The Miss World pageant has come a long way since 1970, when second-wave feminists hurled flour bombs and rotten fruit around the Royal Albert Hall. Back then, five years before the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act, London was hosting a contest that reduced the ideal woman to a bikini-clad sex object whose sole purpose was to be paraded before the male gaze.
Thankfully, those days are gone. Since 2015 there is no longer a round in which women are tested on their ability to pose in swimwear. The focus is now on brains and personality. In the words of chair Julia Morley: “I don’t care if someone has a bottom two inches bigger than someone else's. We are really not looking at her bottom. We are really listening to her speak."
A quick glance at the official Miss World website, however, might seem to suggest otherwise. I could be wrong – perhaps the most eloquent women in the entire world really do all happen to have the smallest arses – but one would think, on balance of probability, that a contest to find the best woman, personality-wise, would uncover a wider variety of women, appearance-wise. And yet remarkably, were today’s Miss World contestants considered mere sex objects whose sole purpose was to be paraded before the male gaze, you have to admit they’d all be really good at it.
Then again, I’m being churlish – this is all about celebrating the modern woman. Of course you can have pert breasts, a tiny waist and a stellar brain... just as long as you haven’t had a previously inhabited womb.
This is something the former Miss Ukraine, model Veronika Didusenko, found out to her cost. Days after winning her crown, in 2018, Didusenko had it removed after it was discovered she had a five-year-old son. The Miss World rules, laid down in 1951, stipulate that pageant contestants cannot be mothers.
The justification for this rule has not been made explicit. Even so, it’s not difficult to guess at the thinking behind it. A society that divided women into virgins and whores, sluts and saints, sex objects and brood mares, couldn’t possibly allow them to be both at once. A patriarchal culture that splits women into the sexually desirable and the reproductively exploitable needs to maintain its boundaries. If Miss World started life as a kind of visual meat market, it was vital not to offer up any previously handled goods.
This is not to claim that Miss World is fundamentally anti-maternal, or anti-sex. The classic Miss World interview, in which the beautiful woman would claim to “want to work with children”, always hinted at future marriageability and fertility, just not yet. The humanitarian work – which continues now under the heading Beauty With A Purpose – served as a kind of apprenticeship in the performative care work which might make one an ideal candidate for later motherhood.
The point has always been not to allow reality to impinge on the marketing of the feminine ideal. Miss World should be caring, but not motherly, sexy but not slutty.
While Didusenko’s downfall came from having given birth, that of the actress and singer Vanessa Williams, who lost her Miss America crown in 1984, came from having posed naked for a men’s magazine. Neither women did anything other than what patriarchy expects a woman to do with her body, yet both were to find this couldn’t be done on their own terms. As far as Miss World Plc – and so much of the world – are concerned, a woman’s body is not her own.
Didusenko is now using the 2010 Equality Act to take the London-based organisers of Miss World to court, citing discrimination on the basis of sex and maternity. And I hope she wins – not least because a move towards genuine inclusivity could kill off this contest in a way no feminist flour bomb ever could.
The more the fantasy of femininity is forced to confront the reality of female bodies and minds, the more ridiculous it appears.
So yes, let's have a Miss World who’s a mother. And then let’s wave Miss World goodbye for good.
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