By email, 27 October 2012
The Miss Tibet and Miss Himalaya beauty pageants have been subject to criticism from Western media and scholars. While it may be easy as a Westerner to take the position that beauty pageants are “outdated”, Freelance writer Kiara O’Gorman explores why the competitions are not necessarily a “bad thing”.
Recently the Miss Himalaya beauty pageant was held in Dharamshala, India — the home of the Central Tibetan Administration. As revered and celebrated the competition is (and its sister pageant Miss Tibet) it has its fair share of critics — mostly from the West. I have read the familiar tropes that the competitions promote “narrowness”, “sexism”, and “patriarchal domination”. It is easy to automatically agree with such sentiments. It is easy to point the finger and say “those girls are doing wrong by showing their bodies in public”.
But these arguments do not explore the complexities of the situation. There are a number of questions that can be raised. First: isn’t a beauty pageant simply a sign that Tibetan culture is moving into something more contemporary? Could this be a sign that Tibet wants to be part of the modern global community? Isn’t it time that we in the West expand our thinking to allow these women to explore what it means to be a “woman”?
Another: One article recently published criticising the Miss Tibet pageant noted that men in the crowd openly mocked the contestants in their bikinis. The reason given for the mocking was that these men were trying to humiliate and degrade these women.
Perhaps instead these men were laughing because they could not make sense of what they were seeing: Strong, independent women unafraid of criticism and moving away from the norm expected of them. Indeed, were not Western women mocked in the 40s and 50s for doing the same? Arguably the bikini is the most popular female beachwear around the world. French fashion historian Olivier Saillard notes that “the emancipation of swimwear has always been linked to the emancipation of women.”
As a Western woman I can certainly say I wear a bikini to the beach by choice rather than to conform to fashion that captures the “male gaze”. I can certainly say it is far more practical and comfortable to wear than a one-piece swimming suit. Why cannot Tibetan women feel the same way?
Again: The West has had over a century of feminism and exploration of sexuality. Western culture has had decades to accept the body of a woman and that she is free to make choices — including how she dresses.
The Tibetans have not had these opportunities open to them, with their cultural and social development severely crippled since 1949. The beauty pageant may be an outdated concept in the West, but it certainly is not by Tibetan standards: still a conservative, religious society. Let feminism and sexual liberation develop by their own terms, not by imposing Western expectations and criticism upon them.
The Miss Tibet and Miss Himalaya pageants are taking steps towards this ideal.
About the author
Kiara O'Gorman is a freelance writer and PR consultant living in Toowoomba, Australia. She is currently working through her TESOL diploma so that she may, one day, help foreign non-for-profit organizations develop marketing plans and pitches in English. The views expressed in this article are entirely her own.