All hail Miss Universe, where cis and trans women can be degraded in bikinis on the world stage equally

This year's event even went to the extreme feminist lengths of assigning an all-female judging panel for this year’s finale so that, instead of a bunch of middle-aged men ogling women as they paraded across the stage like cattle at a country fete, other women could judge them instead

Harriet Hall
Monday 17 December 2018 18:06 GMT
First transgender woman to compete at Miss Universe

Miss Universe has truly entered the 21st century. Last night’s pageant made history by being the first ever to allow a transgender competitor into the running. Miss Spain – Angela Ponce – took to the stage in Bangkok at the 67th competition that saw a record 94 countries represented. How progressive the pageant has become. Now, both cis and trans women can be degraded in bikinis on the world stage equally. What a fitting way to mark a centenary of women’s enfranchisement.

This year 30-year-old plus-size model Ashley Graham also returned as backstage host. Having a size 14 woman question a bunch of 6ft, size six, cookie-cutter images of idealised femininity about the upcoming competition as they preened was supposedly a mark of great liberalism but in fact functioned as a brilliant moment of self-parody. In previous beauty pageants, contestants have been assessed with tape measures on stage to determine the perfection of their thighs and busts. Miss Universe applicants must be aged between 18 and 26 (ah yes, a woman’s reproductive prime) but, wow, they let someone size 14 and 30 years old be near the candidates? Now that’s quite something.

Miss Universe was founded in 1952, shortly after the Second World War. Stepping in to support the war effort, women had worked in munitions factories, as air raid wardens and as drivers on public transport, proving they were just as capable in the working world as men. Fashions changed during the war to reflect women’s new lifestyles, with looser, sportier cuts that prioritised comfort.

When Christian Dior presented his New Look of 1947, with a cinched-in waist and enormous bell skirt made from an extravagant yardage of fabric, it was clear that fabric rationing and – with it – women’s short-lived independence were over. The cherry on the top of this was a focus on women’s domestic duties and the launch of a pageant that presented them as nothing more than passive ornaments.

In 2018, beauty pageants are as dated and restrictive to women as they were then – and a world in which they exist is one in which women will never be truly equal.

Miss Universe is desperate to shake off that reputation, though. It even went to the extreme feminist lengths of assigning an all-female judging panel for this year’s finale so that, instead of a bunch of middle-aged men ogling women in bikinis as they paraded across the stage competing against each other like cattle at a country fete, other women could judge them instead.

The pageant's website claims the pageant to be “a company run by women for women, built on a foundation of inclusion and which continues to be a celebration of diversity.” They seem to have conveniently forgotten the two decades during which the company was owned by the pussy-grabbing President Donald Trump. “I mean, we could say [to be] politically correct that the look [of the pageant contestants] doesn’t matter but the look obviously matters,” Trump told TV presenter Maria Ngo in 2014 as she reported on the event. “Like you wouldn’t have your job if you weren’t beautiful.”

Miss Universe and other pageants masquerade as philanthropic organisations that claim to be for the advancement of women while simultaneously demanding their competitors are white-teethed, washboard Barbie dolls. They contribute directly to a culture that burdens women with impossible beauty standards – the same standards that see millions develop life-threatening eating disorders in an attempt to adhere to them.

“Research has shown,” says the Miss Universe site, “that the number one obstacle for women to overcome in reaching their potential in any endeavour is a lack of self-confidence.” It’s unclear what “research” specifically they’re referring to, as this statement isn’t qualified by a link or any sort of explanation beyond that sweeping statement, but it’s refreshing to finally know that what has been holding women back beyond unequal pay, sexism in the workplace, gender-based violence, class and child marriage is in fact merely confidence. Just lean in, ladies!

One also wonders how Miss Universe “empowers women to develop the confidence they need to achieve their personal best,” as it claims to. Is it by stripping them down to bikinis to judge their gym-sculpted bodies or is it by subjecting them to a series of questions which seem designed entirely to humiliate them (how governments might best handle hostage situations and what the US should do about Isis beheadings, for example)?

Even Miss America has abandoned its swimwear segment, but Miss Universe can’t seem to let this antiquated tradition go, claiming it’s used to show each contestant’s “dedication to a healthy lifestyle”. Read: her dedication to restricting her calorific intake, maintaining a gruelling beauty regimen, spritzing her arse with hairspray so her bikini doesn’t ride up (God forbid), and covering her teeth in Vaseline so she can smile more easily. In Venezuela, getting their hands on the coveted beauty queen salary has led parents to send their children to boot camps where they undergo plastic surgery among other horrors.

Of course, nothing exposes the deluded hypocrisy of this particular pageant more than its vicious dethronings. Miss Universe – whose rules include one that women must not be married and must not have children, including marriages which have been annulled and children which they have given birth to but don’t parent – asks its entrants to be perfect pinups but never actual sexual beings. Just this year Miss Ukraine, Veronika Didusenko, was stripped of her crown and prohibited to to enter Miss Universe for the unforgivable act of being a mother. Miss Universe 2002, Russia’s Oxana Fedorova, was dethroned under suspicious circumstances a mere four months following her coronation for “failing to fulfil her duties,” which she later implied had happened because she had been outraged at the sexual innuendo directed at her by Howard Stern on his talk show and because she’d spent too much time studying for her law degree. Miss USA 2009 had her crown revoked after nude photographs of her were leaked online.

A common defence of beauty pageants is that the women who take part in them have done so out of their own choosing, so taking part must be a “feminist act”. But the idea that anything a woman chooses to do is feminist simply because she was the person who did it is another way of diluting the feminist message. Becoming a human billboard for the patriarchy is not concomitant with women’s social and political emancipation. Let’s not forget how doggedly 1970s feminists protested against it.

However Miss Universe tries to paint it, the competition is nothing more than degrading objectification. The only thing it is achieving when it comes to women and diversity is to set both back to the 1950s. Let’s abolish this hideous ceremony and focus on real female advancement instead.

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