Hey Miss India folks, what's with the bias against 'bad' character and mental illness?

Basically, you want someone young and virginal, with no baggage, no attachments and a "perfect" body and face and "character" to go with it.
Hey Miss India folks, what's with the bias against 'bad' character and mental illness?
Hey Miss India folks, what's with the bias against 'bad' character and mental illness?

Like every year, this year too hundreds of young women will apply for the hugely popular Femina Miss India beauty pageant. With names like Aishwarya Rai and Sushmita Sen associated with the pageants, it is not surprising that many women hoping to enter films or the glamour industry view beauty pageants as a stepping stone.

There was a time when a naïve younger me would watch and aspire to these beautiful, impossibly straight-teethed, tall women, walking the ramp in high heels, while everyone looked up at them adoringly. So recently, out of curiosity I checked out Femina Miss India's entry form.

To give you a snapshot, here are some of the terms and conditions of the application and the thoughts that ran through my head as I read them:

-  The applicant must be 18-25 years of age as on December 31, 2017. (I expected as much)

-  The applicant should not / have not been married and never been through any ceremony directly or indirectly, either valid or invalid, whether civil, religious or tribal which is recognized as a marriage ceremony in any part of the world (Because only unmarried, single women are beautiful and desirable? I don’t see the need for a separate pageant for married women, but I’m going to let this pass for now.)

… and should never have had a marriage annulled or never given birth to a child; have never been pregnant nor been a parent. (What does childbirth have to do with any of this?)

-  The applicant should be a natural born female. (Okay, so now even your gender or your privates aren’t your  own business.)

-  Only persons of good health, sound mind and having no medical history of any mental illness. (Because apparently, people with  mental illnesses can only have limited aspirations and desires and being a beauty pageant winner is not one of them.)

… and having a good moral character can participate made herein. (HOW do you even judge that?)

So basically, they want someone young and virginal, with no baggage, no attachments and a "perfect" body and face and "character" to go with it. Are they even talking about a real person? This sounds like someone right out of a cis heterosexual male fantasy. Key word being ‘fantasy’.

There’s a lot of existing literature about how beauty pageants promote an unrealistic standard of beauty and discourage a well-rounded development by judging women primarily on appearance. But here’s what I find most problematic-- women with a mental illness or of "bad" moral character cannot participate in the competition.

Does Femina know what mental illness is?

At a time, where the likes of Deepika Padukone are bringing in conversations about depression to the mainstream and breaking the cycle of silence, is it so difficult to understand that people with mental illnesses can still function just like you or me, and have the same aspirations?

Over five crore people suffer from depression in India alone, according to WHO numbers. If everyone were to follow the same logic as Femina, for keeping people with mental illnesses out, there would be many more people cooped up in their homes.

That’s not the case though, because people with mental illnesses, with the right support, are perfectly capable of functioning, interacting, even competing and handling stressful situations.

Do we stop to ask what the beauty pageant participants do to achieve their perfect bodies? It is no secret that models are also one of the most vulnerable groups to eating disorders. Beauty pageant contestants have also found to have a continuing desire to want to be thinner.

What on earth is 'good moral character'?

Speaking of the "good" moral character requirement of Femina – what is this and according to whom?

Because, you know, we want everything from our women and want them to do nothing at the same time. 

For some, women of good moral characters are those who do not wear jeans or short clothes, don’t drink or smoke, marry young and within their community and do not speak to other men.

While for others a woman of "good" moral character could mean a wholly different species. 

What exactly are 'natural born' women?

Dear beauty pageants, gender is an identity which may or may not be dependent on the genitalia you are born with. Voices for rights and representation of trans gender persons are growing louder, but transphobia is very real. And this just goes on to show how institutionalized it is.    

It’s not just Femina but other beauty pageants also seem to have similar standards with a few tweaks here and there.

Gladrags for instance, while not having a height requirement (Femina requires its participants to be 5’5” at least), the unisex beauty pageant refers to its models as "curvaceous" and "six-pack guys". Elite India Pageant requires its women participants to list their bust size, skin color and eye color, among other things. Miss Teen India also requires participants to not have kids and also be of good moral character and poise.   

You have to give it to these beauty pageants for succeeding at body-shaming and at being judgmental and exclusivist all at once. 

However, there are various initiatives which are attempting to break gender stereotypes that the fashion and beauty industry and have a more realistic and inclusive view of beauty.

For instance, London Fashion Week recently invited Laxmi Agarwal, an acid attack victim, to walk the ramp in 2016.

Dove’s widely-successful campaign, ‘Real Beauty’ aimed to change the way people perceive beauty and celebrate women as they are. Women from all walks of life, of different shapes, sizes and colour came together to start a global conversation on breaking unrealistic portrayals of the ‘ideal’ woman.

Views expressed here are personal opinions of the authors.

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