When a beauty contest allegedly isn’t a beauty contest…

Gok Wan continues his controversial and maybe confusing approach to women (see here and here) by hosting a naked beauty contest programme for Channel 4. Channel 4 have claimed it as a way of reintroducing feminism to a new audience “by stealth” (I’m sorry WTF? By making women compete publically to be crowned the most attractive? How is that feminist?). Despite all claims that this is “subversion” (now haven’t we had that before?), which in this case means judging the women on whether they love themselves enough “unadorned” and using their intellectual capacities to create a beauty campaign for women, it isn’t for me – it’s still doing the same thing: privileging women’s sexual and physical “attractiveness” over any other attribute, enforcing competition between women and creating an expectation that women will want to capitulate to the notion that beauty is all. It doesn’t change the rules, it just reinforces them whilst highlighting that they are detrimental to women!

And the panel of judges really does reinforce how ridiculous this is:

  • Kathryn Flett – the Observer’s TV commentator (who according to her own article didn’t realise that she was being given power which had ramifications beyond the studio until mid-way through filming the series)
  • James Brown, founding editor of Loaded
  • Mica Paris – now host of What Not to Wear

Gok Wan, cohosting this with Myleene Klass, has described this “modern-day beauty contest” as “desparately needed”. Why? Because some women are subject themselves to an overblown grooming or makeup schedule. According to the Guardian, Wan claims

Although more than 50 years of feminism have passed since the first Miss World, Wan says women still suffer from ‘beauty fascism’ controlled by an industry that holds up ‘mad, fake, unachieveable ideals’ that make women so miserable they resort to increasingly desperate measures to conform. ‘I’m flabbergasted by the increasingly restricted, stereotyped and narrow image of what beauty has become for women,’ he said. ‘Even magazines that purport to show a “natural beauty” achieve it by airbrushing out that woman’s unique features then airbrushing her back in again. When I was doing How To Look Good Naked, I was shocked by the lengths to which women went to attain a preconceived idea of beauty. They created armour for themselves by slapping on loads of make-up, they damaged themselves terribly with plastic surgery, fake tans, fake nails and hair extensions. Their efforts to achieve this impossible ideal was endless and it was madness. I’m not dissing make-up; I love the fashion and beauty industries. I just want women to realise that they don’t have to conform to these stereotypes to feel sexy and gorgeous. It is only when a woman realises how beautiful she is in her natural state that she will be able to freely choose how much make-up she wears and when she wears it.”

From The Guardian

Now his history is somewhat confuddled here – beauty pageants in their commercialised sense began with PT Barnum in the 1850s (see here for more). But Wan holds a fundamentally contradictory position

1. The fashion and beauty industry is a good and wonderful thing

2. Women shouldn’t feel constrained by them.

The problem? If women didn’t feel constrained by them, didn’t feel the pressure of conformity and consumption then those industries wouldn’t exist. If women weren’t made to feel inadequate and that they therefore needed this “fake-ness” than Wan would be out of a job. At it’s heart this is a competition about controlling women just as much as the fashion mags Wan purports to be criticising. Additionally there is an irony that Wan seems to be saying women have failed to free themselves from this tyranny so here comes a man to do it for them. And why is it we should measure our worth through our ability “to feel sexy and gorgeous” – I mean is that really all we have to aspire to? Can’t we measure our worth through, say, our achievements? Or our passion? Or whether we make a difference? I could spend all day making myself feel “sexy and gorgeous” but I’d remain horribly unfulfilled and would much rather spend it making a difference – that makes me feel good. Giving in to the fripperies and veneer of “feeling sexy and gorgeous” really doesn’t.

So lets suggest some alternatives shall we? How about we have a contest where women aren’t judged at all on their looks or their bodies but on, for example, what difference they’ve made to the world? Or their ideas? Anything but this ridiculous over-valuation of our bodies – please!