THE arguments both for and against it are known. Beauty pageants demean women; they empower women (think of small-town girls, of career opportunities). Beauty emphasises only one aspect, the physical, to the exclusion of others; physical beauty is something to be proud of. Only tall girls with Caucasian looks can win global beauty contests; exotic Indian beauties are dazzling the world. India (or rather The Times of) produces world-class lookers; Indian only wins since it's the emerging market for foreign cosmetics.
So it runs. Ten years ago, if someone told me I could watch the Miss World contest live on my TV set, I might have considered getting some friends together, ordering in some beer and taking bets on likely winners. Politically incorrect? Absolutely. Yet, I can think of equally ambiguous pastimes that seem to rouse little of the same ire. Heavyweight boxing. Formula One racing. Critics may carp but let me posit one argument: that the world isn't perfect. We aren't perfect creatures. In our imperfect beings, we harbour strange desires to see men punch each other in the face, crash expensive cars into barriers and to see women (and men) pit their physical assets against each other.
What I find astounding though is the recent insidious propaganda accompanying the growth of the beauty pageant industry in India. Ever since Sushmita Sen walked away with the Miss Universe tiara and others followed gracefully, we have been treated to a series of perception softeners. The most prominent of these: beauty is an accomplishment, not god-given.
Consider this business about the making of a successful contestant, a project now being compared to an Olympic regimen. A newspaper report said experts started working 'on and with Mookhey ever since she was crowned Miss India runner-up in January'. The training included dress fittings, make-up, public speaking, weight training, skin care and so on. But can those nine months of training be compared to a lifetime's preparation for the Olympics?
But no! Now we talk about poise and the ability to answer questions. It's odd: this demand for beauty contestants to exhibit mental dexterity. Does nobody see the absurdity of treating this business with such solemnity? Contestants have claimed to read newspapers for a few weeks and practised 150 questions. Nice but not Einstein. Why should they be? Just as why should every beauty queen be forced to mouth platitudes about saving poor children. Why can't she admit she's dying to be the one posing beside Subhash Ghai when he cuts his next birthday cake?
Be that as it may. What offends me is the exaggerated significance this business has achieved in our lives. In her well-known book, Naomi Wolf talks about the role of the beauty myth in making women unthinking and avid consumers of cosmetics.
However, this is about reordering of priorities. Of giving a false sense of exaltation to something essentially trivial. That's what it isca silly endeavour turned into a national obsession. Can we now relegate it to where it belongs? To the margins of our lives. Where it can do no harm. Either way.