Are beauty pageants for women inherently misogynist, reductive, or toxic, or can those contests be empowering?
And, who better than the newly crowned Miss India 2020 winners -- Manasa Varanasi, Manika Sheokand, and Manya Singh -- to answer that perplexing question? The fiercely contested Miss India 2020 will be telecast on Colors TV today.
“It’s an unfair criticism. It’s important to note that beauty pageants have evolved over the years,” said Manasa Varanasi, who has now qualified to represent India and compete in the Miss World 2021 on a global stage.
The 23-year-old from Telangana points out that beauty contests have come a long way and are not focusing on their physical attributes alone. Over several decades, the relevance of measuring a woman’s worth by their physical attributes is being closely scrutinized for re-enforcing body stereotypes and unrealistic beauty standards among women. But the three winners of Miss India 2020 aren’t buying into that criticism.
“We are being given a stage to engage ourselves and completely devote ourselves to a purpose. And that purpose is being given more weightage than our physical attributes in this competition,” said Varanasi.
She points out that she is an engineer by profession and was working in a financial firm before enrolling in the fiercely contested Miss India 2020.
“I love pushing myself mentally and physically. And, as someone who has also invested a lot of time and energy into social causes, I feel that a beauty pageant would be the perfect opportunity for me to blend what I like to do as a person and what I have to offer. My purpose to do greater good has always been my biggest motivation for this journey.”
Her fellow contestant and Miss India second runner-up Manya Singh – whose father is an auto-rickshaw driver in Uttar Pradesh – reminds us that women like her are ‘very aggressive’ towards their profession.
They are dreamers and consider beauty contests as a stepping-stone to a better future.
“At Miss India stage, they have always seen us as ‘beauty with brains and heart’. They were keen to know what we want to give back to society. It was all about the brain, the heart, and the confidence with which we carried ourselves. Those aspects mattered,” said Singh.
At no point did these three women feel objectified or were made to believe that their self-worth was pinned to their vital statistics. They are not the sum of their body parts nor were they commodified, they remind us.
First runner-up Manika Sheokand, who represented Chandigarh, even believes there’s a deeply entrenched stigma attached to beauty contests. Many consider it antiquated and regressive, but it’s not the case, says Sheokand.
“I think a lot of people have this taboo attached to beauty contests. They feel these contests objectify women. But I want to break this myth because beauty pageants are more than that. They make a woman strong. This contest has made me evolve to become the best version of myself. Every year, there are so many women coming out strong and becoming the voice of the people around them,” said Sheokand, adding that winners and contestants from these pageants walk out with a strong sense of confidence and self-worth.
“When the girls make it by winning, we want to give back to society.”
These three winners, who come from different economic strata and walks of life, also believe that their identity and their dream was never to be a tiara-wearing princess. They had full-time jobs and were armed with college degrees before they swapped it for designer gowns and sky-high heels.
“I never planned on auditioning for Miss India. I had this basic plan in place – complete my MBA education, get a job and grow vertically in a company, and switch to start your own business. Miss India was never in my plan, but I was always fascinated by these girls who become Miss India and wear that beautiful crown. That thought was stuck somewhere and my sister pushed me to enter it,” Sheokand. While she didn’t enter the contest by design, Singh – who comes from a relatively more humble and modest background – had always viewed Miss India as a platform to be heard.
“For me, it was not just a two or three-year dream. Being a part of Miss India was my 20-year-dream and I am 20 right now. I have always wanted to do something great, not just for me but for the people outside. I wanted to be their voice. Right from 16, I started preparing for the contest. I gave my heart, soul, and everything … This was my life’s most amazing opportunity,” said Singh. Being a daughter of a hard-working father who drove auto-rickshaws also meant that she didn’t have the kind of privilege and head-start afforded to several other contestants, who had greater exposure.
“I was very focused and studious … I started working at a very young age, since childhood, to realise my dream. I knew I wanted to be a part of Miss India. Every step I took, was a step towards my dreams. For me, it wasn’t easy so I knew I had to start from minus and work hard if I wanted to score 100 percent,” said Singh.
According to her, competing in this contest taught her an important life lesson.
“There’s this scene in Miss Congeniality [Sandra Bullock’s hilarious comedy about an FBI agent going undercover as a beauty contestant to thwart a terrorist attack] where Sandra’s mentor tells her to be herself, be confident, and to accept herself. So I think beauty pageant is all about accepting yourself and being confident in your skin,” said Singh.
Beauty contests are also perched as a breeding ground for insecurity and petty rivalry, but these contestants have a different tale to tell.
“The spirit of sisterhood was especially strong in our batch. More than 30 of us women spent almost two months interacting daily. Unlike what’s shown in movies often, there was animosity among us. Deep down, we were all confident about ourselves and we knew we were all unique. On stage, we felt we were sisters who stood together and not against each other,” said Varanasi.
The world is moving towards a more inclusive space, where body positivity is the new normal, reminds Singh.
“Just look at social media these days, we celebrate different body types, figures, and forms of beauty. Beauty comes in different shapes, sizes and colours … This contest has made me more body positive and made me realise that beauty has a lot to do with your mind and your sense of self. Let’s be inclusive,” said Singh.
The grand finale of Miss India 2020 will be telecast on Colors TV on February 28.
Miss India contest amid a pandemic
What is it like to compete in a beauty contest like Miss India during a pandemic, when social distancing is the norm?
According to Manika Singh, most of the qualifying rounds were done through virtual Zoom sessions including the initial interviews with the judges.
“But there were a few on-ground events too along with zoom sessions which were more relaxing. We enjoyed the best of both worlds,” said Singh.
The virtual zoom sessions helped organisers and judges to whittle down 31 contestants from across Indian states to 15 beauty queen hopefuls.
“70 percent of our contest was done virtually … But 15 of us who were shortlisted spent time together in the same house. But nothing beats face-to-face interactions,” said Varanasi.
History has taught us that being a Miss India winner often leads to Bollywood doors opening magically? Actors including Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Lara Dutta and Neha Dhupia all wore a Miss India tiaras before embarking on a career in Bollywood.
The winners of Miss India 2020 haven’t ruled out Bollywood films as a natural career option either. When asked, all three winners said that they will be happy to give Bollywood films a shot once they are done with representing India on global beauty contest platforms. For instance Manya Singh, who worked in Pizza Hut and whose mother sold her jewellery to pay her school fees, wants her story to inspire all the young girls with limited means in India.
“I came into the beauty industry for people to get inspired by me. I am getting new chances because of my win. I will welcome Bollywood offers with open arms too … Whatever I do, I know people will look up to me. Many will go: ‘if she can do it, I can do it too’. I want to inspire every young girl out there to dream big,” said Singh.