A sash. A crown. An imaginary bouquet in hand. Oversized heels borrowed from your mom. And hands dramatically placed on your face. If you were a young girl growing up in the 90s, chances are that you might have played a version of this mock-game. When you competed with either your friends – or imaginary contestants – to be crowned the most beautiful woman in the world. Or, the universe. It was glamorous, it was fun, and it was what shiny aspiration looked like to a young Indian girl growing up in the 90s.
I was reminded of that game this week when Harnaaz Sandhu, a young woman from Chandigarh, was crowned Miss Universe. Newspaper headlines, and tweets reminded us that it was a momentous occasion for our country. Especially because the “crown” had come home after twenty-one long years. But a lot had changed in those twenty-one years. In India, and among the young women, for whom the win has historically been an inspiration.
For one, the idea that beauty is a commodity that can be quantified is now seen to be absurd. Most beauty pageants like Miss India have very reductive definitions of beauty anyway. A series of Instagram posts by Miss India pageant lays it all out. You must be 5’3 and above (without heels), not older than 25 years, and must be single. “Never be married before, and not engaged,” reads the fine print. If you thought that those requirements are per se not bad, a selection of contestants that get through to the pageant highlight the kind of bodies they think is the “ideal Indian beauty.” There is, of course, a swimsuit round as well.
All these things seem like a relic of the past. The objectification of women, the effort to ensure that women are seen only as ideals of beauty, or even their “intelligence” should only be non-threatening. Most pageant winners famously, and vaguely, want world peace. They speak of malnutrition, women equality, and being fearless – but never in a substantive way that reflects the everyday rage of being an Indian woman. It’s all very, well, plastic.
So, of course, to dismiss pageants is easy for me. The concept repels me, and I can’t believe they are a thing in 2021. But, and yes, there is a but. There is another reality.
The curse of critical thinking means that I cannot, in all good faith, ignore how these pageants are often one kind of opportunity for many young women from small towns to be someone, to establish their identity. Small towns often have their own local version of pageants, which for many women are the first step in becoming financially secure and getting some independence. In her documentary, “World Before Her,” Nishtha Jain looks at Miss India contestants from Jaipur, and Chandigarh, for whom the crown is their way “out.” If you think about it, if the goal is to capitalise on whatever you got, to build a career – why can’t beauty (in a very conventional sense of thin, tall, and pretty) be a capital you can gamble on?
What to do about beauty pageants then? Well, I wish Harnaaz Sandhu, who won the Miss Universe title, all the best. I get where she came from, and I hope this win allows her to build a fulfilling career. But as a concept, I think the blame of beauty pageants existing lies at the feet of the system. Our good old patriarchy that keeps reinforcing that woman's worth lies in the way they look, more than anything else. Dismantle that, and maybe, beauty pageants will be a relic of the past.
Till then, we sigh, and wave.