Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

A flash of feminist daring sure to ruffle some feathers

A scantily clad Cara Park speaking in Parliament Buildings at Stormont on International Women's Day at the weekend. Pic Justin Kernoghan
A scantily clad Cara Park speaking in Parliament Buildings at Stormont on International Women's Day at the weekend. Pic Justin Kernoghan

A Miss Ulster Beauty pageant? We'll be having none of that sexist nonsense around here. Especially not up at Stormont, dignified seat of that hitherto unsuspected bastion of female empowerment - our local MLAs.

This we discovered a few months back, somewhat -- let's face it, to our surprise -- when the sanctimonious lot of them erupted with outrage after it was revealed that not only was the Miss Ulster final due to be held there but that three local Assembly persons had agreed to help host it.

No sooner had the sequins hit the fan than Jo-Anne Dobson (UUP) and Dolores Kelly (SDLP) quit as judges. They had not known, they let it be known, that entry requirements included age (18-24), height (5ft 7ins plus) and size (8-12) restrictions.

The cacophony of contest criticism, unusually for here, featured cross (very cross) party consensus.

Sinn Fein MLA Megan Fearon castigated it as "embarrassing" and "discriminatory".

Alliance MLA Anna Lo said: "We should not be encouraging young women to think they are only deemed beautiful if they look a certain way."

And the DUP's Arlene Foster sniffed it was all a bit like Father Ted's Lovely Girls competition.

Bizarrely Mike Nesbitt said he found the dress size rule "bizarre" which might suggest that the UUP leader believes that beauty contests regularly showcase what the fashion mags diplomatically call "real women".

Stormont, it was agreed, should not be used for such an event. The dignity of the seat of government was mentioned. Time and a place and all that.

Which brings us to Saturday, International Women's Day and back up at Stormont, the Alternative Miss Ulster pageant organised by the Green Party and billed as an evening of "celebration to highlight gender imbalance in public life in Northern Ireland".

This event also promised to "give women an opportunity to voice the changes they would like to see happen now and for the future".

Now, I am all for all of this. It is laudable, admirable stuff. The dearth of women in major roles in public life in this place, not least in the Assembly, is shameful. Let's take the focus off the female body and concentrate on the wider challenges women face.

But surely Michelle McTiernan, organiser of the much criticised Miss Ulster contest, must have allowed herself a little smile at these photographs of Alt Miss Ulster speaker Cara Park.

Ms Park fetched up at the podium in a spangly dress, topless apart from a fan of what looked like goose feathers. From the side it wasn't so much side boob as just, well, boob.

After the hoo-ha about beauty pageants objectifying women it was certainly an interesting costume choice.

I wasn't there to hear Ms Park's speech. I'm sure it was every bit as uplifting as her lack of underwear wasn't.

But what message did she hope to send? That flashing flesh, while degrading for a Miss Ulster, is empowering if you're billed as an 'alternative'?

Do we even need alternatives?

As women shouldn't we be showing solidarity with the whole sisterhood -- including those young women who see in beauty pageants the opportunity of a lucrative career in the modelling world? I am not offended by either Miss Ulster or the alternative.

What I do find offensive is the idea that one is somehow better, more worthy, or even all that different from the other.

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