We give sexism oxygen by allowing beauty pageants to persist
ICAN IMAGINE the behind-the-scenes drama of the Miss South Africa pageant that took place in March. I imagine safety pins deployed to hold up broken zips, gritted teeth as blistered feet squeeze into heels, and panicked tears over hair extension malfunctions. Maybe beauty queens are not unlike athletes zoning out white noise to nd inner focus before the starter s gun, or the determination of someone practising one last time in front of a mirror for her PhD thesis defence. They have in common long preparation, the magnitude of the individual performance, and a promise at the end of it all.
They re not the same, though, and that s the thing. Beauty pageants try too hard to be something they re not. They push the value-adds as a selling point to justify their existence. It s what makes me cringe when I think about something like the Beauty with a Purpose campaign – a nonpro t commendable for raising enormous amounts of money for charity through the decades. Even its name implies beauty is inherently devoid of purpose. And while they work hard to remind you that they do have contemporary relevance, you know its members are part of an exclusive club. These are members who belong because of their scramble of genes and the e orts of meticulous preening.
I don t think I m alone in having been wowed as a child by the annual extravaganza of the Miss South Africa show. Of course, before the mid-90s, it was all-white, representing minority South Africa. Still, my family and I would be dazzled by the Cinderella frocks, the impossible eyelashes and smiles and con dent sashaying in swimsuits and stripper heels on national T . hat I don t remember is what any of the contestants said, or what talents any of them had. And here s the thing – it didn t matter.
So congratulations, Ntandoyenkosi Kunene, Miss South Africa 2016. I celebrate your beauty. Wear your beauty like a badge, I say, don t cover it up or con ate it with your other exemplary traits.
Maybe beauty pageants can nd modern-day relevance by not foregrounding purpose and the PR machinations that beauty queens are role models for girls or ambassadors for humanitarian good – we have Ko Annan and Barney the dinosaur for that.
In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes about a cultural conspiracy of how a narrowly de ned version of beauty is the biggest con we ve bought into. It is fairytale as fact that supports a vast anti-ageing and diet industry. It s also, as Naomi writes, the ‘last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact .
Smashing the tyranny of the beauty myth starts by calling these things by their true names. Maybe it s time to own beauty for beauty s sake, without value judgement, without political correctness and double standards. We give sexism oxygen by allowing beauty pageants to persist with unending denial that awless looks and incredible legs are not agency and power in their own right.
Imagine if we claimed beauty simply as aesthetic wonder, as a magni cent, ephemeral anomaly of nature. We would appreciate beauty without aspiring to be it. We would not be confused that beauty has a role in nding solutions to world hunger or lifting literacy rates. We d simply celebrate the exquisite symmetry of the human form. We d award the winner a tiara, a sash and some cash, then move on. And maybe so would she. Imagine that.