Miss LSE or Miss-ogyny?

There was a beauty pageant called ‘Miss LSE’ held a few weeks ago. The student’s union found it unconstitutional to be associated with it. However, though The London School of Economics itself was made aware, it outrageously neglected to enforce the trademark on its name and distance itself. I am student at the university and was sad and angry to see this done in my name. Failing all other routes, students mounted a protest. This is the story and my reflections on it.

A company called 121 Entertainment began holding beauty pageants in the various University of London colleges in 2006. There was a Miss Kings, a Miss UCL and this year, for the first time, there was a Miss LSE. The winners from each competition then go on to vie for the ‘Miss University of London’ title.

Why should a centre of learning have anything to say about the attractiveness of its students?

At first, organisers had arranged for the LSE competition to be endorsed by the LSE student’s union. However it was pointed out by concerned parties that the union’s constitution includes a clause that students should not be discriminated against because of their physical appearance. So the union reluctantly backed out. This caused a great deal of controversy on campus. Some were outraged at the objections to ‘Miss LSE’ and thought that it was ‘political correctness gone mad’, an increasingly common refrain used with varying appropriateness. Others were outraged that the union had endorsed the contest in the first place.

Beauty pageants are not wrong in principle, if they are defined as events that encourage the appreciation of the beauty, in the widest sense, of the human body. However most beauty pageants I have seen or read about do not do this, in fact they do the reverse. First, an overwhelming majority of competitions are for women contestants only. This has to be mentioned and I see no good reason for it – the male body is fantastically beautiful as even the most cursory survey of the history of art will support. Second by championing an increasingly small range of ideal body shapes and facial features, predominantly, though not exclusively, among women, the field of beauty is unnecessarily constrained again. Different times and places have highlighted very different characteristics as beautiful which serves to demonstrate the fluidity of the concept and the arrogance of trying to define it too narrowly. Beyond that the proclamation of one ‘Miss World’, ‘Mr Universe’, etc, who is inevitably of the modern, and generally Western mould of attractiveness, damages the large majority who are made to feel left out. So while perhaps not objectionable in principle, the practice of beauty pageants certainly is.

Whether or not beauty pageants are, or can be, a good thing is still controversial for some. I think there is a much simpler case to be made about holding a beauty pageant within a university. Universities should aim to contribute to students’ knowledge, growth and confidence. They also engage in research. These should be their two fundamental goals and their success at achieving them should be the basis of their reputation.

In the long run the cumulative effect of these small events piles up and will determine the shape of future societies

How can a beauty pageant contribute? Why should a centre of learning have anything to say about the attractiveness of its students? It should be concerned exclusively with other things. I have heard the argument that a beauty pageant it just like football or pottery, it is a kind of extra-curricular that a university should support. I think that beauty pageants like ‘Miss LSE’ come in a different category from football.

The LSE is one of the most international universities in the UK, with students and academics from all kinds of places many of which have varying visions of beauty. Therefore championing one, predictably very thin, person as some kind of ideal is not only crass, it seeks to dictate one exclusive version of beauty where there are many, which is surely inappropriate and wrong. The ‘Miss LSE’ contest does this, but it also does more. That the LSE had the opportunity, which it did, to remove its name from the title and it didn’t, says something about the place. A friend spoke to a senior figure in the administration who said that the institution did not waste its time with ‘trivialities’ like this contest. They did nothing and so we protested outside the contest under the slogan “Miss-ogeny at LSE”.

It is easy to see this issue, and many like it, as party poopers just looking to make fuss: “Oh it’s those feminists again – yawn,” one hears. It’s easy to see it that way if, like so many, one focuses on the short run; on this generation, not on the next or the one after, on the quick money and not the repercussions. But in the long run the cumulative effect of these small events piles up and will determine the shape of future societies; women’s future experiences and men’s. It seems to me that now the question is, how much do we care about the long run in Britain today? And I would venture an answer – not enough.

Antonia Strachey lives in London and is a second year student of economic history with economics at LSE. Right now she is typing from Tbilisi, Georgia and earlier on this month she was in Olso, Norway which struck her as a place that really does focus on the long run, and, incidentally, has fabulously advanced gender equality. She heartily advises a trip to see a pretty gender balanced society in operation – it’s a wonderful sight