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".


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  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    Here's a novel idea: perhaps the disrespectful people are the likes of Long, who look down on women such as pornstars and beauty pageant contestants, then justify their own prejudice by accusing men of objectifying these women.

    If I saw a pageant contestant, I wouldn't assume she's an airhead, and if I saw a pornstar, I wouldn't assume she's gagging for it from me, either. Stop the projection.

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    I wonder if Ms Long compains against the ladies on Loose Women when they make suggestive comments against attractive male guests? Admiring beautiful women is NOT objectifying them. It is merely admiring them at that point in time. Nowhere does anyone say 'she's gorgeous therefore she is incapable of anything else'. Is it shallow watching a footballer play football or an actor act?

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    125 plath
    Here's an interesting one: having read the tale of the dashing doctor and the rugged pirate, would you then expect every doctor you met to be dashing, rather than over-tired and irritable, and every pirate to be rugged, rather than a Kalashnikov-wielding maniac?

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    Sorry about that - a PhD in feminist anti-pornograpy activism - now that is a real subject. But as a feminist activist with anti pornographic views; how difficult could it have been? Hardly particle physics is it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    Julia Long, if your problem is the pressure on women to improve their appearance and objectify themselves, you're barking up the wrong tree. Virtually all the pressure from that comes from the hordes of women's magazines demanding what make-up you must wear to look acceptable to your peers.

    Picket the offices of Cosmopolitan and I'll take you more seriously.

  • rate this

    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

    Comment number 129.

    I don't think I've ever seen anti-pornography. Is it Playboy in a parallel universe?

    Best not make any black hole gags...

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    125 : plath
    Depends on your porn. What about the women out there who are into domming ? Last thing *they* will want to see is a naked submissive "slut" unless they also happen to like women as well as/instead of men !!
    Porn is a vast genre and it has to be said that the kind of porn you are talking about is one small facet. Bit like putting an ice cube on an iceberg and drawing attention to it

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    @119 &124
    Her PhD was in feminist anti-pornography activism

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    Is Justin Beiber famous because of his singing talent or his looks?
    Brad Pitt because of his acting skills or his looks?
    David Beckham because of his football skills or his looks?

    I wish women wouldn't judge us men on looks alone. It's not nice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    118. Max the fantasy of a dashing doctor or rugged pirate is still allowed more substance than what's covered in porn. they're valued for being dashing or adventurous. whereas most porn isn't filled with women who are shown to be intelligent and considerate. they're mostly depicted to be naked submissive "sluts" who exist solely to please men. so no, they're not directly comparable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    A PHd in Feminist Pornography? I would venture to suggest that the research she must have had to carry out for that probably indicates where she is coming from in this argument....

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    The problem with overzealous feminist/masculist arguments is that in any scenario that involves both men AND women there is both a male and female pov. Picking one over the other is the sexism that youre against - equality means debating both and resulting in an EQUAL outcome
    Promoting one group over the other encourages segregation - we see the same problem in race debates

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    36 Minutes ago
    98. Max: the sex industry is almost entirely male-centric"

    That's because genetically, men are more sexually charged, whereas women are more home based.

    One man having sex with 100 women, then leaving them can have 100 pregnancies
    One woman having sex with 100 men, then leaving will only lead to one pregnancy.

  • Comment number 121.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    ok thirdwave, Can you give one example in nature of a species not concentrating appearance ? Ever seen a tweetie bird under UV lights ? Sorry but we are animals and we *all* objectify the opposite sex. If you feel that we as a species are above this, then you do not attack one small aspect of this. You say it's a bigger problem for women? I strongly disagree with that !!

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    Utter rubbish like Strictly Come Dancing, X Factor, I'm a Has Been Get Me On Here and other such dross is all a pageant. Why so narrow minded about a single event. men find women attractive and, though not in my particular case, vice versa; it's what keeps us from extinction. Degree in Feminist Studies and a PhD in Feminist Pornography? these aren't even proper subjects (Eng Lit is well done)

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    Hi Plath
    "the sex industry is almost entirely male-centric". That depends on whether you include "romance" novels with twisted male characters that are all dashing doctors or rugged pirates.
    I completely agree that people should be judged on all aspects of their being. I don't disagree with that. I disagree with the assumption that men don't do that, just becasue they may like a pretty woman

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    109. daon151dh what do you mean 'wider context'? if men want to complain about objectification no one is stopping them. least of all julie long or me. it's wrong to equate not sticking your nose in something that's men's decision with being the part of the problem. anyway the issue of objectification is a bigger problem for women than men and directly affects many feminists.

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.


    Post 113 I couldn't have said it better myself !!


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