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

// 15 October 2008

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!

Comments From You

JENNIFER DREW // Posted 15 October 2008 at 11:06 am

Just another excuse to broadcast a pornographic programme wherein once again it will be women’s naked bodies on display for male viewers to leer at and become sexually aroused.

Now what would be challenging is if Gok Wan were to appear totally naked along side a group of nubile totally naked men. This would be a ‘men’s naked beauty contest’ because of course beauty is not limited to females. It would also be an opportunity for women and girls to learn just how diverse men’s naked bodies are . But there, men’s bodies are sacrosant and any public display of male nudity is still considered ‘obscene’ but not of course female naked bodies.

Profit is the name of the game and sexually exploiting and using women’s bodies is common, which is justified by the pseudo claim it is ‘feminist.’ Feminist – these organisers do not know the meaning of feminism but they clearly understand how to co-opt feminism into a misogynstic and anti-female agenda.

Michelle // Posted 15 October 2008 at 11:21 am

Thanks Louise, for having the energy to explain what is so wrong about this programme and Gok Wan’s contradictory and hypocritical stance on this. I find this all so exasperating!

I mean, he’s there complaining about women feeling pressured to conform to narrow standards of beauty but he pedals that exact same line in his own bloody programme, How to Look Good Naked! He’s constantly telling women they need to look ‘feminine’ and encouraging women to consume clothes and beauty products. And when it came for the ‘naked reveal’ at the end of that programme, all of a sudden the women did have layers of make-up on and hair extensions. He’s a part of the f’in problem!

I know there’s more important to things to get riled up about, but this really winds me up! I think because he makes so much of being anti-surgery, and he happens to be gay, therefore his motive cannot be construed as wanting to make women look/feel better for his own pleasure, he’s then hailed as some sort of ‘friend to the ladies’, but I still think the same ol’ gender dynamic is at play here: Man instructs woman on how to feel better about herself via her appearance. It’s bollocks.

JenniferRuth // Posted 15 October 2008 at 11:46 am

Thank you for this. I saw this advertised on tv the other day. I wouldn’t mind so much if they didn’t try and associate it with feminism – or any kind of empowerment for that matter. If its a beauty contest then it is shallow, vapid and holds no measure of a woman’s true worth – deal with it. I hate the way they try to dress this shit up with words like “non-conforming” to justify doing the exact same thing to women as has always been done.

Fuck that noise.

Louise Livesey // Posted 15 October 2008 at 11:46 am

I have to say I disagree with your suggestion about a naked male beauty contest. That, to me, seems to be just replicating the same process of domination which demands objectification of the flesh rather than valuing of the individual. I agree that men can be beautiful but don’t agree the path to change lies in women objectifying men in the same way women are currently objectified.

You are absolutely right there is a double standard about the visual representation of men’s and women’s bodies – although the Sex Education Show managed to get around some of that by showing naked male bodies for “educational” purposes. But does showing male bodies actually challenge the status quo which seeks to commodify bodies?

Qubit // Posted 15 October 2008 at 1:44 pm

‘It’s naive to pretend beauty doesn’t matter: there is strong proof that beautiful people have an easier passage through life. They get the better job, are paid more, get more successful husbands. Beauty, whether natural or artificially enhanced, is unevenly distributed across the population and a beauty contest is the epitome of this inherent unfairness in life …’

I find that quote from the article quite interesting. Do people think this effect is to do with confidence and happiness or is it a prejudice? Do you think men suffer a similar prejudice? Is it as is suggested earlier something that can’t be changed and hypocritical to try to change or is it unfair? Does this have links with why feminists are often shut up with the argument ‘you are ugly and jealous so your opinion doesn’t count’?

I know it deviates a bit from the original post but if beauty is a really valued commodity in our society is it fair to tell women it isn’t. Obviously trying to change society makes sense but telling people they won’t be judged on something they are judged on just seems to be lying. Is there anyway to change our value of beauty? How do we make it OK to be plain or ugly?

Louise Livesey // Posted 15 October 2008 at 3:25 pm

I’m not sure I’m saying it doesn’t matter – but I am strongly saying it shouldn’t.

Qubit // Posted 15 October 2008 at 3:34 pm

Sorry Louise, you aren’t but the program (while actually portraying the opposite message) is at least claiming beauty doesn’t matter. I guess in that way at least it is being as hypocritical as the message given by society claiming beauty doesn’t matter but making it obvious it does.

Out of interest when it says ‘naked’ beauty contest does it mean without clothes or just without makeup and support clothing? While naked implies the former the claim seems to be for the latter which I find a lot less worrying although judging women on their looks as proof beauty doesn’t matter is strange and wrong. A display of different natural bodies with no judgement passed, clothed but without make up however might begin to change attitudes.

AMM // Posted 15 October 2008 at 4:03 pm

If women didn’t feel constrained by them, didn’t feel the pressure of conformity and consumption then those industries wouldn’t exist.

To disagree just a teeny little bit: I think they would continue to exist, just in a much smaller form. There’s no widespread social pressure to, for example, collect stamps or to get tatoos, but there are enough people interested in each to keep stamp dealers and tatoo parlours in business.

S // Posted 15 October 2008 at 4:29 pm

I can definitely see where you are coming from but some bits about this article annoyed me.

1) When I read what you were saying about Kathryn Flett, it felt like you were saying she had been tricked into it but she’s definitely for it.

2) At the end you sounded like you thought that any fixation with appearance is fundamentally wrong and we must all go and volunteer. I know, that isn’t what you’re saying but it sounds like you want to make everyone no longer care when actually, if I feel like only thinking about my appearance and that wearing anything like this makes me happy then why shouldn’t I do it?

Soirore // Posted 16 October 2008 at 12:14 pm

I think there is a difference between accepting that appearance is important and believeing that beauty is important.

“Fakeness” in appearance is not just make-up but a collection of adornments that are important to forming identity across all cultures. Who we are is demonstrated by how we reveal ourselves and many people dress up and make up for reasons of culture and identity just as much as to conform to the ideals of the beauty industry.

It would be so much more interesting to have a programme look at the ideologies of feminity that proscribe certain things (eg long nails) as attractive. Wan is missing the point by saying that these things are not attractive when they are important parts of many women’s appearances and those women should be able to choose the “fake” look if they want. It is the motives that need to be examined along with our prejudices of how we interpret the appearances of women.

aimee // Posted 17 October 2008 at 7:55 am

Whilst I agree with most of you that culturally, appearance has always been important as a means of expression, the conventions imposed on women’s appearance are NOT about self expression. They are almost always about infantilising and dehumanising the woman. Currently, we are told that we should look ‘feminine’, which is actually anything but feminine, it is a social construcion of feminism designed to take away a woman’s intrinsic identity and redress it as ‘opposite of a man’. Many of our so called ‘beauty conventions’ are ALL about making us as far from men as possible; hair removal, for example. I think the issue here is that women’s appearance is inevitably attached to societies’ expectations of her as a person, whereas men’s appearance is not.

Alix Brodie // Posted 24 October 2008 at 3:58 pm

I watched the programme with some muted interest in how Gok was going to pull off a celebration of women’s beauty through a sebversive take on the beauty pageant; I’m a secret fan of irony (!). Then like a revelation, half-way through the programme two things struck me – 1. These women are being paraded like cattle for our gaze and judgement just like the women 1950s Butlins (or whatever footage they were using over and over again to remind us what a beauty pageant used to be)and 2. not only are they judged in part by their looks but also their ‘attitude’, so a woman has to also be confident and eloquent on camera! Thanks for that extra stick to beat ourselves with ‘I have to be sassy as well as beautiful!’.

elle // Posted 21 April 2009 at 12:20 am

Looks matter. I don’t think that’s the issue. The issue is that society often drums into women the idea that without beauty she doesn’t matter. Or put another way, her worth is premised on how beautiful she is and really nothing else.

I believe we live in a world where in order to even be seen and acknowledged one has to be beautiful or ornamental in some manner. The overemphasis on youth, the sidelining of women from acting jobs and broadcasting positioins once they hit a certain age, the emphasis on being skinny, the remarking on women’s appearance even when she’s in a high powered job. All these things reinforce this idea.

Woman as pretty incubator and nothing more.

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