The Misses and Missuses of the World

I was actually out of the country last weekend that I missed the opening gala of the annual Miss World pageant in Bali. But just like most Indonesians, I hardly missed the controversies.

Long before Miss World contestants finished packing for Indonesia, religious hardliners had started protesting. Known for swinging batons while running amok, they basically would look and sound just like regular thugs once you stripped off those religious symbols they cheaply used. Never was known for supporting equality for women and minorities, this time the hardliners waged their street rallies to defend women’s modesty from being paraded down under the spotlight.

Criticisms sans violent threats also came from women’s rights’ activists. Long advocating for gender equality, the activists are concerned that not only pageant contestants are judged more by their beauty more than their brain, the beauty standard are based on hetero male’s perspectives.

Basically, both parties accuse Miss World pageant as a glorified meat market, the fact that Miss World committee toned down bikini contest into swimwear covered in Balinese sarong notwithstanding.

The same argument was supposedly the same reason why Indonesia was absent from any international beauty pageants before the 1998 reformasi. Rumor had it that First Lady of the New Order, the late Madam Tien Soeharto, vehemently opposed Indonesian ladies sashaying down in swimwear for the world to see. Hence for years Putri Indonesia winner, whose committee is affiliated to the Miss Universe Organization, attended the pageants merely to observe.

That all has changed since the pivotal reformasi. Not only Indonesian women have competed in various international pageants, Artika Sari Devi actually made it to the Top 5 the year she ran for Miss Universe, albeit in a poorly-designed evening gown, and in 2008 Putri Raemawasti became the first Indonesian to don a 2-piece swimsuit on the same pageant.

Historically, the beauty pageants have come quite a long way. The UK-based Miss World is the longest running international pageant compared to the other Big Four—the US-based Miss Universe and Miss International, and the United Nations Environment Programme affiliated Miss Earth. For the exception of Miss Earth which was created in 2001, the others dated back to the 1950-1960, where women’s roles were starkly different than today. To their credit, the pageants have somewhat evolved along—the final questions have started to address social issues while contestants have come with various college degrees and more skill sets, no longer duly citing “world peace” as a life goal as movie Miss Congeniality sarcastically portrayed. But yes, the contestants would still sashay down in evening gowns and swimsuits, even on the environmentally-focused Miss Earth pageant.

So, will beauty pageants foster the notion that women will forever be judged entirely by their physique? I think as long as women still have bodily curves and soft facial features, that admittedly are more eye-pleasing than men’s rigid posture, both men and women will always pay attention to a woman’s physical attributes. Will these pageants foster a certain type of beauty standard? Interestingly, if there’s a standard favored it’s not the blue-eyed-blondes; stats shown Brazil and Venezuela are the only countries to have won all, and most of, Big Four pageants, with Asian and Afican contestants started receiving more nods.

The difference between the yesteryear is that now we know better, that it’s not the extent of reward and recognition available for women. Worldwide now we fiercely, and often legally, support women on fields that have absolutely nothing to do with their appearance.

When Julia Gillard became Australia’s first female PM in June 2007 and thus marked the rise of female nation leaders in all continents, 68-year-old Harvard-trained economist Ellen John Sirleaf had assumed office as President-elect in Liberia for 1.5 years. The fact that Sirleaf is a grandmother while Gillard is a childless atheist didn’t seem to matter to their respective constituents. Even we did elect Megawati Sukarnoputri, however imperfect and impetuous she turned out to be, into our Presidential office in recent years. Beyond politics, women worldwide have broken ceiling of various fields, including military, sports and organized religions—long heralded as male’s domains. Women are evidently far from pushing the last frontier but I personally feel that I now have robustly diversified female role models to offer to my nieces and future daughters beyond all the beauty pageant girls out there.

If anything, increasingly maturing child beauty pageants that I’m more worried about, 3-9 year-olds in tiaras, fishnet stockings and padded mini-bras, as People magazine reported in September 2011. Those tykes have no business being prodded and paraded like miniature adults as if that is the only ticket to become accomplished real adults.

In contrast to her peers, a well-respected feminist tweeted open support for contestants who she saw entering pageants under their own free will. Rightfully, these women did. I clearly have neither scholarly feminism knowledge nor women’s rights advocacy experience, yet I wonder– if women shouldn’t be deemed rape-worthy based on their chosen wardrobe, shouldn’t women be labeled lowly dumb specimen for choosing to run in beauty pageants, much less by fellow women?

And that’s the question we misses and missus of the world will still wrestle with long after this year’s Miss World closing gala is finally decided between Bogor and Bali, and after the newly-minted Miss World pass her crown to the next winner next year, possibly in a less controversy-ridden country.

As published:

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