Beauty and the beholder: no longer skin deep
When conversations come up about beauty pageants, the names Apasra Hongsakula and Porntip "Bui" Nakhirunkanok are never far from everyone's lips. Well, anyone, that is, over the age of 20. The two Miss Universe winners — Apasra in 1965 and Bui in 1988 — were the icons of beauty for the world. They were two beautiful women, poised, and grand. But before they graced and consequently charmed the world stage, we should not forget that they were first crowned Miss Thailand.
Today, there are several beauty titles. Regardless of the name of the contest, the prestige is there for the winner who gets the honour of being regarded as one of the most beautiful women in Thailand. The official title and the duties that go along with the position may only last a year, but the distinction of being crowned a beauty queen would last a lifetime.
Winning a high profile beauty pageant is an aspiration for many women. There are prizes, fame, popularity, pay and a promising follow-on career. Compared to the winner, the runners-up have significantly less opportunities and rewards for competing. So the competitive pressure is huge. Every little blemish, gossip or negativity that can scar the reputation of one contestant will give way to an advantage for another.
With fierce competition, every leverage counts. With the current medical advances, plastic surgery can grant (almost) instant beauty. Excess fat can be sucked out of the stomach, hips, buttock and thigh areas. Breast implants can provide alluring cleavage. Rhinoplasty can give any girl that perfect movie star nose. Laser treatments can blast away moles, blemishes, dark spots and unwanted scars. So with a little cash, anyone can buy a beautiful face.
The plastic surgery debate in beauty contests is not new. Some people believed that beauty should be natural and unaltered. It's the face and body that's everyone born with. If "fixes" are allowed, then the competition would no longer be a beauty contest, but
a battle of which plastic surgeon did a better job.
On the flip side, many would rebut that if a girl wants a new nose and she is willing to work hard to pay for it and risk going under the knife, then she deserves her new nose. Being in control and making a decision to make a change is very empowering. Athletes prepare for competition by exercising and honing their bodies and skills to perform their best. So why can't beauty contestants practise and change their looks so that they can be at their best too?
Whether if a girl is born with it or pay to get it, a pretty face just get her through the door. There is much more to pageantry. Parading in a two-piece bikini in high heels on stage in front of television cameras and hundreds of people takes a lot of confidence. Maintaining
a toned physique requires strict diet and discipline. The ladies had to learn to dance on stage, show their personality, walk, pose and demonstrate their talent to perfection.
In recent contests, pageants have been introducing "people's choice" voting. Viewers and followers can cast online votes for their favourite contestant. In this year's Miss Thailand World, one of the four fast track competitions that allowed the winner to be in the top 10 was a popular vote. So public opinion now has some weight in addition to the judges' scoring. This is by no means a surprise. With the popularity of viewer participation platform shows such as The Voice, the migration to beauty pageant was expected.
In terms of advertising profitability, opening the contest to viewers introduces an additional avenue to keep people tuned in to the programme. With viewers' emotional interests captured, ratings go up and advertisements are more effective. However, in the world of social media, having viewers cast votes can also open a Pandora's box of problems.
With social media, anyone can say whatever they want with simple keystrokes. On the internet, it's very difficult to enforce ethical conduct. Truths and lies look very similar on social media. And with near-instant sharing, rumours can spread faster than a wildfire. Opinions can run rampant without any control on the web. Context of actual events can also get lost in editing as posts are "liked" and shared.
So for any beauty contestant vying for the crown, a popular vote adds a tremendous amount of exposure. Though publicity can be a positive thing for a lucrative career in the public eye, it can also be detrimental to a person's reputation. Anyone can run internet searches and dig up the past. Facebook posts, blogs and pictures on the internet are now out in the open for everyone to criticise and judge. The best case scenario for any contestant is that people would discover her kindness, honesty and intelligence. Traits that are hard to appreciate on television or display on stage. The worst case is that the public would learn about less-than-perfect past personal choices and turn them into juicy rumours that would consequently defame one's character, even after the pageant is over.
It seems like the world of beauty pageants has changed quite a bit over the decades. The swimsuits have become a lot smaller. Modern medicine now plays a bigger role. But the largest impact is probably attributed to television and the internet. We all understand the difference between outer and inner beauty.
In Apasara and Bui's era, all we had to judge on was mostly two-dimensional and largely concentrated on outer beauty like the face, body language, height, weight, proportions, hair, how a contestant answered a few questions and maybe a short biography. Today, we have a greater glimpse into inner beauty, such as a contestant's political views, opinions on various issues, opinions expressed by close family and friends, hobbies, activities before pageant involvement, even academic records.
Today's beauties can no longer afford to be merely skin deep. Outer beauty alone is just not enough to secure a win. A contestant must show that she has high moral standards and that she is genuine, respectful, responsible, smart, gracious and much more. It's the combination of outer and inner beauty that makes each woman unique in her own way. The same should reflect in the queens who represent us as they wear the title of one of the most beautiful women in Thailand.
Prapai Kraisornkovit is the editor of Life section, Bangkok Post.
Bangkok Post Life section Editor.