Beauty pageants are skin shallow

I know I’m going to get into trouble for this from a legion of geeky fans, just like I did with the chess piece – but I can’t help but comment on the media frenzy over Sabrina Houssami. As with the chess thing, we have the perfect ingredients for a ‘lighter side of’ piece – an amusingly petty feud in a group that’s fun to sneer at, and an photogenic heroine. But reading about the Sydney Uni psychology student who’s been controversially crowned Miss World Australia, I couldn’t help but ask myself one thing: why would anyone intelligent want to enter a beauty pageant in the first place?

To begin with, Houssami’s ethnicity and religion are raised in this article yesterday, which makes the point that she’s “Australia’s “first contestant of Islamic and mixed cultural background”. I guess it’s possible to argue that she’s raising the profile of those communities – being a kind of cross-cultural ambassador. Combating racism is a fine thing. But surely all that entering a pageant really does is raise awareness that women of Indian-Lebanese background can be hot? Other than for complete Neanderthals, that’s not exactly an astonishing revelation.

The article also mentions that Houssami’s a member of Mensa, and a bit of Googling reveals that she claims to have an IQ of 140. If I were a member of Mensa, I’d hope I was smart enough not to mention it publicly for fear of being sniggered at, or worse yet, perceived as a bit of a snob. But let’s assume for argument’s sake that she is, in fact, terrifyingly smart. That makes it even harder to understand why she’s willing to parade around wearing a sash.

I take most ranting about the patriarchy with a grain of salt. But surely if a sinister global brotherhood of men does run the world, beauty pageants are one of the most transparent frauds it’s ever perpetrated. They are ogle-fests, nothing more; a walking, talking version of FHM dressed in a layer of patronising trash about global understanding that infuriates anyone who actually works towards it. The constant appeals to ‘world peace’ are a comedy cliché. Sure, you can change the world while being perved on in a swimsuit, but only for millions of teenage boys.

So will Houssami swimsuit up? Yesterday’s article contained this gem of a paragraph:

Miss Houssami also hopes to dispel myths about Islam by competing. “Religion is something that is interpreted by the individual and I try to focus on the moral values of religion,” she said. “I will wear a bikini but not a string bikini, so as long as it is not skimpy.”

How does quibbling slightly over the precise degree of skimpiness of your bikini encourage a focus on the moral values of religion? I don’t know what her beliefs are – but seriously, what on earth do bikinis have to do with religion. The only thing I can think of is that her actions would outrage many devout Muslims and Hindus, and that’s hardly a myth. Is she going to get the radical wing of the BJP to stop protesting beauty pageants? Does she plan to convince the Muslims who rioted in Nigeria when Miss World was scheduled to take place there that they shouldn’t have burned churches and killed over 100 people?

The real myth here is that beauty pageants are about more than physical appearance. Sure, winners spend a year doing charity work, and pay constant lip service to a variety of causes. Houssami may be able to accomplish more than most. But look at the achievements of Australia’s most successful beauty queen, former Miss Universe Jennifer Hawkins. I’m sure she presided at hundreds of unnoticed charity events, but the only time she generated real headlines was when she accidentally showing her buttocks at a Westfield. Since her ‘reign’ ended, she’s done really important work on Dancing With The Stars and The Great Outdoors. That’s fine for someone who aspires to be a lifestyle TV presenter, but no-one should kid themselves that beauty pageants are about more than that.

The definitive scholarly work on the subject, Miss Congeniality, concluded with the character played by Hollywood’s most openly nerdy actress, Sandra Bullock, still feeling uncomfortable about the whole idea, but seeing more worth than she’d expected in her fellow contestants. That ultimately makes it all the more distressing that they’ve been conned into a competition that is ultimately only interested in their bodies. And the film, like so many other pop-culture treatments of the subject, mocks beauty pageants, and in particular their charitable ambitions. Sadly, I have yet to see Miss Congeniality II: Armed And Fabulous.

This myth that if you get famous for your beauty, people will care about your brains as well was even perpetrated by Sydney University in its gushing writeup of Houssami’s success. Presumably the marketing department hopes she’ll encourage international and full-fee student enrolments, which seems to be its major aim these days. The university tackily compared itself to Houssami as a place of great beauty that’s also top-notch intellectually. How completely embarrassing.

Perhaps the university would like to host the 2008 event, which is apparently planned for Australia? It could give all the contestants honorary degrees.

Our society looks down on beauty pageant contestants, the same way it looks down on celebrities like Paris Hilton and Pamela Anderson. Sneering at them allows the mainstream to feel better about their own lives, and that’s why we like to be amused by silly fights like this one over Miss World Australia. If Houssami really is smart, she’ll relinquish the title and spend the time working in an area where her brains will be the main thing people notice. Oh, and where she doesn’t have to wear a swimsuit.

When you’re beautiful and intelligent, many doors are open to you. What a shame to go through the one marked “demeaning”.

Dominic Knight