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Nerves were running high at the 2016 Miss Universe pageant on Sunday 29th January. In the end the stunning brunette from France, Iris Mittenaere, clinched the crown. Her image is now sizzling off straight to the major news channels. Some people could not care less, but it is certainly big news for people whose obsession with it is veering towards fanaticism.
Long before they became widely popular, beauty pageants were already a staple of the medieval Europe, where English May Day festival would include the selection of a May Queen – a girl is chosen to walk at the front of a parade, for supposedly being the most beautiful. Since then, we have so many international beauty pageants like Miss World and Miss Universe, and others. Over the years, few things have changed but one thing remains constant: the ‘winning look’ should match the international blueprint for beauty – sassy, glamorous and worked-out.
While there are many women suffering with issues on body image and self-esteem due to exposure to thin-ideal images, these pageants parade women with smooth, spectacular, skinny bodies. Ironically, it comes as no surprise that more than a quarter of women who joined beauty pageants are found to be likely suffering from an eating disorder. The 2008 Miss America, Kirsten Haglund, is a recovering anorexic who showed early signs of the disease at 12. And more recently, Alicia Machado revealed of her eating disorder: ‘I was sick; anorexia and bulimia for five years,’ adding that at 18, her personality wasn’t built up yet.
As sad as this is, child beauty pageants are even worse. For instance, former child beauty queen Nicole Hunter, who competed in pageants at 14, recounts how her early sexualisation, brought about by dressing and acting like a woman, compelled her to prematurely tackle her sexuality, which, in turn devalued her self-esteem. And just like Kirsten and Alicia, she too has struggled with anorexia nervosa, since turning her back from the pageant limelight.
In the struggle against women equality, beauty pageants are juxtaposed to perpetuate the notion that a person’s worth is almost solely based on appearance, and also objectify women in a way that is straight out of the 1900s. This is in stark contrast to some organisations, who are actively advancing our notions of female pulchritude, by embracing real women in conjunction with their flaws. The New York Fashion Week smashed the stereotype of what a model ought to be when Carrie Hammer showcased her designs on women of different weight, heights, and ethnicities. She made history by bringing to the ramp for the first time a model in a wheelchair, Danielle Sheypuk, and Jamie Brewer, the first-ever model with Down syndrome.
It’s no secret that there’s a beast among the beauties. Garnering seven Miss Universes, seven Miss Internationals and six Miss Worlds, Venezuela is billed as the world’s beauty pageant powerhouse, but the nation’s pageant crowns come at a high price. In 2014, BBC unpacked desperate measures beauty pageant hopefuls would resort to in a bid to win the country’s most coveted beauty pageant. Daily Mail once reported that parents even inject their daughters with hormones to stall puberty and make them grow taller.
Margaret Wolfe Hungerford felicitously puts it: beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Young women behold what they consider beauty is, and many would draw this idea from seeing these women being glamorised at beauty pageants. This may sound cynical, but we’ve heard all this before: these competitions deprive women of truly believing in themselves and in the process influence their thinking of what is truly beautiful. What others think is beautiful is not essentially what everyone else thinks is beautiful.
I could go on at a greater length about the absurdities of beauty pageants, but I think I’ve already made my point: Women (or even men) are so much more than their appearance; they have brains and personalities.
Of course, I give my hearty congratulations and best wishes to Iris Mittenaere, for winning the Miss Universe 2016, but I wonder if she would inspire people more if we were to see her name on BBC’s 100 Women?
Dennis Relojo-Howell is the founder of Psychreg. He writes for the American Psychological Association and has a weekly column for Free Malaysia Today.
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