Beauty pageants given ugly send-off

CLEM BARSTOW
Last updated 16:07 09/09/2013
miss world
Ed Wray

Members of the conservative islamic group, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI as it is known in Indonesia) protest against the Miss World competition in Indonesia.

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Sometimes a "controversy" comes along that seems so fated to have been a complete circus from the word go that you wonder why anybody involved is surprised at what has unfolded.

This week's (year's?) winners of the What Did You Expect? trophy has to be the organisers of the Miss World pageant, who seemed flummoxed by the fact that their attempt to hold the parade of babes in Jakarta was met with outrage and protests from many hard-line Muslims.

Hundreds of protesters, a large number of them women, set upon the headquarters of the local organisers, MNC, waving banners that read "Reject Miss World" and "Go To Hell Miss World", and burning effigies of the contest's organisers. News that the "beachwear" segment would feature traditional sarongs instead of bikinis did not soothe the growing protests.

"I think there is a misunderstanding, I assure that there will be nothing that runs against our culture. I would not accept if there was a bikini show," Hary Tanoesoedibjo, head of MNC, said before the entire contest was moved to Bali (a locale that has a lower hard-line Islamic presence and is, arguably, not unfamiliar with people in swimsuits).

Inevitably, certain corners of the media attempted to play a witless game of oppression olympics with the news ("Bikinis are more oppressive than hijabs!" "No, Muslim women are more oppressed than beauty queens!!" "All you bastards ruined Christmas!"), as though women's liberation and/or oppression is a strict binary in which there are only two options: everyone get their rack out, or everyone cover up from head to toe.

Some commentators even tried to spin the fact that the contestants would be wearing sarongs as some sort of blow to feminism. Witness the point flying past Dr Brooke Magnanti in The Telegraph: "Personally, I'd love to see bikinis on more women, not fewer. We are so often ashamed of our bodies and think going for a dip on a hot summer's day is something that need to be dieted and exercised for, as if the enjoyment of cooling off is only for the thin and the young. Why not be comfortable and stylish if a bikini's what you fancy?"

Nobody's talking about bikinis on everyday women, Dr Magnanti, and it doesn't need to be said that any person should feel free to display their body whichever way they choose. However, the idea that exposing the body is a handy conduit to liberation is a tiresome one.

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Mainstream feminism's long-held notion that all Muslim women are oppressed and require saving remains a thorn in the side of its more positive work. Look to the "surprising" news that bare-breasted anti-Islam group FEMEN, celebrated by many white feminists as righteous warriors for equality, was masterminded by a man who "hand-picked the prettiest girls because the prettiest girls sell more papers" for a recent bloodcurdling example.

(Additionally, coverage painting the protests - that were peaceful - as some sort of example of aggressive Islamic rhetoric, or suggesting that clerics must have forced those poor women to protest, does a grave disservice to the agency of the women who chose to, as their signs read, reject Miss World and embrace Islam.)

Members of various hardline Islamic groups burn an effigy of Hary Tanoesoedibjo, the CEO of the host broadcaster fo the Miss world competition during a demonstration in front of the location of the local host broadcasters of Miss World on September 6, 2013 in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo: Ed Wray

I have no beef with the women who enter pageants; they are just as free to wear bedazzled swimsuits as other women should be to wear the burqa, hijab or niqab. Rather, I wonder - time and time again - why the pageants themselves still exist. 

Despite the fact that Miss World, by its very name, claims to be a celebration of global beauty (to say nothing of Miss Universe's interstellar aspirations), these high-profile pageants present a very Westernised ideal of beauty; there may be entrants who don't quite fit the narrow spectrum of what is dictated as beautiful - perhaps they are tall, thin and big busted and/but dark-skinned - but they rarely win. What does that say to young girls who happen to watch these pageants on TV (as they are regular prime-time fodder) whose bodies and skin colours are unlikely to mature into pageant-fodder?

And why aren't we angrier about that?

- Daily Life

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