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A platform for representing feminity branded as empowerment and freedom

With a wide smile, sparkling eyes and a well-rehearsed demeanour, 21-year-old Harnaaz Sandhu wore the crown of Miss Universe recently. Millions of Indians celebrated the victory on social media, others were grumpy and made fun of her speculated future- a Bollywood starlet dancing around the trees. The moment provided a trigger for certain discussions to emerge from hibernation. A reputed English language newspaper and a very famous fashion magazine carried articles where women writers stated that in today’s day and time, beauty pageants have lost relevance. The writers argued that these competitions uphold unrealistic standards of beauty and are unrelated to the physical diversity of women’s bodies. It is not possible to disagree with these critical voices and the underlying concerns of these arguments point to some very pertinent questions around the conceptualizations of beauty and contests. However, this criticism is somewhat traditional and its roots are traced back to the vigorous feminist protests organised against Miss America contest in 1968 followed by the Miss World competition in London in 1970.

Despite all the condemnation over the years, the unprecedented reach of satellite TV during the 1990s allowed beauty pageants to become a rage around the world. They became the sparkling and flawed dreamworlds of an emerging neo-liberal socio-economic order combining the complex cultural categories of women’s bodies, nation, identity, multinational business interests and the expanding power of media. But to portray women as the mere victims of economic structures is to practically render them as powerless beings without an agency to negotiate self and identity. Why do young women from various parts of the world participate in these contests? What are their intentions, motivations and what significance does it hold in the larger social context of their lives? These are some of the questions that might help in engaging and generating a more meaningful gendered conversation around these contests as trashing them won’t explain the multifaceted politics of beauty and how young women negotiate the mediatised world of these contests.

Beauty and body politics

The troubling ideas of body and oppressive patriarchal standards form one of the significant debates in feminist deliberations since the 1960s. Beauty pageants are generally seen as spaces of power and control over the female body but the politics is not only about freeing women from the shackles of commoditization, we need to pay attention to how these socio-political stages are used by the contestants and the representational politics is played out. For instance, in her answer to the final question during Miss Universe 2021, Harnaaz Sandhu said, “The biggest pressure the youth of today is facing, is to believe in themselves. To know that you are unique makes you beautiful. Stop comparing yourselves with others and let’s talk about more important things that are happening worldwide…I believed in myself and that is why I am standing here today”. In a very brief answer of 30 seconds, Sandhu expressed her thoughts as a young Indian woman born in a village near Punjab, brought up in the city of Chandigarh who was privileged enough to be born as a girl in India, who could dream of becoming a fashion model within the patriarchal family set-up and whose story cannot be explained only as a privileged middle-class victim of the neoliberal economic structures. We need to analyse how participating in these contests entails emotional and aesthetic labour and why women are willing to walk that path.

One of the interesting examples is the more than eight decades old Miss England competition. Starting in 1928, this contest attracted 20,000 applicants for the 2019 edition. In this age of instant viral popularity possible through social media platforms such as Instagram or Twitter where a well-designed feed could garner millions of followers and paid partnerships, what do women want to achieve through this particular platform? One of the finalists of the 2019 edition was Aysha Khan who was hailed for wearing a wetsuit over a bikini in an optional swimwear round, had some clear intentions of participating in the contest. Khan stated in her interviews that British Muslim girls do not come on these platforms and that her religious faith doesn’t allow her to roam around in a bikini but she managed to participate on her own terms. Her presence on the platform was meant to inspire the younger generation of British-Muslim women by sending a message that one does not need to compromise one’s identity. Although the winner of the competition was India-born Bhasha Mukherjee who decided to take part in the contest with two medical degrees and a job in her hand. Bhasha was well aware of the fact that she is breaking the stereotypical compartmentalization of beauty and brain, something that started long back with India’s first Miss World Reita Faria who herself became a physician. Whether it is Faria, Khan or Mukherjee, contestants negotiate the questions of gender, community, religion and stereotypes while aspiring to win on these stages. They labour in specific ways to manage and represent themselves to achieve desired impact and results.

The labour of beauty

Since the 1990s, postfeminist discussions stress a different kind of gendered conversation around neoliberal cultural conjuncture. Postfeminists advocate the lens of choice, pleasure, agency and autonomy and apply the categories of labour especially aesthetic labour in understanding the politics of beauty. In the realm of beauty, the body is the object of female labour which is produced, presented and branded through entrepreneurial efforts. Through the projections of self-care, self-awareness and social responsibility, women attempt to reinvent feminine avatars away from the traditional sacrificing figures of mothers and wives. The platform is recognised by the contestants as a place for constructing and representing feminity that can be branded as empowerment and freedom. It is the crucial aspect of aesthetic and emotional labour where the body on stage becomes a symbol of desire and the socio-economic realities attached to the contestant’s origin.

The massive efforts that involve perfecting specific ideals of walking, talking, laughing and managing selfhood, may look meaningless to an outsider but within the economy of beauty, these are the rules of self-production. In this economy of constant self-production and self-management, the body is the key site of transformation and transactional value. The contestants are not passive actors, their participation is based on certain decisions and the pressures of complying with certain beauty standards moves into the subjective realm of self negotiations in mass-mediated visual spectacles of competition. Created with high production values, the hypervisible reality show involving young women claiming to embrace their identity is potentially impactful on millions of women watching from diverse spaces of their own circumstances.

(The writer is doing research on Hindi cinema at the University of Westminster, London and writes on contemporary topics)