestant who is anorexic or bulimic aren't convincing enough, maybe an example will help.

The week prior to the Miss Universe Canada pageant the contestants were going out to eat for breakfast, lunch, and supper (and no, we weren't fed celery and alfalfa sprouts). So how did we keep fit? Most girls kept fit by training for marathons or even playing soccer.

People should get their facts straight before criticising another pageant. And Prof Beard should think twice before saying that if we really want to be international lawyers, like so many of us claim, why don't we just work at it, rather than enter a beauty contest?

Well I'd just like to use myself as an example - I graduated from high school with the highest average and entered university early to study mathematics. I still get the top of my class, participate in many volunteer projects and I have only just turned 19.

Please don't tell me that I am "not working at it".

 

More on This Story

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

Comments

This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
 
  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 175.

    Surely a beauty contest is the one place where it should be OK to judge people on their looks. It's the extent to which we judge one another on our looks in other walks of life that's the problem, and I doubt Miss World influences that to any measurable degree any more, at least not in the UK.

  • rate this
    +11

    Comment number 145.

    Not all, or even many, women take part in pornography or beauty pageants. They do it out of choice, feminine choice; they are not coerced into it by some male supremicist conspiracy. Why would feminists wish to limit their "sisters' " choices? Because they can't be trusted to make the right decision? Bit arrogant?

  • rate this
    +8

    Comment number 144.

    What Julia Long fails to acknowledge in her column is that the bulk of the pressure on young women to appear a particular way, with make-up, waxing, fake tanning etc. comes from other women. Unless you are a professional model, there is no need to go to the lengths that a lot of young women feel they need to, or at least there isn't pressure from most men to be like that.

  • rate this
    +16

    Comment number 130.

    What is wrong with these 'Beauty Pagents? In 2004 I was living in Albania, and a good friend of mine was crowned Miss Albania. She was a beautiful young woman, and the result was to give her opportunities of travel she would never have had before. Now she is at University in Germany. Good luck to those who take part. Oh, and yes, I want to see world peace!

  • rate this
    +13

    Comment number 108.

    In the original article, Beard said "In fact, the less I see my own body as a positive asset, the less I have wanted to interfere with what other women choose to do with theirs." That is a sign of growing maturity - completely misinterpreted by Long - a realisation that each individual's opinion is their own to make, none of us have the right to dictate to others.

 

Comments 5 of 7

 

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.