“[The beauty] industry affects us all… It affects us in the workplace. It affects us as students, workers, mothers, and daughters. And that is why we expect a certain degree of responsibility from that industry, because they are well positioned to make a positive difference with the influence they wield; as they have the ‘power of capital’ to create “false needs”; as Marcuse said, “totalitarianism can be imposed without terror.”
Beauty: Contest and Context
By Nadine S. Murshid for AlalODulal.org
Paromita Mitra is the first Bangladeshi-born to represent an American state, in this case, Mississippi, at the Miss USA pageant. Many Bangladeshis, primarily residing in the US, are (seemingly) elated – finally someone with Bangladeshi blood is “beautiful” on the world stage. It is a “win” for many reasons—a not-so-secret rivalry with India being one. Beauty queens from India have dominated the international beauty pageants over the last decade, while Bangladesh has not even left a scratch. To many this is their chance to take pride in their own, instead of having to take pride in their South Asian heritage and celebrating the victory of the Sushmita Sens of India (who happens to be Bengali – from Kolkata, a tangential source of pride). In 2005, Arianna Afsar, born to a Bangladeshi father and a German mother, had brought similar pride to Bangladeshi immigrants as a Miss Teen USA contestant from California.
They need not be dumb
Paromita Mitra has shown that beauty pageant contestants need not be the bumbling idiots that they are made out to be. She is apparently gifted at everything she does: oil painting, clarinet, piano, aerospace research, and advocacy for education and mental health issues to name a few. She has even worked with Operation Smile in Bangladesh, educating cleft-lip patients with post-surgery precautions. To any observer it would seem that the stage has been set for great things to come, she could really make a difference in the world.
As such, her decision to take part in Miss USA is telling: the most important of her gifts is that she is beautiful. At least to her, and to many other women like her. That is what beauty pageants are about – convincing women that their biggest asset is their physical beauty. Paromita has been quoted as saying: I’ve prepared for this for so long. I’m excited for this. When a girl as smart as her chooses to become a beauty pageant contestant—amidst all her other abilities that could have earned her a fair reputation as well, she is, after all, majoring in aerospace engineering and minoring in math—and have people acknowledge her for her beauty rather than her brains, it is not so clear why this recognition is the one that she is vying for. Is it something that is hard wired in people? Is it the outcome of an evolutionary process? Or the pressures of a domineering beauty industry? Or, is it the stepping-stone to not just fame but a lifelong enterprise? What is so intoxicating about promoting “standards of beauty and mannerism, as defined by men – fair-skinned, long-haired, bubbly” (Ahmed, 2010)?
We all want to be beautiful
The answer is perhaps pretty simple: it is because every woman wants to be beautiful. It has exchange value in the relationship game, it sets one apart from others, and it brings attention and pride to the self and the immediate circle of family and friends—it comes with an increase in status, and (perceived) worth for the bearer of beauty and those around them. And for a beauty pageant contestant, there is no doubt about that beauty; being Miss Whatever-State-I-Belong-To is a form of validation that is fool proof. It’s not subjective; it’s not about the beholder, it’s as close to universal truth as one can get. But one question perhaps begs an answer: what kind of a person would require such intense validation? To understand that one would have to trace back to the relationships that beauty contestants (and women in general) have had with beauty in their childhoods, and the kinds of external factors that played a role in their lives including their mothers, other female role models, peers, men, the media, and the ever-burgeoning beauty industry. One could even go back to evolutionary science and say that women are meant to flaunt their beauty in order to attract the perfect man for her progeny, wealth and resources for her and her broods’ wellbeing; beauty pageants perhaps cashes in on that human propensity.
That said, pageant contestants and their allies would perhaps disagree that pageants are only about physical beauty, they would point out that to be a successful contestant a girl requires other talents, ability to answer questions about current affairs, and so forth (even though Miss USA does not require contestants to perform a talent, according to the Huffington Post) — and that is not being contested here. Brains help, for sure. But, the fact is that if Paromita Mitra weighed 180lbs she would not be a beauty contestant. If she were 4 feet 10 inches, she would not even qualify. These are the harsh truths about what the world deems to be attributes of beauty; it’s as if beauty has to be manufactured in the assembly line with an ‘approved’ design; it has to tick all the boxes. What then about the diversity of beauty that this universe displays in all its creations? No two flowers are the same, no two trees, no two leaves…the industry has eschewed this very idea of diversity in beauty and has given us specifics–a prototype–of what constitutes beauty, and that is what “beautiful” women on these pageants are meant to model and espouse to other women. The sameness across all contestants at these pageants— the walk and the talk and the attire and the etiquettes and the smiles (despite Paromita’s racial difference) is striking. That Paromita Mitra is training to become an aerospace engineer is marvelous, and it perhaps gave her a comparative advantage when she delivered her version of the “I want world peace” speech, but that alone could not have made her “beautiful” in the eyes of the “beautiful” world. The argument here is that it, perhaps, should have.
The right and the wrong
But, there is nothing wrong with that, and one could tend a tenuous argument that it is an industry, much like the garment industry or the footwear industry. It brings to mind what the philosopher Herbert Marcuse talked about in his 1964 book, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. He argued that “advanced industrial society” creates false needs, which integrates individuals into the existing system of production and consumption via mass media, advertising, industrial management, and contemporary modes of thought. The industry is designed to make money by exploiting weaknesses of its patrons; that is the business model that reaps the highest profits. So why get touchy about this one? If there is one enemy, it’s perhaps capitalism. The driving force is money, not a complex relationship with femininity, masculinity, and gender, as feminists make it out to be.
And the response is: this industry affects us all. Not only in the now and the present, but in the future. It affects our personal lives and social lives. It affects our mental health and physical health. It affects our relationships with people and our relationships with ourselves – our notions of self-respect and self-worth. It affects the way we look into the mirror every morning. It affects us in the workplace. It affects us as students, workers, mothers, and daughters. And that is why we expect a certain degree of responsibility from that industry, because they are well positioned to make a positive difference with the influence they wield; as they have the ‘power of capital’ to create “false needs”; as Marcuse said, “totalitarianism can be imposed without terror.”
Specifically, the ramifications that such beauty contests in particular and the industry in general have on the self-esteem of women who try to live up to these standards of beauty is monumental, research shows, and the notion that a woman’s best talent is her physical beauty is not just archaic, it’s wrong. Such pageants undermine the credibility of intellectual achievements of women worldwide; they send the wrong kinds of messages to young girls who already have to contend with Barbie and friends. But beauty is important in this day and age – womens’ beauty, more so – it’s the currency that sells, and the currency that gets traded over and over again on billboards, in television adverts, at weddings, at bars, and on dating sites. But we remain uncomfortable with it while we aspire to it because on some level we know that certain attributes are not authentic to us. Because we know that even when we dye our black hair blonde that is not who we are, when we pretend to be tall in 6-inch-heels our height remains the same, and we uncomfortably stumble through life in this “mock self” of ours mimicking the diktats of the beauty codes, trying to fit in. Beauty pageants contribute to that discomfort, they contribute to the creation of that inauthentic “us”. Because they would like us to believe in an archetype of beauty— a type that is not cross-culturally attainable.
Shelf Life and Other Issues
On a personal level, the life of a beauty queen is much like that of an athlete: they have a certain number of years during which their careers peak, after which many fade into anonymity, a has-been, while others go on to become a ‘brand’ of their own selling signature products. Paromita Mitra made this choice to gamble, as did all others like her, knowing that as a beauty queen, a successful one, that is, she will be dead at 35 unless she reinvents herself after her modeling days are over.
It is this short-lived nature of the profession that makes the ‘why’ interesting. For some it is perhaps about an increase in status for her and her family; the idea is perhaps to attract the best kind of “male investment” (Puts, 2010). For others, it’s a manifestation of a will to make it big. For Paromita, it was perhaps an effort to achieve in all possible domains. Her parents moved to the US to live the American “dream” and succeeded, and Paromita perhaps wanted to make it a fairy tale, complete with evening gowns and crowns.
However, there is a dark side to being “beautiful” – depression – especially when that “beauty” starts to fade away. Bengali actress Suchitra Sen, known for being perhaps the most beautiful girl in Bengal, went into self-imposed exile when she no longer looked like Sagarika, the young woman she played in the film titled Sagarika with Uttam Kumar. This may be an exception in terms of the actions Sen took, but it not when it comes to the emotional upheavals that many celebrities experience as they gradually fade from glory. This is an especially alarming notion for women whose rates of depression are much higher than men’s to begin with, and aging women whose rates of depression are higher than that of younger women.
Neo-feminism has made men and women “equal” and for Paromita Mitra it is a great achievement that she has been able to acquire what evolutionary psychologists would term both feminine abilities (that make her beautiful) and masculine abilities (that would allow her to acquire resources). That we must laud – Paromita exemplifies a generation where more and more women have beauty and resources at the same time. The new Miss USA 2013, “math oriented” Erin Brady from Connecticut, has similar masculine-feminine attributes, and has already commented that she hopes to break stereotypes about pageant contestants’ intelligence. But there is always at least one who makes it bad for everyone else; Miss Utah’s “create education better” response to a question about income inequality reinforces that very stereotype that Brady hopes to dispel. To Erin Brady and Paromita Mitra, congratulations. Perhaps women like them will pave the way for defining beauty that encompasses more than just lustrous hair and tiny waists. One can always hope.
The Bangladesh Context
Bangladesh has not contributed to the number of beauty queens in the world; in fact, there is no official Miss Bangladesh contest at present. There is no beauty queen that young girls aspire to be like; there is no market for the “most beautiful woman in Bangladesh.” And Bangladesh is better off that way because that means everyone is beautiful. But, that is probably too quixotic a notion, after all there are the pseudo Miss Bangladesh contests like the Lux Channel I Superstar in Bangladesh, which one might say, is the unofficial beauty pageant in Bangladesh, and other Miss Bangladesh contests in the US and the UK.
At the same time, the Bangladeshi media has done more than its share of espousing the same prototype of beauty as pageants, paid by companies that sell self-esteem in bottles of skin-whitening creams and bar soaps: the international multinational corporation Unilever, and their local competitors in Bangladesh, such as Meril. Television ads and billboards across the country constantly harp on how to become “beautiful”, how to be the perfect wife by using specific brands of ghee, and how to look gorgeous while hand-washing clothes.
So, ultimately, is it all about ‘mate selection’? When Puts (2010) posits, “heterosexual competition for mates entails attracting members of the opposite sex [for which reason] beauty, fashion, and physical fitness … have become billion dollar industries,” should we just accept this as part of the evolutionary process?
Women compete to look beautiful and attract male investment (Cashdan, 1996, Buss & Schmitt, 1996), their bodies appear to have been sculpted by “male mate choice” (Barber, 1995, Thornhill and Grammer, 1999). But we, as a society, have chosen to make an industry out of it, we support it by buying their slightly-differentiated products; yet, at the same time, we are acutely aware of the body-image issues, the anorexia that they breed in us, the insecurity and self-loathing that become a part of who we are when we fail to meet the standards that have been set for us.
Thus, we live in contradictions; as Naomi Wolf points out in The Beauty Myth: “During the past decade, women breached the power structure; meanwhile, eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fastest growing medical specialty.” And it is perhaps up to the Paromita Mitras of the world to reconcile these contradictions, or maybe, just like many before her, she is just another pawn in this multi-billion dollar game.
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