A story making international headlines this week, amid the news of the indictments in Washington and Tuesday’s terror attack in New York, involved contestants of Peru’s Miss Universe Pageant reciting statistics detailing violence against women in that country, rather than giving their body measurements as had been expected.
Traditionally, contestants in beauty pageants used to sashay on stage and give their bust, waist and hip measurements, with those closest to 36-24-36 being considered as having the best statistics. But this had changed slightly over the years; in general women no longer recite their measurements on stage. However, that is not to say that they are not taken, or that women in beauty pageants are not judged on their body sizes. The women who win these pageants are the ones who fit a certain profile, as well as conform in terms of what they say. The image of the organisation hosting the pageant has to remain intact. In addition, contestants have to be careful not to offend the sensibilities of the host country or that country’s leaders. One might recall the recent case of Canada’s Miss World contender, who was prevented from participating in the pageant, which was held in Sanya, China in 2015. The woman, Anastasia Lin, who was born in China, but had moved to Canada at age 12, had been prevented from boarding a flight as she had no visa. And she did not have a visa because she did not receive an invitation from Chinese officials. Miss Lin was and is an avid human rights campaigner, who had been outspoken on “repressions and censorship” in China. She had immediately protested the injustice and although her story was picked up and carried by most of the major news agencies in the world, nothing changed.
In the case of Peru, it is worth noting that the contest organiser was a woman and that the contestants’ choice of words had her full support. In fact, according to a BBC News report, news material of prominent cases of gender-based attacks was shown during the pageant. A winner was duly announced and she will represent her country at the Miss Universe Pageant later this month in Las Vegas. The question is whether she will be able to continue to represent women and girls who have been victims of gender-based violence.
The truth is that pageant stages have not traditionally been the settings for activism of any sort and this includes the outmoded trite petitions for world peace that every contestant seemed to have been forced to make a few decades ago. The platform that the titleholder has is carefully stage-managed during the year of her reign, including what she says and where she appears. This is done to ensure that enough mileage is given to whatever cause it is and on which significant sums would have been expended.
This year’s pageant falls plop in the centre of the #metoo campaign, which has taken on a life of its own following the revelations of sexual harassment and allegations of sexual abuse against Harvey Weinstein and others in the American film industry. None of this is new. Many of the alleged offences occurred years ago, though it’s more than likely that some of it still happens today. It is a classic case of life mirroring art. Several writers and filmmakers in that industry have fictionalised the subject over the years. But who’s to say that all of the novels and films featuring the infamous ‘casting couch’ were all fiction?
Sexual harassment and the preying of the powerful on women and men has been endemic in almost every industry and sector, going on forever. Cases have been taken to court, while others have been settled quietly; yet it continues because in the majority of cases, those who have been preyed on or harassed do not speak up for various reasons. Chief among them are the fear of losing their jobs and the shame they are made to feel about what occurred.
That some of the best known and most admired women in the world have lent their voices and experiences to fighting this pestilence and have been joined by men also speaking out about offers hope that at the very least, it will no longer be condoned.
A real breakthrough would see the staged activism in Peru’s pageant being embraced at this month’s Miss Universe competition and seriously addressed at that level. It is perhaps the world’s worst kept secret that beauty pageants are infested by sexual exploitation. And while some have called for the outlawing of pageants which they claim also objectify women, in reality that would just send the predators elsewhere.
It is estimated that in the US a woman is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds, similar statistics exist the world over. It is time that every woman becomes an activist against this scourge. The more it is addressed and on the largest platforms, the less of a shameful secret it will be. It is time to take the power away from the predators.