Miss Congeniality and the lingerie models

I like to think I’m a pretty fast reader. I always have a couple of books on the go; one paperback, for home, and one e-book, for the commute. I also like to think I’m a committed campaigner for equality for the sexes, with an admittedly biased focus on women. So when it comes to the bestseller ‘Everyday Sexism’ by super-campaigner and writer Laura Bates you’d think I’d zoom through it, right? Wrong.

Every time I pick it up I get about three pages further, then get gripped by a strange sexism-induced lethargy. I just get so down reading about the all-pervasive misogyny in society, I can’t cope. Sometimes the same thing happens to me writing this blog. I think to myself, can I stand writing about yet another example of women being attacked, discriminated against, quietly but persistently being kept down in society?

Today, though, a tweet popped up that caught my eye: “I am a feminist who competes in beauty pageants”. I was intrigued, having recently read an interview with a Victoria’s Secret Angel (that’s a top lingerie model, in case you didn’t know) who declared herself a feminist, explaining “I believe in equal rights for women, I want women to be just as powerful as men.”

Now I’m kind of torn here. On the one hand I think, well, the whole point of feminism is the freedom to choose. If these women want to be judged exclusively on their looks, that’s up to them. Who am I to interfere?

On the other hand I believe that if you really do want men and women to be on a level playing field, then you should contribute towards this vision. And I’m not sure that participating in the Victoria’s Secret show or in a beauty pageant do contribute to a more equal society. As ‘Miss Congeniality’ herself, Kiara Imani Williams, puts it, the pageant system is frequently cited as one that ‘reinforces “unhealthy ideals of attractiveness”’.

When you look at the numbers of young girls missing out on their education because they are so upset about their bodies (see Everyday Sexism), to give just one example, then I think feminists need to have a long think about the message they are sending out to others, including girls and young women, when taking on a public role in the fashion and beauty industry.

Kiara Imani Williams makes a simple argument. She competes in pageants because ‘I like them’ and ‘I have fun’. And that’s great for Kiara. But not so great for the girls and boys and men and women who see that women continue to be judged solely on their looks and thinness, whilst men continue to be measured according to their actions.

Kiara Imani Williams is evidently intelligent and is not ignorant of the arguments against beauty pageants. She is understandably tired of being ‘criticised, judged and attacked’ and frustrated by what she sees as hypocrisy, when feminists ‘demand that women be given the right to choose their own path, then […] place demands on the acceptable pathways to feminism.’ Kiara, I’m sorry to be one such hypocrite.

Because you are right, it is totally your choice to ‘wear butt glue to keep my bikini in place when I walk’ (I didn’t even realise that was a thing). You are also right that you should not be attacked and that the sorority should stick together if we are to progress. As you say so eloquently: ‘It’s hard being a woman today when society bashes you for being unhealthy and overweight, while simultaneously bashing you for striving to be healthy and fit.’

And yet. I have to ask, is it worth it? If you can get through it, read Everyday Sexism and read the evidence about the impact of unrelenting re-touched images of western ideals of beauty. Not just on children and young women, but on boys and men and the whole of society. By perpetuating the myth that women’s only worth lies in their beauty, we are damaging everyone, everything. It’s laughably easy to find evidence that inequality is linked to societal unhappiness- and who wants that? If you’re for a happier society, you’re for a more equal society. That means taking the emphasis away from judging people on their looks and more on their actions.

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