Last week’s Point of View on BBC Radio 4 heard "Writer and academic Mary Beard ponder why - unlike her teenage days as a radical feminist - the whole occasion [Miss World] doesn't fill me with fury." Well I couldn’t help but ask the same question. Why doesn’t it? I didn’t hear the piece but on reading it was utterly perplexed as to some of the contradictions posed in this Point of View. But perhaps more importantly, I felt extremely concerned by the fact that a woman who calls herself a feminist, indeed many women who do so, feel somehow that the job is done and worse, that by embracing beauty contests they are somehow more liberal than ever, conveniently ignoring the fact that women’s bodies are not their own and as such, feminism has a great deal of work to do indeed.
Beard explores her lack of anger at the whole Miss World affair by observing that the women on screen were what she considers to be a "relatively healthy, normal size." And that "they were a bit aggressively hour-glass in shape, it’s true, but at least most of them appeared to be hovering around the size 10 - or even size 12 - mark"
Well, that’s ok then isn’t it? As long as they’re not, as she says, "impossibly thin, size-zero, anorexic fashion-model(s)" Who cares? Who cares if young women (girls in many cases) spend their lives desperately aspiring to fit a certain mould. Squeezing and sucking and shaping their bodies every which way possible in a life long struggle to fit the current image of what they should be, whether that image is straight or curvy. Whether women are expected to be size zero or size twenty is beside the point. It is the expectation itself. It really isn’t about what size or shape they are, it’s about why they’re that size or shape and the fact that far too many people across society and society itself, seem to have more of a stake in women’s bodies than women themselves. Stating that this year’s Miss World contestants are all what one person might consider healthy does not deter from the experience of those women in striving to be a particular size nor from the societal pressure to be so or their own internal experiences and obsession with body image that ultimately takes them to Miss World where they are scrutinized by no less than a reported one billion people.
In addition to Beard’s but they’re all nice-and-curvy now argument, it’s a very popular line of support for such competitions that "it’s their choice". Clara Belle, Miss Durham 2011, outlines this notion of choice in her Guardian article dangerously entitled Miss World and women’s rights go hand in hand. As does former Miss England contestant Laura Coleman (who went to Miss World) when she says:
"Appreciating beauty should not cause anger. Women enter beauty pageants at their own will, they are not forced into it….I don't understand why feminists think it is degrading, as pageants are actually empowering women. Pageants give the girls confidence and give them opportunities they may not otherwise have had, and I can speak from experience."
Well yes it is a choice in so much as it was a choice I made to have a haircut, and it’s a choice women make every day when they wake and spend hours straightening their hair and carefully applying make up. Or like it’s a choice a woman makes to fake tan her legs before she ‘gets them out’ for the summer and the choice women make when we take tweezers, hot wax and blades to parts of our bodies that really ought not to have to endure such torture. Yep, it’s her choice. Their choice. Our choice. But of course we know that it’s not, we know that we have no more choice in these matters than we do in the question of whether we wear clothes at all. I’m not berating women for wanting to look attractive and feel good and indeed many women will see these acts as genuine choices. And I understand. I like to think that as a conscientious woman I make my own choices every day about the way I live my life including what I wear and how I look. But the reality is that I can never be entirely sure how many of these choices I make, or how many behaviours I display are actually down to the culture in which I was born and raised having an inescapable hold on me.
But ok, for the sake of argument, let’s say it is a choice and each year more than a hundred ‘healthy, normally sized’ girls and young women take to the Miss world stage to partake in healthy competition that showcase their talents, their intelligence and their genuine desire to do something meaningful in the world. They are all great friends, the camaraderie is admirable and they all leave to go back to their life studying law, setting up a school or advocating poverty reduction. I’m afraid this simply isn’t the case.
I worked for Miss World as a chaperone and interpreter, traveling for two six week periods in which I spent every waking hour with the contestants. They were 12 of the most grueling, distressing, stressful, eye-opening weeks I’ve ever experienced. But they were 12 invaluable weeks that gave me a rare insight into the lives of these young women and ultimately enabled me to form a fairly comprehensive understanding of the competition’s nature, the contestants’ motivations, their opinions of themselves and the immense pressure they are under from every direction to fit a certain image.
I spent an average of 19 hours a day for weeks with these strong, independent, intelligent women simply making a choice to show it and have it recognised. They weren’t allowed to use the loo without my (or another chaperone/interpreters) accompanying them. Between 5am and midnight they went nowhere alone, which was as humiliating for them as it was awkward and stressful for me. But it enabled me to see a truth behind the facade of choice, freedom, confidence and empowerment. Sure for the first couple of weeks everyone seems to be getting on just fine and there really was a sense of camaraderie and there was a great deal of fun to be had for all of them, despite the fact that they had to parade up and down cat walks on demand, in six inch heels that made their feet bleed. (Several heel related accidents saw several contestants in hospital and one in a wheelchair for the majority of the competition). Despite being given thirty minutes notice for getting ready for a black tie dinner in which they were to ‘look their best’ (quite a demand for a beauty queen and no thirty minute task). Despite the fact that they had to eat night after night at the side of any number of (always male) ambassadors, TV personalities, sporting stars, hotel owners, and other business men in a shameless pimping for the sake of the precious profiles of the hyper rich. But yes despite all that, mostly, to begin with, they were young women having the time of their lives. Many of them had never left their countries before and here they were touring a country with police escorts, staying in 5, 6 and 7 star hotels, living a life of luxury and catching an addictive glimpse of fame. The possibility of winning and continuing such a life is not conducive to camaraderie and more significantly, it is not conducive to good physical and mental health. You may have a seamstress on hand, you may sip cocktails on the roof of the Yas, you may be helicoptered to the top of a hill where a 19th hole worth with a million dollar prize awaits, you may cuddle baby lions and ride in chauffeur driven cars but you’re damn well gonna look the part young lady. Whatever it takes.
As the weeks went on and the final drew closer the appetites of the contestants grew smaller. In truth, many of them did not eat from the beginning. Or ate as little as they could survive on. In the final weeks I lost count of the number of contestants that passed out under the physical pressure of intense sporting activities, talent rehearsals and an excruciatingly packed schedule. I was working to the same schedule remember, it was grueling. But I ate. They didn’t. They dropped. Dehydrated ("water makes you look bloated and can add a dress size"), exhausted (anybody who complained could risk losing a place in the final) and hungry ("chubby girls don’t look good in swimsuits"). In addition the pressure of the competition itself in combination with many of the insecurities that these girls and young women carry with them throughout their lives took its toll and I nursed no less than three competitors through full blown anxiety attacks. One that lasted through the entire night and another the entire 10 hour flight home. They had no idea that’s what they even were. For anyone that has experienced anxiety on this level you will know that before you have an understanding of what is happening, you think you are dying. They thought they were dying. Some choice. A large portion of the girls were told prior to entering that the swimwear competition was optional. It was not. There were tears of sheer desperation. Young women terrified of having to show their bodies off to the judges and all the other competitors. What? That doesn’t sound like a beauty queen? The whole point is to show your body off isn’t it? Imagine your sister, daughter, cousin, any 17 year old girl who you know or knew. Remember yourself at 17 if you need to. Think of how beautiful you know she is, whatever shape or size. You know that. Now imagine that poor girl being forced to stand in a bikini in front of 120 people and then told she’s not through because she doesn’t look good enough.
The point is this. The vast majority of these girls are there because they made a choice to be there but equally, they had no choice. They feel their beauty is all they have and yet they don’t even feel beautiful. You can watch day after day the range of emotions openly displayed swinging from joy and pride in the attention from cameras and designers to repulsion and shame at the attention from shameless jeering and leching of wide eyed dribbling men. It was a regular occurrence that men would march straight up to one of the Misses, stick his phone an inch away from her face and snap while commenting to me how gorgeous she was, like she was my pet. It was disgusting.
While it may seem as if this is competition specific and not a cause for concern for women who don’t involve themselves in such things I firmly believe that as long as women’s bodies are not their own. As long as they’re poked and prodded and gawped at and judged. As long as the world controls women’s bodies the world will control their minds and as long as that’s the case then women will remain under represented across the global community, women will remain the poorest people on the planet. They will still face the possibility of rape and domestic violence every day. They will still occupy only 13% of worldwide places in parliaments and less than 16% of CEO/top level positions and they will do all this thinking that they are fat. Or thin. Or wrong. Somehow.
But we know all this don’t we. Isn’t that what Beard is saying? This was an issue in the 70s but not today?
Beard says"I count myself as strong a feminist as I was at 26. That said, I do feel a bit more laid back, especially when it comes to the politics of the body."
The politics of the body is more relevant today than it has ever been. Increasingly we are forced to believe this notion of choice and it is fictional. It is a false consciousness designed to shame us into spending and submission. Or at least it’s something that we want to believe. And who can blame us. Today intelligent women who know in their heads that size, body hair, tans and cellulite shouldn’t matter but they feel in their heart that it does and then in addition to every thing else, they have to deal with the shame that they do! It’s worse than it ever was now because we know as women that we shouldn’t judge other women for the way they look and that we shouldn’t judge ourselves…but we still do. And Miss World is only enforcing that self judgment. How can we stop judging ourselves when the world is judging us. It’s not enough to recognise that body image does not matter and say it out loud. We need to believe it. We need to actually act like it doesn’t matter. Men need to act like it doesn’t matter. We all do. Feminism can’t just be a conversation and it can’t just be about ‘equal rights’. We know that legislation achieves nothing (or very little). We need an attitude. A way of thinking. A behaviour. And sitting down and judging girls in their bikinis, with the addition of sports and talents or without, whether they have degrees or not, under the guise of personal choice is a nonsense. This control over women’s bodies is inextricably linked with control over women in general, our bodies, our minds and our voices. Only when that control and judgment ends can we make true choices about how we look. All of us.