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Let’s Unpack That

Bye bye swimwear round, hello body positivity: How beauty pageants became less ugly

Competitions like Miss World now feel like relics of a sexist past. Sarah Ingram explores how beauty contests are moving the focus away from physique to try and clean up their act

Thursday 20 July 2023 06:30 BST
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‘It doesn’t matter if you think you’re beautiful; you are there to be judged. It ruins your self worth’
‘It doesn’t matter if you think you’re beautiful; you are there to be judged. It ruins your self worth’ (Peter Lomas/Shutterstock)

Raz Schenirer was 20 when her mum entered her into the Miss Israel beauty pageant. Her national service had just finished, and she had some spare time before starting university – so, she thought, why not?

The Miss Israel competition, which crowned Hollywood star Gal Gadot as a winner in 2004, was once one of hundreds of contests that take place annually around the globe, where women parade on stage in varying outfits, winning points for talent, personality, charity work and other criteria. Schenirer, now a writer based in New York, recalls standing in heels and a bikini, in front of a panel full of strangers – an experience that left her feeling broken and insecure and “like a piece of meat”.

“You give so much power and control to somebody else,” she tells me. “It doesn’t matter if you think you’re beautiful; you are there to be judged. It ruins your self worth.” As she approached the final, she exercised excessively, leaving her constantly tired, hungry and angry. Eventually, she found herself in tears, but not knowing why; the more “beautiful” she became, the less happy she felt. On a trip to Barcelona, she and her fellow contestants went to a restaurant. “It was so ironic because at the hotel before, girls were crying and we spent hours putting on makeup, trying to mask our insecurities. When we arrived, everyone turned to look at this group of young, beautiful women and they had no idea what we were actually going through. All that glitters is not gold.”

Contests have long faced claims that they are shallow, sexist, racist and demeaning. In 1970, feminists famously flour-bombed the Miss World Pageant – which host Bob Hope had described as a “cattle market” – condemning it as oppressive and exploitative. (The story of the protest became the 2020 film Misbehaviour.) In 2014, a small town in Argentina banned beauty competitions on the grounds that they encourage violence against women. And Miss USA 2016, Deshauna Barber, explained that Black competitors still faced discrimination on the circuit when she won the crown seven years ago. And, in 2022, a decision was made to end the Miss Israel contest, with organisers not giving a reason, instead just quietly stating that the contest would not go ahead. But 10 years after Schenirer was told by judges to “turn around so we can take a look at your cute little butt”, pageantry is trying to clean up its image.

While thousands of beauty pageants take place around the world every year, international competitors aim to make the finals for the prestigious “Big Four”: Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss International and Miss Earth. They are run by separate bodies and have different rounds and rules, but what all have in common is that they claim to advocate more than beauty. Now, contests claim to reward personality, intelligence, body positivity, social causes and charity work, alongside rounds in which competitors model swimsuits, national dress or evening gowns. The current Mrs GB, Dr Ana Nacvalovaite, for example, is a research fellow at the University of Oxford, with a master’s degree in international human rights law and a DPhil on regulation of sovereign wealth funds. She also campaigns against domestic violence and helps businesses with their environmental and social responsibilities.  (“Miss” competitions are for those up to the age of 28. Those that carry the title “Mrs” are older.)

Nacvalovaite, slender and strikingly beautiful, with doll-like features and huge, expressive eyes, says pageantry is “a very different world” these days. She describes the women she competes alongside as strong, career-minded doctors, lawyers, policymakers and salon owners. Nacvalovaite says she has never dieted before a show, never felt uncomfortable before a panel and has never been made to feel demeaned or objectified. Competitions are something she enters for fun, to network and because they give her a voice. Thanks to the connections that she has formed on the circuits, she travels all over the world, judging and appearing in contests. After first getting involved with pageantry when she met Mrs France at a UN conference, she says she’s even now able to carry out a form of “soft diplomacy”.

“It is all great being an academic and talking to a variety of stakeholders, but what sometimes gets missed is the larger audience,” Nacvalovaite explains. “Pageantry has given me a great platform to be able to talk about what it is that I do, and to learn about what other women do, and how we can integrate those relationships. The alliances that I have built are incredible.”

To watch a revolving door of women be judged based on how well they perform femininity and parade across a stage feels like stepping back into the past in which women were seen but rarely heard

But why just women? Why aren’t there competitions in which scantily-clad men are ranked on stage? There are, says Nacvalovaite. “There is Mr Universe, Mr World; there are many competitions for men. We just don’t talk about it.  Everybody can have a hobby and sometimes [pageantry] is looked down upon, but there’s nothing wrong with being girly and dressing up and having a wonderful, glamorous time with other women and building solid friendships. I enjoy representing Great Britain.”

Even so, many women may struggle with the idea that increased professional esteem can happen after a swimsuit round. Whether women should be judged onstage for how well they wear a two-piece has been a subject shrouded in controversy. But that aspect of contests is changing, too. Miss World contestants no longer parade in bikinis, Miss Northern Ireland ditched the round this year, and Miss England debated bringing it back in after it was dropped in 2009 – but the move was abandoned last month. Even so, Nacvalovaite is happy appearing in a swimsuit onstage: “It is all very decent and elegant. Nobody forces you to do anything.”

Her view is shared by Katrina Hodge, who had originally campaigned to ban the Miss England swimwear round 13 years ago. Hodge, a former soldier who was decorated for bravery after saving the lives of five colleagues in Iraq, became known as “Combat Barbie” when she was crowned Miss England in 2009. She is now a beauty contest pro, judging competitions all over the world and running her own pageant, Miss Supranational UK.  At the time, Hodge says, she “wanted to get rid of that round because I didn’t understand why you had to be the person whose figure looked the best in swimwear. I was very proud when it was removed because it opened the doors and since then we’ve had rocket scientists and all sorts of women compete, as well as women from different religions and cultures.”

Since then, though, Hodge has U-turned, and now has a swimwear round in Miss Supranational UK to promote body positivity. She explains: “If somebody wants to go out on stage and feel fabulous in swimwear, they can. On Love Island, for example, people spend six to eight weeks on TV and in swimwear and nobody’s pulling them apart. Those people go on to be millionaires. Nobody is being derogatory towards them because they’re just young people enjoying themselves in swimwear. And what’s wrong with that?

Katrina Hodge and Raz Schenirer (Charlotte Clemie/Yaniv Sofer)

“At my competition in April, I had girls that were a size 18 to 20. And they all said it was their favourite round. It’s a really empowering moment having the crowd cheering for them. Points aren’t awarded on the girls’ figures; they are scored on confidence and personality. It’s not about who looks the best in the swimsuit. It’s about who comes out and owns it on stage.”

Ownership is an important notion, given that the competitions first came from commerce. The original pageant, Miss America, was born more than a century ago in response to a business problem. In 1920, the owner of the Monticello Hotel in Atlantic City hosted a parade of 300 young, attractive women to tempt more visitors. It’s this commodification of the female body that bothers Raquel Rosario Sánchez, a writer, academic and spokeswoman for women’s right’s charity FiLiA. Rosario Sánchez says beauty pageants should be abolished as they are a “relic of a patriarchal culture that glorifies the objectification of women”.

Beauty pageants give the message that women are “passive objects to be ogled at and judged”, she says, a message that is “incompatible with a culture that seeks to eradicate sexual harassment”.

“To watch a revolving door of women be judged based on how well they perform femininity and parade across a stage feels like stepping back into a distant past in which women were seen but rarely heard,” she says. “If you were to remove the element of objectification from these contests, you would have a competition where women are fully dressed; if they are doctors, they would be dressed as doctors, if they are engineers, they would be dressed as engineers.

“Look at the industry behind these events; the amount of time, effort and money spent on women to parade them in front of crowds who then judge them. It is a business machinery that is all about reducing women – and there is no real way to modernise that. The contestants’ skin colour may vary more these days, but amid all the changes and nods to inclusivity, there is still no room for wide noses, disabilities or stretch marks in beauty pageants. The ugly reality is that this is just putting a veneer on something that is at its core is just about judging women in a way that men would never be judged.”

Dr Ana Nacvalovaite, the current Mrs Great Britain (Olga Luka)

This was a message received loud and clear by Schenirer, now 31, who says her short time on the beauty circuit irreparably destroyed her confidence. “I remember who I was before. There’s a sort of carelessness that young women have. You just think that you’re great because maybe your parents or your girlfriends told you that you’re beautiful your whole life,” she explains. “And then, doing the pageants just for three and a half months, my confidence crashed because of how people looked at me.”

But for Nacvalovaite, who is now helping to judge the Mrs India competition, beauty runs deeper than appearance – which is the point modern day pageants are trying to make. She adds: “People generally underestimate women as the weaker sex. But what I have witnessed is quite extraordinary, in the way that they interact and the way that they build friendships. This international pageant has shown me that women build tremendous bridges, and that is a huge benefit to the countries they represent.”

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