A Point of View: Age, beauty and Miss World

Lucia Petterie, Miss World 1971, and her runners-up

As the Miss World contest turns 60, writer and academic Mary Beard takes a peek at the competition and ponders why - unlike her teenage days as a radical feminist - the whole occasion doesn't fill her with fury.

Miss World 2011 was crowned last week at Earls Court - Miss Venezuela, a 22-year-old graduate in human resources, took the title. She was closely followed by Miss Philippines who majored in marketing, and Miss Puerto Rico who wants to go on to a PhD in comparative literature.

A hundred or so feminist demonstrators turned up, outside the venue, to object to what they saw as a degrading human cattle market.

It was a fairly sedate affair, certainly a far cry from the protests against Miss World 1970 when a group of "women's libbers" (as people used to call them then), swapped their dungarees for little frocks, infiltrated the ceremony, and managed to land some bags of flour very close to the compere Bob Hope, some wilting lettuces on the assembled reporters, and squirts of blue ink on the bouncers' shirts.

They had a great slogan - "We're not beautiful, we're not ugly, we're angry." And, as a radical feminist teenager, I was right behind them.

After all those years, I couldn't resist taking a peek at the 2011 contest last weekend - it's no longer shown on UK television, but you can get it streamed live online. I found myself slightly puzzled, slightly turned off - but not any longer very angry.

For a start, the contest has tried to clean up its act. Sure, there is still the awful swim wear and the feeble attempts to make some very unpromising national dress appear sexy, but there is none of the horse-trading run-down of the vital statistics that there used to be (none of the "36-24-36" bit).

And the whole thing is swamped by a kind of high-minded worthiness. I don't just mean all the emphasis on charity, or on the event held at the Cambridge Union in the run up to the show, where Miss Botswana along with Misses Scotland, Puerto Rico and Zimbabwe led a debate on "social responsibility". It's also the way the 2011 contestants were presented - or presented themselves.

This year, the organisers assured us, roughly three-quarters of the hundred-and-something young women taking part were university graduates or studying for degrees, and the ambitions they spoke of were nothing like the old beauty contest cliche of "my ambition is to travel and start a family."

These contestants talked of becoming international lawyers, museum curators, architects, diplomats - or even of owning a television station (that was Miss South Sudan, representing the world's newest nation, who in the end didn't show up, because she couldn't get a visa in time).

And their choices of favourite literature ranged from Dan Brown and Harry Potter to the unashamedly highbrow. Several opted for Shakespeare, a couple for Marquez or Umberto Eco, Miss Greece chose The Picture of Dorian Gray, Miss Bulgaria and Miss Bosnia Herzegovina both went for Anna Karenina, Miss Mexico for "Queen Elizabeth I's speech to the troops at Tilbury".

It all felt a bit like a scantily clad, tabloid version of University Challenge - and, in truth, rather less edgy. Which is presumably why no British TV channel chose to spend its money broadcasting it, even though in the bad old days of the 1970s it had attracted almost 25m UK viewers - which is a royal wedding or World Cup final level of audience.

But it's also the case that, since those bad old days, television and other mass media have committed crimes far worse than even the "un-reformed" Miss World ceremony did. This year's competition included a couple of 17-year-olds, the Anna Karenina fan from Bosnia Herzegovina, and Miss El Salvador. Otherwise, just like they've been in all 60 years of the competition, they were a collection of young adults, up to (in the case of Miss People's Republic of China) the age of 25.

This isn't, in other words, the licensed child abuse (or that's what it looks like to me, at any rate) that we watch on Britain's Got Talent, where there is no age limit at all - you could enter your toddler if you wanted to - and where to see a prematurely-sexualised 11-year-old reduced to tears, or a vulnerable middle-aged lady driven to despair, seems to have become part of the pleasure of the show. A hundred, apparently robust, grown-ups in bikinis don't seem quite as offensive as that.

Besides, most of them were a relatively healthy, normal size. In a way, these Miss World contestants offered a much better example to any young woman who might be watching, than all those impossibly thin, size-zero, anorexic fashion-models. They were a bit aggressively hour-glass in shape, it's true, but at least most of them appeared to be hovering around the size 10 - or even size 12 - mark.

I confess that I watched the ceremony almost to the bitter end. It didn't exactly make me a fan of the Miss World competition. All the rhetoric about the importance of physical fitness and social responsibility didn't quite ring true - and didn't quite disguise the fact that what counted most was how the women looked in rather revealing clothes (and anyway, if you really want to be an international lawyer, as so many of these women claim, why don't you just work at it, rather than enter a beauty contest?).

Image caption Miss Venezuela, Ivian Sarcos, was crowned Miss World 2011 in London

But, at the same time, try as I might, I couldn't any longer summon up much fury about the whole occasion.

The women demonstrating outside Earls Court - some of them proud veterans of the 1970 protest, and clearly still very cross - would no doubt say that I had gone soft, that I had sold out on feminism, and was colluding with the enemies of the cause, from the fashion industry to pornographers and plastic surgeons.

But that's not how it feels to me. I don't think I am getting any more conservative in my late middle age (though, of course, I may be the worst judge of that), and at 56 I count myself as strong a feminist as I was at 26. That said, I do feel a bit more laid back - especially when it comes to the politics of the body.

Myself, I don't any longer have a body that I particularly want to flaunt. I'm quite comfortable in it, thank you. But I am very aware of all the signs of aging - some less attractive than others - from my (thickening) toe-nails to my (greying) hair.

As one carping television critic observed a few months ago, "Mary Beard looks 16 from the back, 60 from the front". It was a bit cruel, a bit misogynist, not wholly original as a turn of phrase - by and large, though, it was a pretty accurate summary of my appearance.

Image caption Miss World is still a target for protesters

Minus the botox or the face-lift, that is, after all, what 50-something women are like. I am getting, and looking, older. It can be a rather humbling process and it can spring some unwelcome surprises - I catch a sidelong glimpse of myself in the mirror, and I don't see me but my mum. But one of the upsides is that it has made me a lot more tolerant than I used to be about the bodily choices of others.

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. If they want to parade in bikinis or shroud themselves in burkas, then so be it. I can see the pleasure in both.

To accuse them - as I used to do - of being the victims of social or commercial or religious control now seems to me to be a fairly cheap hit. How we present ourselves to the world is never a free choice. For both women and men dress is always the subject of social constraints.

The question is how you make those constraints work for you. Take women's make-up for example. It can be the ultimate symbol of an oppressive culture that refuses to accept women's faces as they really are; it can also be celebratory, joyous and fun.

So I'm not really sure that the Miss World competition - for all its slightly old-fashioned tackiness - is where we should be protesting.

Don't get me wrong. We certainly needed that demonstration in 1970, because most of us then hadn't quite put together the links between the so-called "beauty industry", male power, and discrimination against women.

It was at the time truly eye-opening, and it was a side of feminism that certainly changed my life and how I thought about myself and about my body forever. It's still giving me the confidence to laugh off sneers about my middle-aged appearance, or - for that matter - to talk happily on the radio about my aging toenails.

But times do change, and some battles honestly do get won. I don't any longer feel that Miss Venezuela is much of an enemy.