The Daily Monocle

Critical book reviews from a literary skeptic.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

An Unconventional Update

Posted by J. P. Wickwire

I know. I haven't updated in a long time. And this isn't the most normal Daily Monocle fare. That being said, I hope you'll enjoy it until my midterms are over, and I can get back on track. :)

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For one of my classes, we're examining feminity in beauty pageants, as well as ethnic and cultural definition through gender constructs. This is a sort of reflection I wrote on the book, The Most Beautiful Girl in the World by Sarah Banet-Weiser.

Beauty pageants seem to be missing the point of pageantry altogether. These contests revolve around the feminine ideal, or, beauty as an external concept. Globally, with so many judges and contestants crying foul over the issues of race and ethnicity within the pageant world, one begins to wonder if perhaps these so called “beauty pageants” are really contests in order to assert one’s national identity. Or is national identity just one of the many facets of beauty within a beauty pageant?

Instead of merely being satisfied with the concept of “woman”, contestants are broken down categorically by race and ethnicity. Of course this is going to cause problems. I truly believe, however, that race wouldn’t be such an issue if it wasn’t emphasized so strongly. As controversial as that view may be, I can sincerely say that, as a young woman who grew up in a family that was essentially “color blind”, I’ve never understood racism. And when beauty pageants, of all places, bring in cultural background as a measure of external beauty, I want to turn the television off.

As Banet-Weiser says, beauty pageants are, and probably always will be, a struggle “over both national and international gender identity.” We, in turn, cannot expect any one pageant to represent the cultural and ethnic identity of any one nation, regardless of the ethnicity of the majority of the contestants. Likewise, the argument that global pageants today have been “Americanized” is largely invalid, seeing as American beauty relies not on its own, native properties, but rather on attempted homogenization of social constructs.

If beauty pageants are to be viewed as cultural events, they should be styled as such. However, this would require each culture to define beauty through their own, distinct “eyes”, which, with the advent of common travel and immigration, is virtually impossible. True markers of cultural beauty have been all but mythologized, or are often thought of as “barbaric” or “primitive”.

The lines between cultures blur too often to truly make a deductive statement regarding the base nature of feminine beauty. Many markers of beauty are too controversial to be quantified. For example, there has never been a Miss America with a visible tattoo. Maori women, however, ritually tattoo their lips and chins as a mark of femininity and beauty. Many African and South American cultures also embrace skin markings as either a rite of passage, or a measure of femininity. And while one could use this to show that beauty pageants only emphasize antiquated, Anglicized traits of femininity, we forget that during the English Victorian era—arguably the most conservative of recent eras in the West—it was fashionable for young women to get small tattoos.

The nature of beauty is so subjective that we as a collective species should stop trying to find a definition. Beauty is not quantifiable. And seeing as no one culture can identify strict parameters for beauty in its own ethnicity, yet wants to argue about natural identity and ends up relying on anglicized measures of beauty, pageant judging seems nothing if not absurd.

While pop culture continues to romanticize the world of beauty pageants and the notion of “natural” beauty, I can’t help but think that the attempt to quantify beauty as a uniform, external, attribute undermines the concept of “beautiful” altogether. As the adage goes, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” And the only true way to regulate that “eye” is to ask, not only the contestant, but the proverbial beholder themselves to sacrifice their individuality. Studies have shown that humans find symmetry and uniformity attractive, but never to such an extent that women should feel like they have to violate their natural identity to achieve a dystopian image.

In order to truly crown the queen of any pageant, one must first define tangible examples of intangible beauty. Beauty, as a concept, is tangibly defined differently for every culture, nation, and race. When put in these terms, beauty is something that either exists everywhere or nowhere at all. Advocates of external beauty may argue that certain traits, such as a waist-to-hips ratio, or bust size, are held as uniform beauty standards, regardless of culture. But one need only do the most basic amounts of research to turn up countless cultures that defy these stereotypes.

If feminine beauty is a social construction—and all evidence points to this conclusion—then no one culture, race, nation or ethnicity will ever be able to quantify beauty to an extent that will satisfy the rest of the world. So how can any beauty pageant truly wish to crown the “most beautiful” contestant?
Homogenizing beauty is impossible. Race in beauty pageants should be a non-issue. The fact that most pageants around the world today use an “Americanized” judging scale is flawed, but inevitable, if one regards America as a cultural melting pot.

Although I know that Banet-Weiser doesn’t solely focus on ethnicity and feminine identity, I feel as though both of these issues are the driving points behind pageant controversy in general. Unless beauty becomes a universally uniform commodity—in which case it will become a dystopian concept, rather than a utopian concept—beauty pageants as a way to quantify the feminine ideal are future exercises in the fickleness of human nature. We will always be changeable creatures—will always shift our ideals in order to reflect the changing social and economic standings around us—and therefore, beauty will always be an individualistic concept.

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