Miss World's Swimsuit Contest Has Said a Big Farewell — Is This What Progress Looks Like?
The lights, the shiny teeth, the awkward answers, the glittery gowns — they're all pageant staples we know from our annual hate-watch of the various "Miss" competitions. But this coming year, Miss World is going to be without one of the most controversial companions in the world of pageantry: the swimsuit competition. In a move that feels like a long time coming (and that has unsurprisingly taken place when a woman has been heading the organization), Miss World 2015 will not contain a swimsuit component. Say what? In a private meeting last Friday, chairwoman Julia Morley revealed the news to Elle, which means that this year's crowned queen is the last who will have to sport "beachwear" as a part of earning her title. "I really don’t want — I don’t need to see women just walking up and down in bikinis. It doesn't do anything for the woman. And it doesn't do anything for any of us," Morley noted.
So... is this move due to more progressive thinking, or is the organization finally caving in to its feminist detractors? Feminist activism and pageants have had a long history of not-so-peaceful coexistence. You know the tired (and untrue) trope that feminists are a bunch of "bra burners?" That myth stems from a protest that took place at a Miss America Pageant in 1968. The protests have done everything but let up in the 46 years since feminists started outwardly opposing pageants. I mean, a very small number of protesters took to the streets in London just this year. And last year the competition's lack of cultural awareness and sensitivity sparked protests in Indonesia because, of course, a bunch of privileged people held a contest with a swimsuit component in a Muslim country.
One of my favorite memories of growing up was being 10 or 11, and staying over at my Grannie's while my parents were away. She would make a point of getting a big bucket of fried chicken (which I was never usually allowed to have) with macaroni salad, and we'd sit and watch the competition together. We loved the talent portion and the sparkly gowns, and she taught me to laugh at the swimsuit competition — because why were we SO literally judging the way women looked? My Grannie was the first one to teach me (in her own way) to consume media critically, and that being talented and interesting were more important than looking mainstream cute in an evening gown or bathing suit.
As an adult, my feminism has evolved to the point where my feelings about beauty pageants are conflicted. I claim to be pro-choice and that whatever women want to do with their bodies is up to them. I think that has to count for abortions, plastic surgery, diets, Spanx and pageants, too — even though I'd never subject myself to some of those things. The point is, I don't get to say what is and isn't okay for other women to do with their bodies. If one of the things they want to do is hang out in a swimsuit and be scored on it, then that's their choice, and it's valid — even if the message that our value comes from the way we look may be patriarchal; even if there's no equivalent for men; even if the contest perpetuates very strict standards of beauty.
At the same time, we're all entitled to our opinions. I can believe that it's actually super feminist for women to control the way they present themselves to the world (bare-faced or full makeup). I can also believe, at the exact same time, that beauty pageants have to go or be re-imagined at the very least. But to my mind, eliminating the swimsuit competition doesn't suddenly make Miss World feminist — far from it. It's still a pageant that clings to outdated ideals of what a woman should be and literally pits women against each other. And anything that excludes entire groups of women and celebrates one specific type of beauty is definitely harmful.
Starting with the infantilizing title of "Miss" and ending at the notion of the appearance-based competition, there's definitely a lot of work to be done. Sure, the talent and interview portions of the event are kind of legit, and the women in the competition usually have long lists of remarkable achievements. I would never deny that; don't get me wrong. Just think about it: the brand new Miss World is a 22-year-old med student! Unfortunately, the appearance-based aspects still reign supreme and are what bring in the TV audiences. I don't know about you, but I'd watch the heck out of a competition that was like "let's just celebrate really rad ladies doing cool things." Every day in the world is basically a beauty pageant, and we're constantly judging the way that people dress and look in their clothes. So why do we need a special, outdated spectacle once a year to remind ourselves that it's not enough to be smart and well-spoken because we have to look traditionally "good" in a dress, too?Images: Getty; Twitter; Giphy; Tumblr/amberlovesgifs