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Commentary/Vir Sanghvi

The opposition to Miss World seems to me to be a symbol of sickness in our society

Miss World '96 Never mind the bimbettes, look at the principles

I must confess to holding no strong views about beauty contests. Yes, there was a phase (1979 to 1981) when I edited Bombay magazine and was routinely invited to judge some contest or the other. I always refused, not so much because I was against the principle of such contests but because I felt uncomfortable sitting in judgement over another person's physical assets.

Of course, each time I refused, the organisers would urge me to reconsider, offering up the standard excuse: 'It is a test of brain power and personality as well as beauty.'

Oh sure!

Judging by the few contests I've read about or seen on television, the 'personality round' consists of one question which usually gives the contestants a chance to say how much they admire Mother Teresa, want to spread world peace and hope to end global suffering.

I note with relief, however, that they have now dispensed with the round where girls were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. Once contestant -- back in the 1970s -- answered 'interior decoration'. I thought she was being remarkably honest but it turned out that she meant that she wanted to become an interior designer.

In any case, honesty is not sought - after virtue at these contests. Apparently, Madhu Sapre was a shoo-in for Miss Universe two years before Sushmita Sen actually won. She lost because of her performance in the 'intellectual' round. Asked what she would do if she came to power in India, she refused to say 'feed the little children' or 'put an end to war'. Instead, she answered, with remarkable candour, that she would build a sports stadium.

Good for her! Not so good for the contest, however, and the crown went to somebody else.But all that was a while ago. In the 1970s, feminist groups still made the front pages of newspapers abroad by picketing beauty contests. Now, such contests have moved to the periphery of the national consciousness in the West -- both Miss World and Miss Universe are usually held outside England or America -- and the feminists have moved on.

Not so in India. If the fashion show was the middle class art from the early 1990s the beauty contests has taken its place in the mid-1990s.

There seems to be a new contest each week: Look of the Year, Supermodel of the Year, Air Force Queen, Miss Beautiful Hair of Karol Bagh Di Rani (okay, okay, I made the last one up -- but you get the general idea).

Partly it is that the beauty business picked up when Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai won their international titles. Partly, it is that there are loads of advertisers in search of manufactured 'events' by which they can flog their products. And partly it is that the great Indian middle class has so little to do in the evenings that a beauty contest or a fashion show seem like attractive, aesthetically elevating ways of spending their time.

I'm still uncomfortable with beauty contests (though fortunately nobody is stupid enough to ask me to judge them any longer), but I've come around to the view that the feminist objections are passe.

Aishwarya Rai First of all, nobody forces' the girls to take part. Secondly, they don't seem in the least degraded by the experienced (just more prosperous). Thirdly, more women seem interested in watching them than men so it is hard to see the contests as symbols of male appression.

And finally, while beauty contests do put a premium on looks, so I suspect, does society. If you don't want women to get ahead because they are beautiful then you'd have to ban the use of female models in advertising and ask film directors ot disregard appearances while casting their heroines.

Unless you are prepared to do all of that -- and clearly, no sensible person wants to go that far -- then it is foolish to single out beauty contests.

Vir Sanghvi Continued

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