Saturday, December 20, 2014

A feminist rant

For a long time now, I've had a bone to pick with the multitudinous beauty pageants in the world and not just because I'm a vegetarian. The thought of judging a person's physical beauty that includes obvious parameters like clothes, sharpness of nose, length and thickness of lips and the ability to come up with ridiculous answers like "I want to be the next Mother Teresa," is convulsing. The desire to become the next Mother Teresa isn’t what’s ludicrous here, it’s the setting that forms an uninviting backdrop — a competition that ranks people based on what they look like and how much restraint they show when a cheese plate is set before them. The presenter is more often than not a tuxedo-clad man who is paid to ask vapid questions that beget answers of the same kind.

Sure, these contests have talent rounds and personal interviews to continually reiterate the fact that they build an ‘all-round development’ of the women who participate, but in reality the ‘all-round development’ the contestants receive is how to be fair (or white, whichever you prefer), how to parade around in skimpy bikinis and how to stay stick thin to win. Think about it. How many plus-sized beauty contest winners actually exist? For that matter, plus-sized contestants even? It’s a little obvious that these contests are just another way to objectify women and hand out prize money depending on how symmetrical their faces are. The essence of this is best captured by Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth where she writes that, “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 reason this topic deserves a tirade is because this week, the Miss World beauty pageant decided to drop the bikini round after 63 years of its existence. Its organiser Julia Morley told Elle magazine that she didn’t need to see women just walking up and down in bikinis, that, “it doesn’t do anything for the woman, and it doesn’t do anything for any of us.” Fair enough. Bikini rounds do nothing for the woman. Then again, when have these contests done anything for women? Of course, it’s a launch-pad for those wanting to get into movies, modelling and other ‘glamorous’ professions, but what does it do for young, impressionable women who are on the precipice of achieving something big and are looking for role-models? It only expects these women to achieve to look a certain way and put pressure on their bodies to have a certain shape — it encourages unhealthy notions of attractiveness. Beauty isn’t a personal thing. Your beauty doesn’t belong to you; it, in fact, belongs to advertisers, fashion houses, diet-food manufacturers, pharma companies, cosmetic companies who all come together to make the confident woman second-guess herself. It’s a patriarchal industry that pageants help thrive. The ones that win pageants go on to become movie stars, models and in turn help endorse redundant products and ideas that susceptible, adolescent women pick up on — that women and their bodies are mere commodities.

Today, feminism is standing at the crossroads but that didn’t stop 2014 from being its year — whether it was Malala Yousafzai being the youngest recipient of the Nobel peace prize, Emma Watson’s gamechanging speech at the UN, a number of women coming forward to accuse Bill Cosby of sexual assaults, Amal Alamuddin going for a trophy husband, the Rohtak sisters who gave a sound thrashing to their harassers… it’s now more than ever that we need feminism — to help us understand that beauty pageants are superficial, have undertones of racial bases and do have an impact of self-image. Because what is feminism but a movement to achieve the equality and full humanity of women and men (Gloria Steinem) and how are we going to do that, if we’re busy judging other women on how they look?

An edited version appeared in The Hindu, MetroPlus.

No comments: