Time­less beauty

Pageants in the #metoo era

Herald on Sunday - - FRONT PAGE -

It’s less than a day be­fore Jess Tyson is due to fly to China to compete in the Miss World pageant, and she’s stress­ing about fit­ting six gowns and five cock­tail dresses into her case. She also needed 30 “day out­fits” for her month in Sanya — the grand fi­nale took place overnight, with Tyson in the top 30.

The 25-year-old is tall at 1.73m, has long blonde hair and freshly man­i­cured nails.

She’s also flu­ent in te reo, has a jour­nal­ism de­gree and has started her first job at Ma¯ori Tele­vi­sion, co­p­re­sent­ing Rerea¯tea, the on­line mid­day news bul­letin, and work­ing as an on­line re­porter.

Out­side work, Tyson has started char­ity Brave, which raises aware­ness of sex­ual vi­o­lence among young New Zealan­ders. The #MeToo move­ment res­onates with Tyson more than it will, or should, for most pageant con­tes­tants.

The Auck­lan­der, who was brought up in Whanganui, was only 7 when she was sex­u­ally abused by a fam­ily as­so­ciate. Her case went through the court sys­tem at 9, but her per­pe­tra­tor was never con­victed due to a lack of ev­i­dence.

She de­scribes Brave, which is her Beauty with a Purpose project for the pageant, as a means of help­ing oth­ers bat­tle sim­i­lar things.

Beauty pageants are em­pow­er­ing for Tyson.

“What I love is hav­ing a platform to raise aware­ness about some­thing I’m so pas­sion­ate about,” she says. “Also, hav­ing some­thing to strive for, and chal­leng­ing my­self.”

Other high­lights in­clude meeting new peo­ple and trav­el­ling

— beauty pageants have taken her all over the world, with air­fares usu­ally cov­ered.

De­spite the perks, she recog­nises they’re not for ev­ery­one.

In the #MeToo era, the fact beauty pageants are still around is some­thing of an odd­ity.

In New Zealand, the move­ment has seen a surge in Kiwi women con­tact­ing sex­ual abuse helplines to re­port his­toric in­ci­dents.

The fo­cus on women and gen­der equal­ity has been bol­stered this year by the 125th an­niver­sary of women’s suf­frage in New Zealand.

There’s an awk­ward dis­con­nect be­tween this em­pha­sis and these events — and we are see­ing an im­pact around the world. In the Septem­ber Miss Amer­ica fi­nal there was no swim­suit com­pe­ti­tion for the first time in its near 100-year his­tory.

The event was called a “com­pe­ti­tion”, not a “pageant”. The par­tic­i­pants were “can­di­dates” — in­ter­view­ing for the job of Miss Amer­ica — not “con­tes­tants”. There was no run­way and the word “Miss” had been stripped from the sashes. It was the debut of the newer, so­cially aware Miss Amer­ica — or “Miss Amer­ica 2.0”.

In July, a pageant queen gave up her crown af­ter a skit per­formed dur­ing the Miss Mas­sachusetts pageant mocked the #MeToo move­ment.

And in Mex­ico a politi­cian wants law­mak­ers to ban beauty pageants in Oax­aca, ar­gu­ing the “ob­jec­ti­fi­ca­tion” to which women are sub­jected in such events doesn’t al­low them to as­sume a full role in so­ci­ety, lim­it­ing them to be­com­ing an ob­ject of plea­sure.

The pro­posed leg­is­la­tion would pro­hibit grant­ing prizes to women with the most sex­ual and phys­i­cal ap­peal.

There is less mil­i­tancy in New Zealand, but many sum­mer re­gional beauty con­tests are sim­ply dwin­dling out of favour, though some bat­tle on.

Or­gan­is­ers of many con­tests around the world in­sist they are chang­ing with the times. And yet this week­end, dozens of young women pa­raded on stage in China, os­ten­si­bly to be judged on how pretty they were.

Anna Paris says pageants should have “died a nat­u­ral death a long time ago”. In 2013 she pub­lished her the­sis on the “con­cept of an eth­i­cal re­la­tion­ship with the self” for women en­gag­ing in body trans­for­ma­tion like di­et­ing or cos­metic surgery.

She says it’s easy to dis­miss beauty pageants as “ir­rel­e­vant, dated and dis­em­pow­er­ing”.

“There’s no place for that in a so­ci­ety that should be tak­ing into con­sid­er­a­tion women’s value out­side of what they look like.

“I see it as an out­dated dis­play of nor­ma­tive fem­i­nin­ity that doesn’t have a place in pop­u­lar cul­ture to­day.”

How­ever, she ac­cepts that — much like mod­els on a cat­walk — pageants tread a fine line. One mod­ern view sees fem­i­nism as em­pow­er­ing women to make their own de­ci­sions about their bod­ies.

“They say, ‘this is my body, I’ve worked hard for it . . . I want to feel em­pow­ered by show­ing it off, and hav­ing peo­ple ap­pre­ci­ate it’,” says Paris.

“And in­creas­ingly, the pageants are used by con­tes­tants as a pow­er­ful platform for high­light­ing phil­an­thropic and hu­man­i­tar­ian causes.”

De­spite that, Paris in­sists this kind of em­pow­er­ment is based on a very “nar­row, pre­scribed” def­i­ni­tion of what beauty is.

“Beauty pageants don’t re­ally cel­e­brate di­ver­sity, do they?”

Minister for Women Julie Anne Gen­ter agrees that pageants limit the idea of beauty to a nar­row ideal.

She says women should be val­ued for more than their bod­ies and looks — and cru­cially that’s a message we need to pass on to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

“Girls need to know their skills, in­tel­lect, courage, sense of hu­mour and treat­ment of oth­ers mat­ter.”

Gen­ter says she would never crit­i­cise an in­di­vid­ual for tak­ing part — but she be­lieves we should strive for a so­ci­ety where ev­ery­one’s strengths are re­alised. Beauty con­tests, she says, have no value, or place, in a for­ward-think­ing so­ci­ety.

Atia Ir­fan is a Bangladeshi na­tional liv­ing and study­ing in Auck­land. She’s Mus­lim and a proud

mem­ber of Auck­land Young

Fem­i­nists.

She’s also a beauty pageant con­tes­tant and was a fi­nal­ist in Miss Five Crowns New Zealand — an event de­scrib­ing it­self as a “per­for­mance platform” aim­ing to bring young women to­gether and en­cour­age ex­pres­sion of courage and beauty.

She sees the pageants as a con­tin­u­a­tion of her mod­el­ling ex­pe­ri­ence and en­joys the op­por­tu­nity to put her­self out­side her com­fort zone while rep­re­sent­ing her coun­try.

But she re­fused to do the swimwear sec­tion and be­lieves she may have lost points be­cause of this.

She says cul­ture can present a bar­rier to par­tic­i­pa­tion and suc­cess in these events.

Ear­lier this year, Malaysian-born Waikato Univer­sity stu­dent Nu­rul Sham­sul wore a hi­jab at Miss Uni­verse New Zealand — some­thing Atia says was a first.

Atia ar­gues many pageants con­tinue to ob­jec­tify women. And the ex­tent to which the events can em­power women is lim­ited — in essence only the “most beau­ti­ful” be­come em­pow­ered.

At just 1.53m, Atia is too short to compete at the top level.

“I feel that there’s this in­vis­i­ble bound­ary . . . you can get to a cer­tain level but you might not be able to get the crown,” she says.

“You can’t change height . . . and my ques­tion is, does that mean you’re not beau­ti­ful?

“Why would you not fit that cri­te­ria, why would an in­dus­try have such funny re­quire­ments and set such beauty stan­dards?”

The first Miss World in­ter­na­tional pageant was in 1951. The first Kiwi con­tes­tant was five years later.

At one time, the pageants were ap­point­ment view­ing, broad­cast to mil­lions around the world.

In 1983, Auck­lan­der Lor­raine Downes shot to fame when she won the Miss Uni­verse pageant in Mis­souri, USA.

Downes, a for­mer dancer mar­ried to the late Mar­tin Crowe, re­mains the only New Zealan­der who has won.

Miss World NZ’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions co-or­di­na­tor Des­mond Foul­ger says there is a “sea of neg­a­tiv­ity” about pageants — but it’s mainly from older, more con­ser­va­tive peo­ple.

Foul­ger is adamant the fo­cus of pageants hasn’t changed to ac­com­mo­date any par­tic­u­lar move­ment or shift in so­ci­etal views.

Rather, he says, he and wife Rose, who is pageant direc­tor, have al­ways held views syn­ony­mous with women’s rights and gen­der equal­ity.

“We’re multi-eth­nic­ity and we sup­port women . . . our at­ti­tudes sup­port #MeToo so we can just jump on board and con­tinue with it.”

Foul­ger, 75, is from South Africa while 68-year-old Rose is from the Philip­pines.

The pair have owned the li­cense for the New Zealand branch of the pageant for 11 years, since 2007.

The main points of dif­fer­ence be­tween Miss World NZ and the big pageants over in the US, Foul­ger says, is the level of fo­cus on looks.

“Miss Uni­verse purely is to do with the body beau­ti­ful, and it pro­motes that.

“As you well know, our friend Mr Trump owned that pageant for quite a few years . . . it is very dif­fer­ent in that it ac­cen­tu­ates the sen­sual side of things.”

Foul­ger says Miss World’s Beauty with a Purpose foun­da­tion has given nearly US$1 bil­lion to con­tes­tants over the years.

“What Miss World does is en­cour­age ladies of to­day to have a purpose, for which they can use their beauty to pur­sue their par­tic­u­lar project. The whole pageant re­volves around that.”

The or­gan­is­ers of Miss Uni­verse NZ de­clined the op­por­tu­nity to com­ment for this story.

Talk­ing about beauty pageants and fem­i­nism at her Ma¯ngere Bridge home, Tyson doesn’t see an overt con­flict be­tween the two.

Tyson de­scribes the event, which runs for around a month, as a marathon ef­fort.

She loves the chal­lenge, the dress­ing up and the so­cial­is­ing with the other girls, but it’s a long stretch of time to be “on”, she says.

“It’s so hor­ri­ble some­times. “I shouldn’t say that, but it’s just so ex­haust­ing.”

Tyson favours Miss World over other big pageants due to its omis­sion of the no­to­ri­ous swimwear com­pe­ti­tion, or “bikini round”.

The sec­tion was ditched from the pageant’s lineup in 2014. The judg­ing for this cat­e­gory had been con­ducted in pri­vate for sev­eral years be­fore that.

To Tyson, this is a pos­i­tive move. “Hell yes,” she says. “I’m con­fi­dent in a bikini, but hav­ing less pres­sure and ac­tu­ally be­ing looked at for my in­tel­li­gence in­stead is so good.

“It be­comes more about how you speak, the com­mu­nity work you do . . . and that’s how Miss World is judged.”

“It’s an out­dated dis­play of nor­ma­tive fem­i­nin­ity, that doesn’t have a place in pop­u­lar cul­ture to­day. Anna Paris

Photo / Alex Tee, MWNZ

Jes­sica Tyson, far left, was crowned Miss World New Zealand 2018 in May ahead of other fi­nal­ists, from left to right: Natasha Unkovich, Lucy Nie, Emma Clough, Michelle Feld­berg, Alyssa Ward, Emma Wild­ing, Hay­ley Robin­son, Imo­gen Aroha Mar­shall, Abby Smale, and Dana Rusk. Anna Paris Julie Ann Gen­ter

Lor­raine Downes Nu­rul Sham­sul

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