Beauty Never Goes Out Of Style
After taking a hiatus in 2012 for the first time in 30 years, Miss Iceland is back! And it seems that the annual event has been dearly missed. A record number of entries flood in daily, with the latest tally at more than 1,000 entrants. Everybody’s signing up, from the girl next door to the office secretary to Sigríður Ingadóttir, MP of the Social Democratic Alliance. Wait a minute, Sigríður? The contest may be back up and running as usual, but something’s different. This time around, there’s a whole army of contestants ready with some judgments of their own.
When the contest was called off in 2012, many thought that it was the end of Miss Iceland. “We didn’t have the competition last year,” Sigríður says, “so my hope was that they were done.” But apparently that was never the plan. “It takes a lot of time and hard work to put these competitions together,” pageant coordinator Íris Jónsdóttir says, and she would know as Iceland’s representative in last year’s Miss World contest. Now she has joined forces with Rafn Rafnsson to put on this year’s Miss Iceland. “There just wasn’t time to do it last year,” she explains. “The plan was never to call it off for good.”
The people’s pageant
So in early June of this year, they announced that the pageant had been revived, and with some vigour. In a public statement, the new pageant director Rafn Rafnsson said that last year’s gap gives them an opportunity to start fresh this year with something more modern and diverse, moving away from the Icelandic stereotype contestant—”blonde hair, blue-eyes, 1.73 metre tall”—that has dominated previous pageants. He made it clear that the criteria have been drastically widened. There are no size requirements or age limits. The application was opened to all. Word spread like wildfire.
In light of Rafn’s announcement, renowned activist Hildur Lilliendahl felt obligated to take him up on his words. “My immediate reaction was to write a comment saying that nothing was stopping me from competing,” Hildur says. She posted the application on Facebook and announced her participation. “When I woke up the next morning MP Sigríður Ingibjörg Ingadóttir had signed up.”
“When I saw the application posted on Facebook,” Sigríður Ingadóttir notes, “I thought, well I’ll sign up as a fun way to join the protest. Sometimes you have to use humour to get people to listen,” she says, “it’s a battle to get a message through to people.” The idea caught on, by noon the next day hundreds of women—all shapes, all ages—hit the “submit” button on their own applications.
The show must go on
There is, however, a softer-spoken emphasis on the end of Rafn’s open invitation: to apply. That’s about as generous as the pageant is willing to get, for now. As much as we’d like to see Sigríður on stage come September, the official rules of the competition haven’t undergone the drastic change that the protest activity has hoped for. “The rules are the same as always,” Íris says. “You have to be between eighteen and twenty-four, unmarried, and have no children. The rules are the same ones that apply to the Miss World competition as we eventually send the girls there. I still look at every applicant, but I choose them to compete based on the same rules as always.”
It’s not only with a snarky grin and spiteful fingers that women around Iceland are signing up to participate though. “Sure there is controversy, but there is a lot of positive interest and attention to the competition now as well.” Íris says. Besides, any press is good press, right?
As a former Miss World contestant, Íris stands by her career in beauty pageants. “People can say what they want about it, but they’ll never really know until they compete,” she says. Last August Íris went to Ordos, China to compete at Miss World 2012. She says she is very grateful for the experience that the pageant brought her. “I got to compete with 120 other girls, many of whom I’m still in contact with,” she says. “I got to travel and do things that I otherwise might not have gotten to do.”
She is confident that the protest will not stunt the popularity of the competition. Iceland has a successful history of beauty pageant contestants, with one Miss International, three Miss Worlds, and five Miss Universe semi-finalists. “The competition will always be here—it has been going on since 1950 and will continue to go on,” she says.
History need not repeat itself
But is history the same as justification? One of the arguments against the continuation of beauty pageants is that they are an outdated practice, based on an outdated and patriarchal vision of women. “I saw in the news that this man, Rafn Rafnsson, was going to resurrect the competition [in 2013], and immediately thought ‘Gee, how old-fashioned,'” Sigríður says.
Others argue that just writing the competition off as “old fashioned” is still too generous. In an interview with bleikt.is, Þórdís Elva Þorvaldsdóttir makes clear that calling the competition “an anachronism” indicates that there was a time in history where competitions of this nature were acceptable. Þórdís disagrees. In her opinion, the way a person looks has never been a special cause for awards.
Complaints about the pageant don’t just lie at the surface, so to speak. There are deeper, societal issues that pageants nurture, according to Hildur. “The typical beauty pageant epitomizes the type of woman patriarchy created,” she says. “Patriarchy teaches (and/or forces) women to be pretty and loving and kind and well-behaved and composed and downright repressed and that’s exactly how we keep women out of positions of power, out of the workplace and out of the potential revolution that destroys this moronic system.”
Exit stage right
On its glossy wooden surface, the stage may look the same as ever come September 14. The competition is no longer just about looks, as Rafn says. It’s about personality, charm, and also, stunningly good looks.
Whether or not the majority of applicants are in pursuit or protest, the overwhelming number of applicants has undoubtedly drawn attention to the pageant and to the concept of beauty pageants in general. As of June 15, the number of applicants was reported by RÚV at 1,100, and the list continues to grow.
But the message behind this surge of activity is not lost. “It’s clear from all of the protest activity that there’s been a change in values—I just hope that young women are becoming more sceptical about allowing people to measure them the way beauty pageants do” Sigríður says. “We know that today, in 2013, people do not find these sorts of things acceptable.”