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Miss Undergraduate: two sides of the story

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Jane Osmond
WVoN co-editor

BBC News recently ran a piece about a protest planned against a ‘Miss Undergraduate’ event which is to take place at the University of Birmingham in February 2012.

The qualifying event featured the wearing of ball gowns, rather than swim suits, and was open to all undergraduate women of all ages, shapes and sizes.  A further three heats are to come, with the final taking place on 21 February.

Twenty percent of the ticket sales from the event – set up by Touch Promotions – is to be donated to Cancer Research UK.

The protest, which is being organised by the University of Birmingham Women’s Association (UoBWA), is to take place on the night of the Miss Undergraduate final.

Catie, a spokeswoman for the UoBWA, said that she first became aware of the event after it was heavily advertised on the University campus and commented:

Some people are claiming that the event is harmless fun and that it empowers women, but we feel that beauty pageants promote the idea that women should be judged solely by their appearance: with one in 20 women having eating disorders and one in seven suffering sexual assault or violence in their lives, these things should be challenged as they promote this focus on women’s appearance as a normal day to day thing.

To date, Catie confirmed that the organising committee is 50 strong, but that they have received a lot of support from women and men across the campus.

The UoBWA has also received a statement of support from The Guild of Students condemning the event:

The Guild of Students is committed to transcending stereotypes and prejudices, instead celebrating the diversity of our student body and the population more widely. As a result, we condemn this event, viewing it as an a obstacle to equality and as an expression of social values which damage the health and happiness of students.

Meanwhile, Jessica, a student contestant who is studying at the University defended the event in a piece for the University’s Redbrick magazine.

Jessica does not regard herself as a feminist, but does believe that ‘women have equal rights as men and should act so’.

She further commented:

I took part in the contest to try and disprove the idea that women are passive and unintelligent. I took part as a university student, with high aspirations for the future. As for the protests, there will always be protests against all kinds of events. Those are the opinions of the people that protest.

I have not spoken to many other students about this event, I would advise an impartial film crew to record reactions. I am aware that the protesters are going to go around campus this week to scaremonger people into fighting their cause, and this emotionally-fuelled interviewing technique is neither valid or generalisable.

I can understand why the protest has been organised however I believe that many of their points of argument are invalid, as outlined in my speech [to Redbrick Magazine].

Alexander Blair, managing director of Touch Promotions, also defended the event in the BBC News piece:

[The contestants] are judged in part on how they are dressed – not the form of the female body – and also how much money they have raised.”

Rather than a protest against the actual event, Catie confirmed that the UoBWA were planning an alternative which would celebrate things such as talent and ‘all forms of beauty’.

Also, in order to highlight that judging women by what dress they wear is indeed focusing on the body, there is a possibility that male protestors will put dresses on too.

However, on a practical level, the aim of the current protest and the planned alternative event is to challenge the organisers to think twice in the future when planning events of this kind and also to raise awareness around the campus about the objectification of women:

We are hoping to challenge the organisers of this event in order to get them to recognise that this kind of event has a set of hazards attached to it, but also to primarily engage the students on the campus and let them know about the issues such as this – we want people challenging it all the time.

As a feminist, I find it hard to accept that the focus on women’s bodies in this manner is a positive event, even though it will surely raise much needed money for breast cancer.

Despite the lack of a ‘swim suit round’, the women were still judged on their dress, hair and makeup in the qualifier, and I assume, that this judgement criteria will continue to be used for subsequent heats and the final.

It seems I am not alone in my repugnance at this type of event and all its connotations, as evidenced by protests against the 60th anniversary of Miss World back in November 2011.

Rebecca Mordan , who helped organise this protest commented:

You can’t pull the wool over young women’s eyes…They’re living and growing up in a culture that sees pornography as increasingly mainstream. This is the soft end of that, reducing women down to the sum of their parts…the wide age range of the protesters showed that feminism was still relevant today.

Kat Banyard, author of The Equality Illusion and founder of the organisation UK Feminista also weighed in with her opinion:

 Miss World has absolutely no place in a world that treats women and men equally. It perpetuates the beauty myth [and] indoctrinates people across the world with its toxic ideals. We know that [those ideals] have a very harmful effect.

However, breast cancer is a serious and sometimes fatal disease: according to Cancer Research UK:

  •  In 2008, 48,034 people in the UK were diagnosed with breast cancer
  • 11,728 people in the UK died from breast cancer in 2009
  • It has been estimated that the lifetime risk of developing breast cancer in 2008 is 1 in 1,014 for men and 1 in 8 for women

Therefore, there is an obvious need for funds to research this disease in order to find both preventative and treatment solutions.

Certainly Cancer Research UK does not seem to have a problem with accepting donations raised in this way.

Paula Young, spokeswoman for Cancer Research UK has commented on the event, saying:

Cancer Research UK relies totally on public funding and we couldn’t carry on our vital work without the wide variety of fundraising our supporters take part in.

We would only ever turn down a donation if we felt that the majority of our supporters would not approve of it.

There are certain events that we will not accept proceeds from, such as those which are illegal or pose a risk to the charity and its supporters.

We do not believe that taking money from a beauty contest falls into any of these categories.

Young added that the charity believed that its supporters would want it to accept the funds.

So there we have it – on the one hand the event is seen as harmless fun and raising money for a good cause; on the other hand as fostering the already toxic culture that we live within that objectifies women as body parts at every turn.

For me, the crucial question relates to the original decision to go ahead with such an event.  Being unable to find a telephone number or email address for Touch Promotions, I could not ask about their decision-making process.

However, the information I did find  states that the three directors are men, and I can only assume that they – as men who would in all likelihood see nothing wrong with women parading and being judged on their looks in public – made an ill-judged and ill-informed decision about what type of event would be most likely to raise money for Cancer Research UK.

Further, Cancer Research UK’s response is also quite astounding, given that there is acres of evidence to suggest that one of the most traumatic effects of breast cancer for women survivors is often how the loss of their breasts affects their ability to feel like women (see here, here and here).

Consequently, how Cancer Research UK can condone an event that focuses and celebrates judgements based on the bodies of females is beyond me.

So for me the answer is: Beauty contest? No thank you.

  1. Perhaps protestors could call for donations equivalent to the full ticket price to go direct to Cancer Research UK? Then absolutely no need for the event other than to support outdated sexist attitudes!

    My mind is boggled by the contestant who says she is taking part to “disprove the idea that women are passive and unintelligent”. A) She’s already done that by studying at university, and b) taking part in a contest that puts women on display and judges their appearance is a completely retrograde step.

  2. Hi MariaS – yes the mind does boggle a bit here. It is a sad indictment of how little impact that feminism has in some areas that this contest is not seen by some as being a problem at all. However, at least there are some protests being planned, so all is not lost.

  3. Perhaps another approach would be to swamp Cancer research with protest emails and withdrawing an support/donations if they support this sort of sexist event?

  4. vicki wharton says:

    I worked at Cancer Research UK for 2 years and found them as an organisation inherently sexist – or certainly their press office was. They would regularly recruit models to appear in their underwear to publicise Breast Cancer Awareness month, with one photocall I attended turning into a debacle with real breast cancer sufferers being told to get out of the shot so that the ‘model’ could display her breasts without older women being in the picture at all. All of this with the connivance of the then head of media at the charity.

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