Fatima al Shamsi
In August 23, the new Miss Universe was announced. I hadn’t watched the finals, nor had I any interest in watching, but everyone was talking about the new beauty queen, so I had to look it up. Good choice, I thought. Miss Mexico was in fact stunning. But so are most of the girls in these contests.
When I was a kid I remember enjoying beauty pageants. I loved the shiny dresses, swimsuits and long, flowing hair. That’s all I actually remember, beautiful hair, red lips and sparkly eyes; actually, almost everything seemed to be sparkling.
Supporters of the contests argue that the women compete with “hopes of advancing their careers, personal and humanitarian goals, and as women who seek to improve the lives of others”.
In other words, it’s not just a brainless beauty show.
Winners are expected to spend a year travelling overseas to spread messages about the control of diseases, peace and public awareness of Aids.
Winners of Miss Earth, which was launched in 2001, under the slogan “Beauties for a Cause” have to spend a year promoting environmental causes and become a spokeswoman for the Miss Earth Foundation and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and other environmental organisations.
But at the end of the day, the girls are being judged on how good they look in a swimsuit and in evening wear. Let’s be honest, the questions round isn’t exactly the highlight of the show. If you can get the opportunity to travel the world, work with humanitarian organisations and live rent-free in an apartment in the Trump Towers (for winners of Miss Universe) for a year, based on your good looks then, hey, why not?
But how exactly can we judge beauty? Women of all shapes and sizes can be beautiful. Yet most of these contestants fall into a narrow range. They all tend to be tall and skinny with flowing hair. It wasn’t till 2007 that a Rastafarian with dreadlocks (Miss Jamaica) was a contestant or that a contestant sported a shaved head (Miss Tanzania).
Most girls grow up with a Barbie doll ideal of beauty. Narrow waist, long hair, tall and slender. As we all know, if Barbie were a real woman she wouldn’t be able to stand up because her proportions are so unnatural. How has she become a little girl’s role model?
Islam teaches modesty. The hijab – seen in the West as a symbol of oppression – is actually supposed to encourage a sense of freedom from social standards of beauty.
Yet the reality is we live in a highly superficial world, from New York City to Abu Dhabi. We follow fashion trends, we want to buy the latest dress, bag or shoes. Cosmetic surgery is almost the norm in some places; girls are spending hours agonising over what they want to “fix”.
In LA, blonde and plastic is in; in New York, it’s wearing black and being borderline anorexic. In the Emirates, beauty is measured by small waists, but you have to be curvy, too, because without those child-bearing hips you aren’t feminine enough. Let’s not forget the long silky hair which has traditionally been seen as a sign of beauty.
The number of girls who suffer from low self-esteem due to superficial markers is a serious issue.
There is no harm in enjoying beauty pageants (and to secretly hope that one day an Emirati girl will be among the ranks).
But while our mothers will always tell us we are beautiful and that our personality and brains are what matters, it would be nice if society thought so too.