ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Not a Beautiful Business

Do beauty contests have any place in institutions of learning?

How does walking the fashion ramp benefit a student pursuing a course of engineering, asked the Madras High Court while passing an interim order directing the Tamil Nadu government to ban beauty contests in all colleges, deemed universities and universities. The court said that it was a matter of concern “whether at all such an event to select the best looking female/male student is required to be conducted in a cultural event.” The interim order received poor coverage in the mainstream media and expectations that it would lead to a lively public debate were belied. The boost in the number, scale and expanse of beauty pageants in the country following liberalisation in the 1990s has now extended to educational institutions, becoming an integral part of the annual day events and intercollegiate festivals. A number of big media houses have begun sponsoring “discovery” contests in colleges that are judged by film stars and models, with the shortlisted students then being adjudged on the basis of ratings received from readers or viewers. In a bid to generate interest, these contests are given fancy names. But in the ultimate analysis it boils down to the basics that are unchanging: big bucks, huge sponsorships and advertising campaigns, media hype (with the inevitable “media partners”) and the contestant’s physical grooming, attributes and looks.

The Madras High Court’s order throws up two separate issues. One, as addressed in the order, is the suitability of holding beauty contests in centres of learning. The other is whether beauty contests should be held at all. For many decades, beauty contests have been opposed around the world on the grounds that they demean women. In India, the opposition to them is more complex because of the tendency of the moral police and patriarchal interests to use this to further their own agenda. As a result, even if some people are opposed to beauty contests, they hesitate in voicing their opposition because it could play into the hands of ultra-conservative sections in society who, under the guise of preserving “Indian culture,” will enforce repressive expectations of female conduct. On the other side, contest organisers go to ridiculous lengths to deflect criticism about commoditisation of the female body. In 2014, the international media reported on a pageant for Muslim women in Indonesia to “counter” Western beauty contests. The contestants wore headscarves and were to be judged on their competence in recitation of verses from the Koran and their view on Islam in the modern world. However, one contestant was bold enough to tell the media that the emphasis had been on “promotion and media and looking nice.”

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