We give sex­ism oxy­gen by al­low­ing beauty pageants to per­sist

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - BEAUTY -

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.

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