Beauty is not a contest

by Rachel Bell on September 2, 2010

The resurgence of beauty pageants is not harmless fun argues Rachel Bell, nevermind ‘empowering’, but part of the wider culture of objectification that underpins women’s lesser status

Jessica Linley is 21 and a law student at Nottingham University. She has just been crowned Miss England 2010 and will represent England at Miss World in China next month. Many more female students like Jessica are queuing up to parade their bodies for judgement in the hope of being crowned like a Disney princess.

In 2010, Miss University pageants are being held at campuses from Leeds to London and Scotland. While beauty pageants including Miss Great Britain (on 4-7 November) and Miss World have rebranded themselves to make a comeback, British universitites are on the bandwagon. Forty years ago feminist activists succeeded in banning the Miss World Contest, raising awareness about its detrimental impact on gender equality. In 2010, feminists, struggling against men’s violence against women the world over, men’s increasing demand for women in the sex industry, the pay gap, the fact that 75% of those living in poverty are women and the poor representation of women in senior roles and governance, can’t quite believe they are protesting again.

It was in 2006 that 121 Entertainment, set up by a man, began hosting beauty pageants in the various University of London colleges, culminating in ‘Miss University of London’ last year. Mind the Gap: London Student Feminists reacted to the resurgence in beauty pageants in British universities with their Miss-ogynist campaign, supported by Object, London Feminist Network, SWP and NUS officers across the UK, including Women’s Officer Olivia Bailey. They revived a student feminist movement and joined forces to protest at Miss England 2009. But it’s not just beauty pageants. Sexist culture has spread across university campuses, from pole-dancing societies and clubs at York, Warwick and Cambridge to the FHM High Street Honeys Tour and Playboy Mansion parties at Loughborough. Then there was Miss Student Body in Edinburgh and Miss Student UK, with a website featuring female students in bikinis, underwear or dressed as Playboy bunnies. And let’s not forget the trend for calendars of female students posing in their underwear. But feminist activism across British universities is spreading too. Spreading across the country in fact. A quick look at UK Feminsta.org.uk shows new groups forming on a monthly basis. Objectification, part of the mainstreaming of the porn and sex industries, is one of the key motivators to this resurgence.

So why, in 2010, do so many young women want to enter beauty pageants? Many will tell you it’s empowering. Ah that word again. Empowering in much the same way as glamour modelling, pole-dancing, having your tits done, and if Billie Piper is to be believed, being a prostitute, is empowering. How sad that even some of the more privileged women at places of learning believe this is empowerment. Will beauty pageants bring women equal pay, stop men from beating and raping us or put more women on boards of directors or in parliament? No. But it will serve to feed the cycle of belief that if you’re a woman, you worth is based on your looks alone.

One winner will of course feel sexually validated for a short period of time, get a few freebies, photo-shoots or a trip abroad. Wherever we look, we’re told that it’s taking your kit off, the state of your body,that gets you ahead as a woman. That it’s the only way to get recognition. To get a hope of being listened to. All around them, girls can see how society rewards women who are hot, decorative and put sexual performance before their own pleasure. And because girls and women make their choices freely, they are beyond questioning. Empowerment is usually rolled out in the same sentence as choice. The women have chosen to do it, so what’s your problem? If women had equal pay, if equal value was placed on traditionally feminine jobs, if they didn’t face discrimination when they entered male dominated fields and levels of power, if men didn’t hold the lion’s share of political and economic power, if society was based around men and women sharing work and family rewards and responsibilities, if sexiness was not the most celebrated achievement for women, then, and only then, would these young women have REAL choices. People choose a diet of MacDonald’s and get obese. We accept that these are issues worth questioning. Feminists and those working to end men’s violence against women understand why the porn and sex industries have been so successful at entering the mainstream: they have co-opted the language of feminism and are selling women’s oppression back to us as empowerment. Stripping for a men’s mag is liberating, pole-dancing is empowering, cutting up your tits and ‘correcting’ your body will make you confident.

The assumption is that if you are a woman who opposes beauty pageants, gratuitous advertising, pornography, lap-dancing clubs on our high streets, objectification in all its forms, you are against sex. As Gail Dines points out in her book, Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, this shows how successful the porn and sex industries are at collapsing porn into sex. ‘Would the critics of the employment practices and products at McDonald’s be accused of being anti-eating?’ she asks.

In turn, the porn and sex industries have rebranded themselves for men. Instead of being a sleazy john, you can enter a ‘glamorous’ lap-dancing club and be a ‘respectable gentleman.’ Both sexes need to wake up and get with the program. The sex industry doesn’t care about making men or women sexier, or sexually satisfied. This is capitalism. It cares about profit.

Many feminists, including London Feminist Network and Object, see the resurgence of beauty pageants as indicative of a backlash against the fragile gains that feminism has won. Beauty pageants aren’t a trivial battle. They’re part of the culture of women’s objectification that is accepted because the women choose to take part. But studies have shown that even the mildest forms of objectification dehumanise women in the eyes of men, making callousness towards them much easier. Today, half of all girls and women will experience violence, much of it from the men they know. It’s time the government, and the mainstream, addressed the objectification of women as a serious issue that underpins, fuels and legitamises inequality between men and women, the exploitation of women and men’s violence against them. In the words of Object, ‘Rather then being empowering, beauty pageants are in fact disempowering because they reinforce the idea that women’s purpose is to look attractive or be hot, denying the full humanity of women.’

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