It’s that time of year again, when clocks have ironically turned back several decades and feminists are begrudgingly anticipating the ‘Miss World’ Beauty Pageant. The 60th Miss World final will be taking place back in London where it all began and after a nine year long absence from the UK, will be graced by the presence of feminist organisations, the London Feminist Network, Object and UK Feminista. The responses have consisted of the usual “Women choose to do this,” “It’s empowering,” or “It’s not harming anyone,” without questioning who is actually being exploited within the broad spectrum of capitalism and inequality.
“Beauty with a Purpose,” as the pageant is condescendingly named, has been ‘reinvented’ since the 1970s women’s liberation demonstration against the contest. And whilst there is very little difference in the format of the competition since its instigation in 1951 as a Festival Bikini Contest now relabelled as “Beach Beauty”; it is thanks to the feminists that the annual cattle market was made a little humane. Organisers dropped the recital of the vital statistics and decided to judge contestants’ personality and intelligence as well, from the time when feminists disrupted the contest with chants of, ‘we’re not beautiful, we’re not ugly, we’re angry’. But how did it begin and why is it that there are no mentions of the contest’s extensive takings?
Unsurprisingly, the founder Eric Morley was no stranger to big money as one of the most successful entertainment entrepreneurs in the world establishing in 1949, the television programme ‘Come Dancing’ which became the BBC’s longest running series. He later also became the managing director of Mecca and was credited with introducing commercial bingo to Britain. It was over lunch at the Savoy, Morley suggested staging a one-off international beauty competition called “Miss World Festival Bikini Girl”, with a first prize of £1,000 in order to add glamour/ titillation to the Festival of Britain at the expense of women.
When, in 1952, the Americans launched Miss Universe, the patriotic Morley was upset: “I was narked,” he said. So he persuaded Mecca of the promotional potential of a “Miss World” contest. And it is unlikely that Morley was upset over losing the chance to promote women’s wonderful qualities and rather disappointed over the potential revenue that could have been raised, competing in the free market. And that is the sine qua non. It has never been about women’s potential to be exceptional; rather a ploy to make money at any cost, otherwise the competition would have always considered women’s intellect as an important factor and the show would have been resonant of ‘Mastermind’ and not ‘Baywatch.’
In the current climate of expenses scandals, banking crises and general transparency within the market; it would be assumed that Miss World Limited would begin to make exceptions in revealing figures for its earnings, expenses and charitable contributions. However, as the company is a privately held firm, they have never publicly divulged the actual expenditure. The primary donations to charities seem to have been provided thanks to the contestants partaking in “Beauty with a Purpose,” and not to the company, who are profiting on the backs of their pinups. What’s more important is that these charitable efforts could have been achieved without the sexist repercussion inherent throughout it. Women are more likely to donate money to charity in the UK in any case according to several studies.
The competition itself raises an important issue. Internalised prejudice is intrinsic to the beauty pageant as Miss Botswana revealed in the Telegraph. “Being a woman is one of the hardest things in the world,” says the articulate Miss Botswana. “The moment you step out of the house, you’re judged. You’re judged on your nails, your hair. So it’s not so bad to stand up on a stage. We don’t just strut around.” And that is the type of vulnerability that the competition plays upon in order to line their own pockets. So is it really ‘free will’ if it is the better of two evils?
The more disturbing reality of Miss World, apart from the evident objectification of women is that the contest has widened its gaze to the younger female audience. Miss Teen Queen is an extension of the adult competition in the UK, targeted at girls aged 13 to 19 years old. Whilst the U.S. is all too familiar with children’s beauty pageants, it is a worrying thought that a competition which reduces the beauty ideal into one ‘perfect’ image is being directed towards such young girls-especially with the government attempting to reduce the landscape of sexualisation around young girls. The site itself is disturbing, with finalists as young as 13-years old, providing their vital statistics including their chest size, if at all possible. And the competition does not avoid the usual preliminaries such as the swimsuit round as the website has somewhat inappropriate images resembling the pornographic ‘Spring Breaks’ held in America.
The part that made my stomach churn, as if it hasn’t already, is the website’s modelling advice. Shrewdly devised, the site has asked for none of the information to be reproduced- probably as it is disconcerting to read and subsequently they could face a tirade of angry parents. “Your face and body are your fortune,” is enough to make any person cringe at the thought that this is directed at girls as young as 13-years old.
Undoubtedly, the Miss World and Universe competitions are not aimed at the average woman; otherwise the entrant forms would not require bust, waist, hips, height, and weight statistics. A Miss Universe preliminary judge, Scott Lazerson had admitted that the contest was all about “beauty, beauty, beauty. It’s all about beauty,” so why pretend that the contestants are equally chosen for their intellect?
When asked if the contests held impossible standards of beauty and that if it could encourage young women to have issues with their weight and looks, Lazerson responded: “I believe that these contests encourage these young women to strive for excellence both within and without. But I will say, there were three of them, when they appeared in their bathing suits, I thought, “And when did you get those?” He then went on to refer to the contestants as “babes,” clearly an answer that doesn’t objectify women.
The white-washing of contestants is also apparent seen through the invariable line-up of women chosen as finalists. As the contest is originally a Western conception, over the years the finalists have tended to be “Western –looking.” The International Business Times highlighted the issue, stating that “it is sad to see that almost every one of the women in the competition look like they were pulled from the University of Texas,” and that “when young women tune in, they will primarily see one standard of beauty.” With the introductions of teen competitions, it’s likely that it will exacerbate the situation.
So when turning to the person casually exclaiming “It’s just a bit of harmless fun and it’s empowering for women,” it is essential to take into consideration the main elements of the competition: sexism, racism and capitalism.