Posted by Soja Subhagar
How far has our internalised colonialism dissociated us from authentic living that we found ourselves bringing our hands together to applaud or lightly thud our thumb twice on the image until a heart appeared?
This image of a judge’s question at the Miss Universe 2021 pageant gives an unsettling feeling that teases one’s critical consciousness. It was liked by thousands, including multiple feminist activists. It is indeed understandable that the internal conflict this triggers is rather confusing because aptly glorified anti-racist wokeness has the magical power to instantly blurr away the reality of glaring misogyny.
It is shocking that an industry that explicitly capitalises on women’s objectification and sexualisation, male gaze and gender roles could be so self-delusional about their virtue. It is pop-culture approved misogyny’s PR coup dangling a carrot of anti-racist allyship. This reminds us how tired we are to have bought into the culture of pseudo comfort. It makes us wonder as to when exactly was our cognitive development stunted by generationally inherited racial trauma and the lived reality of the White supremacist Eurocentric socialisation.
Sexism and racism work together and intersectionally with the shared core malice — the legitimisation and justification of oppression and dehumanisation of a section of people for them to be exploited for surplus labour to feed the beast of capitalism. Women’s free emotional and physical labour, within and outside of households justified by patriarchy on the one hand; continued but disguised reproduction of servitude that started with slavery and colonialism, legitimised by racial inferiority on the other.
The beneficiaries of sexism and racism have the same ancestry and the same historical apathy but they wear different masks. These masks not only refute accountability and feign innocence but also deny their camaraderie, both promising allyship and misappropriating social justice movements against each other. The irony of it is lost in our distorted reality that is systematically manipulated using language, culture, education, art, artists, celebrity status, personal capital and everything we voluntarily and involuntarily consume. Our humanity is exploited, denied, stolen and sold back to us wrapped as charity: a testimony to the audacity of White supremacy in undermining the world’s common sense. This demand for our gratitude and respect, legitimised with a cover of ‘philanthropy’, must not be bought into without enquiry.
In a way, beauty pageants are representative of the society’s functioning at large. Educated and kind women, pitted against each other to compete on matters that do not matter to them, nor to the world — the size of their waist, the curve of their smile, the firmness of their buttcheeks, the swing of their walk deciding their destiny. They also need to be tall — almost intimidatingly, so the heteropatriarchal conquest becomes a joyful ego boost for the very masculine industry that gets to examine and determine the women’s worth.
Only the ones with the most commodifiable figuration can climb high enough to have an opportunity for their intelligence to be seen, thoughts to be heard and eloquence to be tested, followed by the chosen one who embodies the most idealised form of femininity earning a crown that she’d have to eventually return. The men go home with the profit made from ticketing and broadcasting the women’s well-proportioned bodies and perfect smiles to the rest of the world that is already conditioned, colonised and trained to follow the White male gaze. Little girls watching the show aspire to become that very ideal. Girls learn the impossibility of naturally meeting those beauty standards and resort to self loathing.
Worry not. Just before they submit to defeat or venture out to a journey of healing and self-acceptance, men in business render those beauty standards an achievable reality for those willing to part with the necessary resources. Weight loss products, skin lightening treatments and surgeries are available in the market. Men go home with more profit. The goalpost will keep shifting as the world continues to fetishise and appropriate racialised beauty ideals. Worry not. Improved products and surgeries will follow in the market.
PT Barnum, inspired by his success with beauty pageants for dogs and flowers, staged the first beauty pageant for women in 1854. The women’s beauty pageant is a deeply political public expression and performance of gender, gendered behaviour and patriarchal stereotypes about aestheticised femininity- an aesthetic historically designed and approved by obnoxious White men for the pleasure of White men who are the global gatekeepers of patriarchal domination since colonialism. A modern recreation of a young woman’s public debut, the ritual that formally introduces her to the society ‘when she comes of age’.
Racial diversification is a conscience laundering technique used by contemporary capitalist structures, including the women’s beauty pageant industry. This divine intervention of glamourised aid is more cringeworthy than White saviour complex since the selection committee and participants are blackwashed and brownwashed although the core values do not stray away from White supremacy.
How about the contestants’ agency to be willfully objectified? An individual’s sense of self-determination and agency can be perceived to be endangered when their decisions are resulting in outcomes that are detrimental to their own physical and/or mental well-being. According to studies conducted by the Coastal Carolina University in 2017, on women who have previously participated in beauty pageants, 26% suffer from eating disorders, 85.7% struggle with body image preoccupation and dissatisfaction and 5.5% weigh less than 85% of their ideal weight.
The report also details women having interpersonal distrust due to their constant experience of social comparison, anger and struggles with impulse due to externalised self-esteem issues and depression due to internalised anger. This ranking and rewarding of women’s conformity to patriarchal ideals at the expense of their physical and mental health is abusive. The influence of these women on girls and young women who idealise this is gender violence.
Similar to how colonialism was and still is legitimised and sanitised with the cover of civilising missionary activity, this dehumanisation of women is publicised as a racially diverse celebration of womanhood. The victim is then branded as a bearer of justice who is to seek redemption and defend the honour of the oppressive industry. A promise to shape global social policy with a mythical mobility of impact and zero legitimacy, their ‘woke racism’- reducing activism, revolution and humanitarianism to a barely convincing, rather shabby performance. It is also important to remind ourselves that we are not to be blamed for the momentary blindness incited by the window dressing of diversity and representation because breadcrumbing could seem like a feast to the starved.
Patriarchy is rooted in White supremacist Eurocentric values. A pop-culture sanctioned practice that measures, weighs and tags the female body based on deeply patriarchal ideologies attempting to tokenise anti-racist allyship is nothing but a cheap insult to our consciousness.
1. Beauty is as beauty does: Body image and self-esteem of pageant contestants by S.H. Thompson, and K. Hammond, 2003
2. Sexual Objectification of Female Bodies in Beauty Pageants, Pornography, and Media by Kelsey Wright, 2017
3. ‘I just want to be me again!’: Beauty pageants, reality television and post-feminism 4. Sarah Banet-Weiser, Laura Portwood-Stacer, 2006
4. Pageantry to Pornography: Gazing at and Selling Female Bodies by Kelsey Wright, 2017 6. The Global Beauty Industry-Colorism, Racism, and the National Body By Meeta Rani Jha, 2015
5. Homelysexuality and the ‘Beauty’ Pageant by Fintan Walsh, 2009
Soja Subhagar is a Berlin-based activist, writer, and critical theorist; currently pursuing a Master’s in education, gender and international development at University College London. She’s also the founder of Women of Different Worlds and Kerala Soul Food in Berlin. You can find her on Instagram.