Skin Deep

Published in The Kathmandu’s Op-Ed section on November 20, 2010.

Whilst ideally flicking through the television channels, a row of stunning women clad in red bikinis grinning through the television screen caused me to cease my channel hopping. No, it wasn’t Baywatch, but a beauty pageant that piqued my interest.

Been permanently attached to my laptop, I immediately googled the competition and found the contestants’ profiles. Strangely, none of the women were wearing glasses in their profile photographs and indeed all had perfect orthodontics, clear complexions and the majority looked as though they had scraped their makeup on with a building trowel. Sadly, there was not one ounce of misplaced fat on any of the women who grin out from the website for the ‘Beachwear’ publicity shoot. Even in the Sportswoman category, the photographs demonstrated the competitors wearing unnecessarily short shorts and revealing their flawless, tanned long legs rather than emphasizing their ability as sports people.

As a feminist, it is easy to condemn a competition that partly judges women on how well they model swimwear and where all the winners from their respective countries conform to an almost universal ideal of beauty. One feels that such contests are perpetuating an outdated system whereby women are judged primarily on their physical attributes. Many of the contestants are smart, educated and talented women but frustratingly this fact takes second place to the physical beauty of many participants. In this year’s competition, Miss England, for example, was studying Law and has aspirations of becoming a political correspondent. Miss Wales is the youngest ever Welsh speaking arctic explorer and Malta’s entry has a postgraduate qualification and works as a development researcher.

Many of the contestants had also undertaken considerable voluntary or fund-raising work. Indeed, the company that owns and manages the competitions, the Miss World Organisation, has raised more than US $250 million for children’s charities. I was moved to see the video for Miss Kenya, the winner of the Beauty with a Purpose award. She had volunteered her time to help educate and treat those affected by the terrible jigger worm epidemic. Miss El Salvador, another finalist, worked at building homes in rural villages.

Of course these women should be honoured for their humanitarian efforts and their hard work in their academic and professional lives. But in the age of supposed equality, do we really need a swimsuit competition to judge how substantial a woman is? And no, the Mr World competition (which pales in comparison to its big sister) doesn’t have a swimwear section. Although sadly it perpetuates a normative gendered ideal whereby man have to be strong and handsome (traditional masculine attributes) in order to be considered a ‘real man’.

Whilst watching the finalists wave to the cameras, I began thinking about the concept of the ‘beauty myth’, a term coined by feminist Naomi Wolf. Her theory, based on substantial research, recognises a relationship between female liberation and female beauty.

According to Wolf there exists a cultural backlash against women’s liberation that uses images of women in advertising and the media to keep women in subordinate positions. For her, it is the last (and most dangerous) of a long historical line of lies regarding feminine behaviour.

Why is it dangerous? Because it has succeeded in effecting women’s internal perceptions of themselves and has created a Euro-centric standard of beauty that is impossible to obtain. Women react with such obsessive behaviour in their attempts to measure up to the media propagated images of ‘beautiful’. The same women, unsurprisingly, that are the Miss World contestants. By doing so, Wolf asserts that the potential women have to attain other personal goals is eaten up and inverted as they worry unnecessarily about being too fat, too dark, too pale, too short or about their unique physical features.

If you glance at the statistics from girls in the UK who are literally starving themselves to death through anorexia through the anxiety to be like celebrities, or consider the sales figures from skin whitening creams in Nepal you can see the effects of the Beauty Myth. Whether its Hollywood or Bollywood, or in Hindi television serials or through pop stars, the heavily groomed, media controlled celebrities are constantly forced onto us as idealised role models. It is difficult to escape the trap of comparing yourself and can be an exhausting and depressing experience when you do realise you’ll never have Aishwarya Rai’s figure.

The rise of the beauty myth has an interesting history, controlled from the beginning by the advertising industry who sought to encourage women to participate in the UK war efforts during the 1940s. Firstly women were encouraged to assume roles outside the domestic sphere to support the war efforts. Then, after the Second World War ended in 1945, women were encouraged to return to their housewifely status. Adverting succeeded in the latter by making women insecure consumers of household products; an image of the happy, groomed 1950s housewife springs into mind.

After the second wave of UK feminism in the 1960s, high fashion magazine, Vogue, began to focus on body image due to the fact there was little more they could do creatively with anarchic styles. As a result, women’s natural states were elevated to the existential female dilemma. The focus was no longer on clothes, but on the body.

Today in Britain, we are hit in all directions with images of ‘perfect’ women. Throughout history, the most beautiful women are widely considered (cross-culturally) to be relatively young, with smooth skin, well-proportioned bodies (generally the hourglass figure) and with regular (symmetric) features. In the media today, we are bombarded with these Amazonian women, who rarely look older than 25, have no visible flaws on their skin (mainly due to airbrushing) and weigh at least 20 percent less than what their height requires. Whether Caucasian, Asian or African, essentially these ‘beautiful’ women all look the same.

Depressingly, the same is true in Nepal and India. Gorgeous Bollywood ‘babes’ are everywhere, whether in the films we watch, the television serials in our homes, advertising the soap or shampoo we use. We can’t escape them. They’re effectively the Asian equivalent to their Caucasian sisters: tall, groomed, slim and flawless.

A competition where a woman’s talents, achievements and sheer hard work are qualified by their physical appearance (and a homogeneous, nearly impossible to attain ideal of beauty) is dangerous. UK writer and feminist Germaine Greer asserts: “Every woman knows, regardless of her other achievements, she is a failure is she is not beautiful…” This certainly rings true for the Miss World competitions.

Miss Puerto Rico (winner of the Miss World Beach Beauty award 2010) argues that the competition “is not just about physical beauty but also beauty of the mind and personal development”.

This may be true, but is it really the message to be sending out to our younger sisters and daughters? That despite the talents and achievements of innumerable women across the world, only the ones considered ‘beautiful’ and that look good in a swimsuit could ever participate in such a competition.


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