So, the Femina Miss India entry forms are out. Does anyone without an active hankering for all things ‘90s nostalgia’ (think: Aishwarya Rai bouffants and the jackfruit trees in your grandmother’s backyard) care anymore? We’re not sure, but here’s what a certain section of this online portal looks like:
Criterion 1: Height (5'5" and above) and 18-25 of age (25 as of 31st December 2017).
Sure. We get it. You want to adhere to international norms. Perhaps, channel a Miss USA or a Miss Great Britain and prop up (excuse the pun) the chances of an Indian contestant when juxtaposed to an obviously too-tall non-Indian participant on a global stage?
These Countries Aren’t Asking Contestants to be Tall...
But, here’s the catch.
A recent study by the Imperial College, London found that the average height of Indian men and women over the last century (between 1914 and 2014) had grown substantially – but really, not enough. Therefore, an average Indian woman still stands far shorter than the average for women for most other nationalities – at 5 feet 1 inch or 153 cm. In fact, Indian women currently stand at 192 among the 200 countries studied in the survey!
Still think it’s fair to club them with their taller model counterparts?
And that’s not all. The same study also found a vast difference in the heights of men and women within the country. Therefore, while Punjab was the ‘tallest’ state for men, Jammu and Kashmir and Kerala were tied at second spot, followed by Haryana as the third ‘tallest’ state. Meanwhile, J&K was found to have the tallest women, followed by Haryana – while Punjab, Rajasthan and Kerala all tied for third spot. Do we restrict Miss India recruitments to just these states, then?
Forget mere height; Indian body types are vastly different from the Western ideal – a far, far cry from the Twiggy-Barbie stereotype that even Western surveys have bemoaned. In a chapter entitled ‘Beauty Pageants’ in their book Encyclopedia of Women in Today’s World, Strange, Oyster and Sloan remark:
As critical ‘race scholars’ argue, cultural ideals utilised for judging are white middle-class standards of beauty that exclude racial or ethnic minorities. Beauty queens still largely fit Western ideals of beauty… Pageants perpetuate a thin white ideal and put tremendous pressure on women to pursue an ‘unattainable beauty myth’.
In an interview to the Times of India a few years back, Chairwoman of the Miss World Organisation, Julia Morley, appeared to be confounded by the phenomenon –
I am baffled to see so many tall women in the contest and I have often wondered that myself. When I go to Korea, or any other part of Asia, I don’t see too many tall women. I haven’t got an answer to that myself yet… You can be 5’1” and still win the Miss World contest. In the year 1963, Miss Jamaica, Carole Joan Crawford, won the title and she was just 5’3”! So there is a misconception.
Because Indian Women Are Just Shorter...
And sample this – while the last Miss Universe (from France), Iris Mittenaere, stands at 1.72 m (or 5 feet 6 inches), the last Miss World (from Puerto Rico), Stephanie Del Valle, stands at 1.78 m (or 5 feet 8 inches). Not as tall as you’d have imagined?
In a chapter entitled ‘Structural Adjustments and International Standards’ in her book Making Miss India Miss World: Constructing Gender, Power, and the Nation in Postliberalization India, author Susan Dewey writes evocatively of her experiences back-stage during the 2003 Femina Miss India pageant.
In one paragraph – as she describes the hullabaloo before the selections – Dewey writes of how “after a six twenty AM flight from Mumbai, Miss India officials measured the young women in order to determine that they met the height requirement of five feet six inches tall” (the criterion at the time).
The judges were briefed for an extended period of time by the two Ernst and Young consultants who went through a PowerPoint presentation with the judges that featured the characteristics of former Miss Worlds, Miss Asia-Pacifics and Miss Universes. This was to be the first of many times in which judges were reminded that they were not looking for a Miss India, but a Miss Universe…. The judges were asked to clinically evaluate each young woman based on their perception of her body’s ability to lose weight as part of a fascinating process that sought to gauge the process of an individual woman’s body to be moulded into a Miss Universe.
Those who did not make the height requirement of five feet six inches tall had a white sheet over them with the word ‘invalid’ typed across it in thick black letters.
Does India Need Yet Another Impossible Standard for Its Women?
“...The process of an individual woman’s body to be moulded into a Miss Universe...”
For more than half a century (since 1952), India has been actively participating in the Miss Universe pageant; it began to partake in the Miss World pageant soon after too, in 1959.
But as India participates in a global economy that is ever-developing, is it also running the risk of letting international beauty standards shape and influence its own outdated perceptions of women?
In a country that already values fair over dark, inquisitively charts the ‘post-pregnancy-weight-loss’ of a formerly skinny female actor, and writes them off post 40 while their male counterparts gallivant with debutants, do we really need another impossible beauty standard – particularly one imposed by supposed Western ideas? We’ve got enough problems already, Miss India, thanks.