For me, nothing so decisively marks our ascension into a new, more enlightened era than when I look back on a piece of our shared cultural history and wonder: ‘why did we ever think that was okay?’
And so it is with the long-standing tradition of placing scantily clad woman in public situations, purely for decorative purposes. In the age of #MeToo, skimpy outfits for waitresses at private events have been furiously opposed, and grid girls at Formula One dispensed with. Now, the latest institution to be flung out for debate is: beauty pageants.
While some pageants have attempted to reinvent themselves, there has also been an inevitable backlash. Organisers and contestants alike have argued that the women involved go into pageanting with their eyes wide open, often using the money and skills they acquire to help them reach other life goals. The most defiant protest has come from Miss Great Britain. In response to the news that its US counterpart had bowed to pressure and removed the swimwear segment from the event, Miss GB issued a statement explaining that it would not follow suit, claiming this was where contestants felt most ‘empowered and focused’.
If I’m honest, I welcomed this decision. It’s not that I particularly like beauty pageants or what they represent; more that it’s irritating when organisers try to pretend they’re radical feminists because they’ve given a few arbitrary considerations to whether contestants have a degree, or can play the banjo. In making the decision to keep the swimwear section, the people behind Miss Great Britain have been honest enough to admit their event will continue to honour the purpose for which beauty pageants were so transparently created, i.e. the opportunity for an almighty perv.
Nothing makes me roll my eyes harder than when pageants try to imply it’s merely a coincidence that their contestants all exclusively conform to a narrow paradigm of physical beauty. To say ‘oh! Are they all young, slim, able-bodied and adhering to Eurocentric, Caucasian beauty ideals? I hadn’t noticed! I was too busy thinking about their world peace agenda!’ is laughable.
Furthermore, arguments about supporting a woman’s ‘choice’ are, in this context, a red herring. The women involved are lovely, normal human beings and, of course, they will argue that it was their decision to partake. Yet the fact remains that ‘choice’ is a dubious concept, especially when the demands of society mean that only 1% of women fleetingly have the genetic attributes necessary to allow them to partake, disproportionately rewarding them for their performances as Patriarchy Princesses.
Let me be clear – I absolutely do not judge these individual women and I can understand why pageanting is an attractive option for them. Yet I reserve the right to question what the continued existence of these events says about our culture.
For me, the most damaging aspect of these competitions is the way they perpetuate the notion that there is an ‘ultimate’ blueprint of womanhood. When I go into schools to talk about body image, young women often tell me, contrary to popular belief, that it isn’t Instagram models or fashion magazines that cause them the most anxiety, but comparing themselves to their friends. Of course, if the media didn’t push ever-narrower beauty demands we might remove this compulsion to compare, but so would challenging the idea that women must constantly out-do one another.
Having said that, not all pageants, or indeed public displays of nudity, have a negative impact. Take Germaine Greer’s recent pop at Beyoncé, during which she asked ‘why has she always got to be naked?’ Like Madonna before her, Beyoncé was expected to encapsulate a ‘safe’, passive kind of sexual titillation, yet she eschewed this in favour of boundary-pushing, empowerment and taking control of the way her sexuality was perceived. Beyoncé’s magnificent, power-stanced, politically-engaged stage performances are a million miles away from the rows of identikit women you see standing in pageants with their chests thrust out, their stomachs sucked in and their legs meekly crossed, waiting to receive a tiara and a bouquet of flowers at pageants.
As far as the role nudity has to play in body positivity, the formula is: The less your body emulates universal beauty standards, the more your showing off of it represents a gesture of activism. That’s why plus size pageants, or Ru Paul’s Drag Race, or indeed the body positivity flashmob I hosted in Soho a few weeks ago (where woman aged 18-60, sized 8-26, with both visible and invisible disabilities marched down Carnaby Street in bikinis), whilst not entirely immune to criticism, cannot be compared to a standard beauty pageant.
Of course, there is room for all women in our perception of what it means to be beautiful, and that includes pageant participants and those who look like them. Yet, crucially, they must be part of a diverse spectrum.
And it is that word – ‘diversity’ – that most shows how archaic beauty pageants have become. On Instagram, the #BoPo movement is massive – a search for plus size model Tess Holliday’s hashtag #EffYourBeautyStandards reveals more than three million posts. Megan Jaybe Crabbe, otherwise known as bodyposipanda, has a million followers. Chidera Eggerue (aka The Slumflower)’s #saggyboobsmatter campaign has hit the headlines with gusto. Woman of colour, women with disabilities, queer women, trans women, women who are ‘unacceptably’ large or small and have historically been made to feel ashamed of their physical forms, are being celebrated and admired online. In this context, it seems clear that Miss Great Britain should be consigned to history – whether or not it chooses to include a swimwear section.