Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

MLAs take note, women really like beauty contests

Miss Ulster: Shaniece Nesbitt

What unites all of our major parties? The way forward? Economic or education policy? Social issues? No. It's the conviction that girls with nice pins threaten the dignity of Stormont and, by extension, the very fabric of our new whiter-than-white "inclusive" society.

The effective banning of Miss Ulster from Parliament Buildings is disgraceful. It's an old cliché that beauty is an ugly business; so, too, is the business of political cant and sanctimoniousness.

I admire Joanne Dobson and Dolores Kelly. Normally, they're standard-bearers for equality and have displayed courage in carving out careers in what used to be the strictly "men only" world of Ulster politics.

But their backtracking on previous support for the Miss Ulster contest seems more than a touch convenient – and not very sisterly, either. After all, they were judges in 2012. The eligibility rules were exactly the same back then.

And just what were those rules that positively forced Dobson, Kelly, Arlene Foster and Anna Lo to make stands worthy of Martin Luther? Entrants must be between 17-24, over 5ft 7ins tall and between dress sizes 8-12.

This makes Miss Ulster ageist, height-est and, well, look-ist. And, therefore, beyond the pale.

While it may come as a severe disappointment to 74-year-old dumpy women everywhere, I think most wouldn't see the rules as incredibly offensive. This isn't a wet T-shirt competition, a "violate a fresher" night or a "spike her drink" evening.

In fact, judging by the rules, if anything Miss Ulster seems charmingly innocent and rather wonderfully retro. No size zero. No swimsuit cattle market indignity. Nope, just a rather healthy guideline of being between size 8 to 12. In the real world, that is not promoting body image issues.

If our MLAs want to see things promoting unhealthy body obsessions, they should read Vogue, Marie Clare or Elle, with their penchant for extremely thin and vaguely prepubescent girls. Will our Germaine Greers want them banned from newsagents? As Arlene Foster confusingly said in her condemnation of the Miss Ulster event, there seems to be an element of Fr Ted's "Lovely Girls" contest. To many, that's a decided plus not a problem.

What next? Will the Assembly condemn the Miss NI event which excludes women who have had children from entering? Will MLAs boycott charity fundraisers that have fashion shows? Stay away from events that use promotions girls?

The world isn't as simple as the clichés make out. Those entering beauty contests do so of their own freewill. Many are graduates or in professional careers. They're smart, ambitious and independent, and freely decide to give it a shot because – shock! – they like the idea of a career in fashion or beauty. Maybe it seems more fun than being leered over at the photocopier. They're not victims. I know ex-models who run very successful businesses.

It may not be politically correct, but most women want to look attractive, not just to attract the male gaze but because it's fun. Most know they aren't Miss Ulster material but that doesn't make it any less enjoyable trying.

Are our feminists on the hill going to be equally condemnatory of the thousands of women (and men) employed here in the beauty business, whether they run their own companies or stand behind the make-up counter at Boots? They trade on traditional ideas of beauty, too.

But in some ways they're easier to sneer at and patronise than tackling the issues that really effect women. Rather Miss Ulster than the pornified Mileys and Rihannas of modern pop. You want images that degrade women and promote poor body image? Go online or buy a copy of Barely Legal. These are the real menace; not a 'here today, gone tomorrow' contest that provides harmless fun for (yes) mainly women.

For all the pompous blether, shifting the event from Stormont doesn't protect plurality, promote inclusiveness or advance the cause of women. Instead it promotes a self-defeating uniformity and joylessness. Banning people going about their legal business is never a good idea. Freedom means not having to be a paragon of correctness. Regardless of gender, liberation implies the right to be shallow, silly and to live in the world as it is, not like some would like it to be. And looks are part of this world.

Women face bigger issues than the Miss Ulster contest. There are women here being forced into porn and prostitution. No woman was forced to enter Miss Ulster. It's time to get our priorities right.

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