Moo! The Miss University London "cattle market"
by Chloe Angyal
This week, the English opinion columnists have been having a field day with the Miss University London competition, a beauty pageant into which 400 London college women have entered. London's female college population, and the columnists, seem to be divided over whether the pageant is a good idea or not, with those who object calling beauty pageants outdated and sexist, and those who approve insisting that Miss UL is "ironic," and that we're living in a "post-feminist" age.
From the former, we're hearing the usual arguments for women being treated as more than tits and ass , or, as some have put it, as farm animals. Elly James, women’s officer at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), said of the pageant: “It’s like a cattle market. One of the things was that the contestants had to have their waists and breasts measured. I come from quite a rural area and that’s what they do to animals.”
And from the latter, those who are for the pageant, we have the usual arguments for women's self-empowerment through the choice to participate in the cattle market, and the argument that women have come so far, so now we can afford have a little "fun."
Times columnist India Knight writes today, "never mind feminism or post-feminism or any variants thereof. The question is whether it is right to split female students, who have gained entry into their various places of learning on academic merit, into the attractive lot and the plain lot."
And I'm inclined to agree with her. The most frustrating part of this whole affair is not the questions of whether or not beauty pageants are outdated and sexist (obviously), or whether we're living in a post-feminist age (are you freaking kidding me?). The most frustrating part is that this idea that women can either be beautiful or intelligent, but never both, just refuses to die. And it's clearly, to use a word they might throw around in the dorms of the University of London, bollocks.
Think about your women friends and relatives. I bet most of them are intelligent. I bet a good number of them are beautiful, too. And I bet that if we were to draw a Venn diagram (remember those, from 6th grade math?), there'd be an ellipse-shaped bit in the middle in which the "beautiful" circle and the "intelligent" circle would overlap. The beautiful intelligent woman is no myth, no paradox - she's real, and she's everywhere.
The idea that women must choose between brains and beauty, and therefore between being respected but not attractive, or attractive but not respected, is pervasive and powerful. And it puts women - many of whom are intelligent and beautiful - in a really difficult double bind, in which they feel the need to either dumb-themselves down (if they choose beautiful), or dowdy themselves down (if they choose brainy). In this model, those women can only ever be appreciated for half of themselves: they can only ever be half-people.
And it's not just women who suffer from this either/or model. For heterosexual men, adhering to the idea that women can never be both attractive and respected makes for thoroughly unsatisfying relationships with women. Imagine being sexually attracted to a woman you could never respect - that's not relationship material. Similarly, imagine having deep respect for the intellect of a woman with whom you would never want to be physically involved. That's not relationship material either.
At the end of the day, the brains/beauty choice does no one any favours. It hurts women, and the men who love them and it leaves everyone feeling unsatisfied. The beautiful, intelligent woman is real, she's everywhere, and she's really threatening. So regardless of where you stand on beauty pageants, ladies, don't make the false choice between being beautiful and being smart. You can be both. You don't have to be both, but you can be. You can be beautiful and demand to be taken seriously. You can be brainy and still have a powerful, potent sexuality. You can even get your breasts measured and walk around in a swimsuit and a tiara.
I just won't be joining you for that last one.