Harnaaz Sandhu
India's Harnaaz Sandhu waves after being crowned Miss Universe 2021 during the 70th Miss Universe pageant, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, in Eilat, Israel. Image Credit: AP

2021 has one foot out of the door but women parading in swim wear are still being judged on their impeccable physical attributes.

Cloned like her fellow participants in a similar attire and an identical smile pasted so tightly as though world peace depended on it, 21-year-old Harnaaz Sandhu’s Miss Universe crown came after she had answered some challenging questions including one where she gave cat calls in response to being asked to impersonate an animal.

Seeing her stroll on a stage rolling a giant umbrella in her hand was a big slice of dystopia. The last two years have encouraged the need to cut the clutter – superficial, toxic and sometimes even personal. Necessity or invaluable distraction are the two reset buttons on our remotes of life. Where then do beauty pageants fit in, when they have already long outlived their sell by date?

Interesting timing

The timing of this title is interesting. The win for India after 21 years at the Miss Universe pageant comes after a stunning IPO by e-commerce company Nykaa that sells beauty and fashion products.

The success of the IPO was a revelation that the Indian woman consumer had been quietly lapping up beauty, online. Was it time to focus the attention back on a market that was once spearheaded by a flurry of crowns that suddenly dried up as though the job was done? Is the Indian beauty queen at the mercy of economics?

The existential question surrounding beauty pageants on a world stage like the Miss Universe or Miss World though is deeper. Forget for a moment the harsh standards of beauty these pageants extract- stipulations that a contestant must be below the age of 27, single and unmarried are extremely jarring- and try and align a global movement focusing on body positivity with a contest that still objectifies women. At the Indian intersection, it also allows for casual sexism.

The last two years should have allowed for some re-think. It has been a time when unfettered access to social media has been at the hands of idle minds, when time stuck indoors has been spent doom scrolling and simultaneously perfecting an image online by imitating those who never show their real face.

While Covid has cost jobs, it has also been a boom time for the new age professional- influencers have been busy selling everything from perfection to products that promise the fairy tale. ‘Mirror mirror on the wall,’ is no longer a question.

Inspiring the social media audience

Beauty pageants inspire the predominantly young Instagram audience to take the short cut home when the last thing needed in these unsettling times is a resurgence of toxic beauty. Families have been shattered, incomes have disappeared, and footholds need to be found again.

Judging on the basis, of physical beauty instead of setting examples of admiring the inherent strength or inner beauty when it could not be a life less ordinary all around is tone deaf.

Contests like these increase expectations they are also a push back for inclusiveness especially in a country that is still struggling at the base with body neutrality. Far from being embraced, plus sizes in our country are still looked at with embarrassment.

Bollywood is largely responsible for promoting body stereotypes where the comic element is always the overweight character and where the dusky girl never finds a groom until she uses ‘Fair and Lovely’ cream. As a social media user pointed out, activism over global matters doesn’t quite sync with a Karan Johar movie which is where a number, of our beauty queens ultimately end up.

Despite promises of change on the world stage, from Aishwarya Rai, Lara Dutta to Priyanka Chopra, beauty queens don’t offer a murmur as they get pigeonholed in Bollywood.

Impossible physical standards

For decades the failure to match the perceived notions of conventional beauty has been internalised as humour and the impossible physical standards are promoted even by families and relatives whether subtly or openly. Ever wondered why young girls are just drinking warm water at parties?

Contrary to an overwhelming belief, body shaming cannot be dismissed as something that is ‘just a phase’ or a ‘figment of someone’s imagination.’ Teenagers today are paying the price for this problematic conviction that is insidious and compounded now by the desperation of social media validation. They believe, they get just one shot, refusing to believe that for every Harnaaz there are countless others who didn’t make the cut.

More than a handful of schoolgirls have told me how feeling physically inadequate they resorted to self-harm. Harnaaz’s win is welcome for aspirational small- town India, but in school and college corridors, the claws of anorexia, bulimia and depression are not unfamiliar. Alicia Machado who won the title in 1996 opened, up last year about her battle with anorexia during the year she was Miss Universe as a 19-year-old.

Those who think it is better to swim with the tide are pulling out all guns, even though they are barely teenagers. A celebrity dermatologist told me how teenagers have been making a beehive for her clinic for procedures from lip fillers, rhinoplasty to under eye socket fillings and more- you can let your imagination run. A couple of doctors say the youngest who knocked on their door was just 13. Beauty has never been more complicated.

Instead, shouldn’t it have become simpler? Look back at how the victories by Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai were celebrated and think how many of us really remember that Manushi Chillar won the Miss World in 2017? I didn’t.

The winners may make themselves believe that the times are unchanged and a beauty pageant is a platform for activism, but their own lack of choice on that stage is a giveaway.