“Why is India on a losing streak?  Aren't we pretty anymore?” was the plaintive cry of the very presentable anchor of an English language news channel during a news discussion last week. She was not referring to cricket, quite obviously. Her concern was about the drought of Miss World and Miss Universe crowns for Indian women since 2000.  Does this mean Indian women are not the most beautiful in the world, she asked.

The question is clearly inane and does not even merit a serious discussion. And it is entirely possible that it was taken up for discussion on a low news day, when nothing much was happening in the country. But it was reminder of how the beauty business was bought and sold through these pageants in the 1990s with wall-to-wall coverage in the media, particularly by the media house promoting them, and how they have now become so routine as to merit hardly a mention. Even if such pageants, where women are paraded around in a variety of costumes and then asked some questions that are ostensibly supposed to judge their intelligence, seem an anomaly in the 21st Century, few women's groups would work up a head of steam to demonstrate against them as they did in the past.

One reason is possibly the fact that over time, beauty contests have lost the attention of the media. Major channels in the West do not telecast them, only cable channels do. And in Britain, for instance, you can only view them live on the Internet. Even in India, the media interest has waned as Indian women stopped winning. So why draw attention to them when the interest in them is so low?

Lure of the market

Did Indian women win continuously for several years because suddenly a crop of especially beautiful women had appeared? Or was it because the beauty business had discovered that there was a most lucrative market waiting to be exploited in India? From the figures of the growth of the cosmetics industry in India, it is more than evident that the beauty contests achieved their main purpose of pushing and establishing the beauty business in India. Today cosmetics are one of the fastest growing segments of consumer products with annual sales of beauty products exceeding Rs 35,660 crores. The sector is expected to continue growing at the rate of 17 per cent per year.

Cosmetics companies are now targeting smaller towns and even villages. My own experience during visits to several small towns in north India in 2009 for a series of articles on their governance problems illustrated the extent of the penetration of the cosmetics business. In Narnaul, Haryana, for instance, a small town with a population of under one lakh, I discovered there were more than 25 beauty parlours. One of the women corporators to the Narnaul nagarpalika was a beautician who owned her own parlour! Even college girls came for a variety of beauty treatments, she informed me. Similarly, in slums in Mumbai, the change is evident not only in the number of Internet cafes that have grown but also the tiny beauty parlours tucked away in the side streets.

Is there anything wrong with wanting to look beautiful? Even feminist will not deny the right of any woman to dress as she pleases, even if it means caking her face with makeup or wearing alluring clothes. Surely that is her individual right.

The objection is to the commodification of women's looks, where you have an entire industry projecting particular looks and size and luring women into believing that they can succeed only if they can somehow fit that norm. That is what leads to lack of self-esteem in those who were not born beautiful on the outside, wasted resources on quick fixes by many to change how they look, and harmful interventions by way of surgery and killer diets that often permanently damage the health of millions of young women.

It is the direct and indirect promotion of physical beauty as the dominant norm of a person's being that feminists have opposed and continue to do so. If you really believe that men and women are equal and should have the same rights, can you really justify a contest where women have to show off their physical attributes through a swimsuit round to qualify as a finalist? For the organisers to claim that they also consider brains and personality is hypocritical when the entry point is purely physical attributes and nothing else.

Perpetuating myths

Kat Banyard, author of The Equality Illusion and founder of the group UK Feminista, was one of those who demonstrated outside the Miss World contest in London recently. She is quoted in a report in The Guardian as explaining why she did: “We're here because Miss World has absolutely no place in a world that treats women and men equally. It perpetuates the beauty myth…The more a girls sees herself as an object, the more ashamed and disgusted she will feel about her own body. And that has massive implications for everything from being too ashamed to go to physical education lessons to developing an eating disorder.”

In India the interest has waned not just because the cosmetics industry has established itself and is growing, as is evident from the data, but because young women aiming to parachute into Bollywood now have other ways of being noticed. As a fashion designer on the television discussion pointed out, the “hunger for Bollywood” is now assuaged by getting a break through several other routes — modeling, anchoring on television, or simply trying your luck. The new crop of young women in Bollywood has made its way through other routes. The last Bollywood actor “discovered” through a beauty pageant was Priyanka Chopra.

The clutch of demonstrators outside the Miss World final in London was a reminder that there are still people who object to these contests even if some consider their objections as out of tune with the times. But just as the beauty pageants can claim the right to choice of the participants to win recognition on the basis of looks, so can those who oppose shows that judge a woman “by the sum of her parts”, as one demonstrator put it, assert the right to voice their opposition. If, after listening to the different arguments for and against these beauty pageants, young women still decide that their destiny is linked to winning such contests, can anyone object? What do young Indian women think?

Email the writer: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com