Last Sunday, Harnaaz Sandhu made history as the first Punjabi Sikh woman to win the Miss Universe title. At only 21 years old, the Chandigarh native beat out around 80 other contestants from all over the globe.
As I saw this headline making its rounds on social media, I was honestly more taken aback by the fact that pageants like Miss Universe still exist, than the fact that Harnaaz had won. As a fierce proponent of representation who is anti-beauty pageant, I was conflicted. It was inspiring to see a Punjabi woman winning with the whole world watching, but it didn’t feel like the most empowering of causes.
After reading through the discourse around the win on Twitter and in doing further research on Harnaaz and the pageant itself, I can confirm that the whole situation was and is a giant shitshow.
From the location of the pageant within Eilat, Israel, appropriation of Palestinian culture, Eurocentric beauty standards, Harnaaz’s win being purported through Indian nationalism both by and for her, Jojo performing (which is very random, I know) and Steve Harvey asking Harnaaz to do an animal impersonation on live TV (someone please stop this man).
I’ve done all the sleuthing, so you don’t have to. Let’s start with the Miss Universe pageant itself.
The Miss Universe pageant originated in 1952, in California by Catalina Swimsuits as a marketing tactic. Through its 69-year history the pageant has experienced several changes in ownership including the 1995-2015 Donald Trump era to now being owned by the WME as a for-profit company.
In order to be considered as a Miss Universe delegate, one must be between 18-28 years of age prior to the January of the year in which they intend to compete, must not be wed or a parent, and must be a winner of their national pageant. The Miss Universe Organization (MUO) states that it is specifically looking for, “a young woman who is comfortable in her own skin; someone who is authentic, empathetic and determined to make her mark in the world.”
Delegates are judged in three rounds: the evening gown, swimsuit, and personality interview (where they must respond to a question on social, cultural, and political topics), by the selection committee which consists of a series of accomplished women.
The winner of the competition then, according to the MUO, gets the opportunity to move to New York City and is provided with the opportunity to leverage their position to fulfill a series of objectives. Other news sites discuss all expenses paid travel, groceries, transport, makeup, and more, as well as an alleged 6-figure salary as additional perks of the win.
Amid all of this, it's important to consider how expensive this entire process is for delegates, considering the cost of gowns, hair, makeup, accessories, coaches, instructors, and pageant entry fees. Coaches alone can cost up to $5000/week.
My issues with beauty pageants, including Miss Universe are numerous. Let’s start with the fact that ultimately, the contest comes down to physical appearance, with the personality interview portion seeming like a feeble and performative attempt at being holistic without any real substance.
The whole piece on winners using their position to fulfill a series of objectives, while aspirational, does not give Miss Universe extensive power to enact any actual policy-level change.
While we are seeing a greater diversity of delegates in recent years, it’s infuriating to see that these pageants are still upholding and promoting Eurocentric beauty standards (ex. having fair skin, a small nose, a slim figure, full lips, etc.). If we look at Harnaaz herself, you’ll find that while she is very beautiful, she is very conventionally beautiful, by Western standards.
Harnaaz and previous Miss India candidates are representative of India’s particular hyperfocus towards these Eurocentric standards through the marketing of “fair and lovely,” and the way in which these candidates conveniently all look the same, as can be seen through the 2019 Miss India finalists.
Not only are these standards harmful for beauty pageant participants who often find themselves taking great lengths to fit these standards resulting in eating disorders and mental health struggles, but they are also harmful for wider society and girls/women who are looking at these pageants and comparing themselves, or not seeing themselves represented at all.
It irks me how the MUO talks about “creating opportunities” and “breaking stereotypes” to increase women’s self-confidence but in actuality, is unrepresentative of the diversity of women (I mean me, my IBS, and hormonal acne could never).
Not only that but when there are women who break the status quo to enter the pageant, they are faced with discrimination and/or public harassment (ex. Nova Stevens, the first black woman to hold the Miss Universe Canada title who faced persistent racism on social media; Kataluna Enriquez, the first transgender women competing for Miss USA, who had to have a doctor certify that she was a woman).
Let’s now delve into the politics of this all.
It's particularly interesting to me to see the way in which Harnaaz Sandhu and many media outlets are showcasing this win as a very “chak de phatte India” moment. In other words, she’s celebrated as the third “Indian” to have won the pageant, with little to no mention of her Sikh Punjabi heritage.
Her and others framing of this win through a pro-India lens is upsetting given the way in which India has marginalized not only Punjabi farmers at the hands of India’s Prime Minister Modi, but other minorities as well. It feels as if she’s being used as a scapegoat for Modi to showcase this positive relationship with Punjabi Sikhs through Harnaaz, despite the fact that this is not the case at all.
Whether she’s using this as a ploy to leverage her position with Modi is unclear at this point. But it’s important to recognize that being Miss Universe doesn’t grant you policy making powers.
Then there’s the fact that the pageant was held in Israel in the city of Eliat (which was built on the Palestinian town of Umm Al-Rashrash). Many Palestinians called for a boycott of the event to support them against Israel’s violation of their rights through their longstanding conflict.
While some contestants withdrew, many continued whilst ignoring these pleas or in the case of Andrea Meza, Miss Universe 2020 remarking that, “Miss Universe isn’t a political movement, nor a religious one. It’s about women and what they can offer.” Harnaaz made similar statements in emphasizing that the pageant is, “not [a place] where we should talk about disparities. It’s something which talks about unity and inspiring each other.”
As part of a “Visit Israel” campaign the pageant organizers held an event where several contestants were photographed appropriating Palestinian clothing and food with the hashtag “visitIsrael.”
Harnaaz herself met with the Israeli Consul General ahead of the competition to talk about commonalities between their countries and climate change.
As much as pretending politics don’t exist would be easy, the fact of the matter is that Miss Universe is inherently political. By attending, appropriating Bedouin culture, and opting to ignore boycotts – there is no way that Harnaaz or Andrea or other contestants can pretend that the pageant is a silo in this regard.
For me, and it seems many others on social media, this raises questions around what representation really means. One end, I’d love to celebrate Harnaaz Sandhu for her win as a Punjabi Sikh woman, but on the other end I can’t ignore her disregard for Palestinians, her conformance to Eurocentric beauty standards, and her pro-India stance.
While at first glance, many Punjabi Sikhs turn to celebrate this win, which I understand, I urge us all to think deeper about the situation. I think we can be happy for Harnaaz but also ask for more. This isn’t an attempt to bash on Harnaaz or other contestants, but rather to think about this entire event with a more critical lens.
It’s clear to me that we can no longer stop at the existence of representation anymore. It’s just not enough. We need to start to ask ourselves what kind of representation we want and how we can hold each other accountable. How can we ensure that representation isn’t at the expense of others' pain?
I hope that Harnaaz is able to leverage her Miss Universe platform to address these concerns and that we can all have further conversations around the need for representation beyond her Miss Universe win, and what meaningful representation really means.
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