With An Eye For Beauty

Manushi Chhillar from India made the headlines last November upon winning the Miss World pageant. Then came the Miss Universe Pageant which had Demi- Leigh Nel- Peters of South Africa winning it the following weekend. Hearing about these beauty pageants had me thinking about the whole idea of beauty pageants. While beauty pageants have existed for many years and have spawned countless such success stories, there are many who despise beauty pageants. The reasons range from accusations of these events being overly shallow to finding them demeaning towards women by making contestants parade around in ball gowns and bathing suits, flaunting their bodies. So, in the modern era, should beauty pageants continue to exist or should they slowly be done away with?

Miss World 2017 winner, Manushi Chhillar. Credits: indiatvnews.com
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The first Miss America pageant in 1921. Credits: NY daily news.

Beauty pageants owe their origins to the celebration of European festivals during the medieval era such as the traditional English May Day celebrations during which a May Queen would be crowned. This tradition morphed into beauty pageants in the 1880s as the concept of “beauty queen” became popular amongst people in both Europe and America. At the first international beauty pageant held in the Belgian resort of Spa in 1888, all participants had to send in a photo and a short description of themselves to be eligible to enter and a final selection of 21 was chosen by an all-men jury. However, beauty pageants became respectable only in 1921 when the first Miss America pageant was held in Atlantic City in an effort to increase tourism under the title “Inter-City Beauty Contest”.

This popularity paved the way for the creation of Miss World pageant in 1951, and both Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants in 1952.

And as these beauty pageants have been created, the rules just got more and more interesting.

I find that the eligibility rules of the USA National Miss Pageant to be quite amusing. One of the rules states that all delegates must be a natural born female, never been married, never have been pregnant or had a child. The rule seems anachronistic in today’s day and age where we have become more accepting towards everyone.

Jaela Richburg, an 11th grader at SAS, shared her thoughts after hearing about that rule.

“I think it’s stupid that you have to be born female or never have been married and never have been pregnant. Those people are beautiful too”.

Yes, married mothers and women not naturally born female are beautiful too but apparently, there is an absolute standard of beauty that exists in society. In response to such biases, the Miss Black America contest was started in 1968 due to the lack of black women in the Miss America contest.

Could these biases be eliminated by using machines to do the judging?

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It’s sad that a separate pageant had to be created for a section of the American society due to lack of diversity in beauty pageants. Credits: missblackamerica.com

An article in the Guardian newspaper titled “A beauty contest was judged by AI and the robots didn’t like dark skin” talked about an online international beauty pageant in 2016 called “Beauty AI” that was judged by AI Robots. About 6000 people sent photos from more than 100 countries with the hope that the AI supported by complex algorithms would find faces that most closely resembled “human beauty” in an unbiased manner.

At the end of it, there were 44 winners of whom most were white, some were Asian and only one was a dark-skinned person. No doubt, a majority of the people who submitted their photos were white but there were many people of color from India and Africa who had also submitted their photos. Alex Zhavoronkov, Beauty AI’s chief science officer commented “If you have not that many people of color within the dataset, then you might actually have biased results. When you’re training an algorithm to recognize certain patterns, you might not have enough data, or the data itself might be biased”.

Bernard Harcourt, Columbia University professor of law and political science said that “humans are really doing the thinking, even when it’s couched as algorithms and we think it’s neutral and scientific”.

Over the years, beauty pageants have become less biased with almost 75% of the Miss World pageant winners over the last twenty years being people of color. However, other critics of beauty pageants opine that the pageants should be about both pretty faces and smart caring minds.

In defense of beauty pageants,  there is a little bit of emphasis on something other than beauty such as the talent and the questioning round. The questioning round, in particular, requires the beauty pageant competitors need to have a good grasp of general knowledge and the smartness to think on their feet in order to be crowned winners. A sample of the questions put to the contestants of the Miss World 2017 supports this argument.

“If you speak in front of all the leaders of the world, what would you speak about?”

“Cyber-bullying is one of the greatest problems in the world today. How would you solve this?”

“Which profession deserves the highest salary and why?”

The answer to the last question won Manushi Chhillar the title of Miss World.

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Manushi Chhilar won hearts after giving her answer to this question. Credits: dopl3r.com

However, it is a beauty contest and so beauty is always the deciding factor. That is why, personally, winning a beauty pageant is not on my bucket list. While I don’t dislike anyone who has competed in beauty pageants, I don’t necessarily like the fact that one’s looks and feminine behavior play a big factor in deciding who wins or even gets to compete. The problem in beauty pageants primarily lies in the name itself – “beauty pageants”. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I believe that there’s going to have to be a huge shift in emphasis from good-looks to intelligence in beauty pageants in order for them to ultimately be a less shallow affair.


Author: Aditi Balasubramanian

Aditi Balasubramanian is a senior at SAS and one of the Chief Copy Editors for The Eye. This is her fourth year at SAS but she has lived in Singapore her whole life. In her free time, she enjoys writing, reading and watching "Gilmore Girls"--which may have fuelled her interest in being a journalist. She loves anything with chocolate in it and Indian food. She can be contacted at balasubram47401@sas.edu.sg.

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