What is the collective noun for a group of slim, incredibly attractive young women in swimsuits and tiaras? A nightclub? A pole dance? No, it’s a pageant. A few weeks ago in Melbourne, the winner of the 2016 Miss Universe Australia pageant, Caris Tiivel, was crowned.
Ms Tiivel told the Herald Sun she ‘couldn’t believe her luck’ in winning the crown. And it is luck. Why do we celebrate the achievements of those who won the genetic lottery when technically they haven’t done anything? If anyone gets the prize, shouldn’t it be the pageant-contestant breeders – their parents?
It surprises me that, in 2016, beauty pageants still exist. Who would have thought that, well over a century since suffragettes put their lives on the line to win women the vote, we’d be lining up to be awarding Australia’s most beautiful woman? Doesn’t that feel the teensiest bit degrading? Not the smartest. Not the most compassionate. Not the most athletically stupendous. The most physically beautiful. All these years on, when it comes down to it, we’re only a dog collar away from Best in Show.
I’m sorry, but I can’t see the merit in this. Beauty contests belong in the museum with golliwogs and chastity belts. Feminists have been protesting beauty pageants since the year I was born. In 1968 protesters drew nationwide attention when they stood outside the Miss America pageant and threw items representing the constraints of femininity and protested the objectification of women.
It was 1968 when Miss Australia, the pageant started by a lingerie company, was transferred to the Australian Cerebral Palsy Association. Talk about passing the beauty buck – clearly trying to avoid feminist criticism by hiding behind the disabled. It seems somewhat ironic, does it not, that one should use a beauty competition to raise money for people who experience marginalisation and discrimination because of an image-obsessed culture.
That’s like raising money for cancer by selling Pink Ribbon cigarettes.
Of all the qualities of beauty upheld in pageants, it is perhaps thinness that is the most consistent. In her book The Beauty Myth feminist writer Naomi Woolf critiques this value as having sinister implications with regards to social control.
She says, ‘A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.’
The pageants know they are living on borrowed time. Miss World Australia has rebranded itself with a motto of ‘Beauty with a Purpose’. But isn’t that the point of beauty? It’s meaningless. In fact comedian Tina Fey says my favourite thing in relation to beauty: ‘If you retain nothing else, always remember the most important rule of beauty, which is: who cares’.
Deborah Miller, the national director of 2016 Miss World Australia Pageant, has said ‘to be a feminist doesn’t mean you can’t be beautiful and put makeup on and be attractive’. No, it doesn’t. I think we all know that. However, when you’re a feminist and you’re talking about world peace you’re generally not wearing a swimsuit. You don’t see tiaras and heels in a TED Talk. And hey, if the beautify pageants were so aligned with feminist values then why isn’t it Ms World?
The concept of what constitutes beauty is highly subjective and not something that can be measured by pitting one woman against another. Every time you crown a girl the ‘most beautiful’ it sends every other girl the message that she’s not beautiful enough.
As American author Courtney E Martin has argued in her book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women, ‘Real beauty simply can’t be scored. It isn’t tamed, plucked, planned, pre-meditated or rehearsed. Real beauty is about resilience: girls and women who have been through something and come out on the other side.’
The beauty fairytale is most toxic for little girls. According to ‘the most depressing possible study about body image’ surveying nearly 400 English childcare workers, up to a third of pre-school-aged children consider themselves ‘fat’.
Beauty pageants are an intrinsic part of the language that underwrites women’s deepest self-loathing. Beautiful women are everywhere. On the bus. On your street, and hey, just in front of you. There’s even one in the mirror. With this kind of beauty, no tiaras are required.