Beauty queens jetted into London earlier this week with glossy lips, modulated smiles, practiced waves and carts stacked high with luggage. The Miss World beauty pageant, scheduled for Dec. 7, was moved from Abuja, Nigeria's capital, to London when protests over the competition turned into deadly rioting in which more than 200 people were killed. The tragic series of events serves as a reminder that beauty and its place in a culture can be emotionally volatile topics.
Nigeria was hosting the 2002 competition because the reigning Miss World is Nigerian. But from the beginning, there was uneasiness with the geography. Muslims, who dominate the northern part of the country, were angered because they saw the pageant as an affront to Islam. Women, they believe, should be modest and shun revealing clothes.
Also, several contestants decided to boycott the competition after reading international reports that a young Nigerian woman accused of adultery was condemned to death by stoning under sharia -- or Islamic law.
The situation was further aggravated when a newspaper columnist suggested in a national daily that the prophet Muhammad would have been just fine with the pageant and might even have chosen a wife from among the contestants. Protesters found neither irony nor amusement in the commentary and accused the writer of blasphemy, slander and a host of other crimes against Islam.
The ensemble that Britain's pageant entry wore for her arrival at Gatwick Airport on Sunday -- a sheer black bat-wing top over a clearly visible beige bra of the Maidenform no-nonsense variety -- was certainly enough to cause a religious man to take the Lord's name in vain. And marriage is likely not the first activity that would pop into his head.
Most of the other contestants chose to set themselves apart with accessories or bright colors rather than a public display of foundation garments. Tanzania's entry arrived in London wearing a sassy red leather coat and with so much luggage that each of the required evening gowns and swimsuits could have been housed in its own valise. The U.S. contestant chose the fall season's ubiquitous accessory: the extra-long muffler.
The ways in which femininity, beauty, morals, chastity and identity converge in a beauty pageant helps to explain why people can become so agitated, although nothing about a parade of beauty queens could ever bring logic to the violence witnessed in Nigeria. Religion might explain the believers' outrage, but it cannot justify the killings.
All beauty contestants exist in a stultifying limbo between girlishness and adulthood. To successfully compete, they visually hint at sex appeal while proclaiming their chastity. These women -- who are old enough to vote, buy cigarettes and drink alcohol -- are watched over by chaperons. They display knowledge of history and current events in a parade of costumes that revel in glitter, decolletage and plumage.
Contestants telegraph enthusiasm, dignity and confidence in a televised two-second three-point turn. They sashay across the stage in a swimsuit so that judges can sum up their "physical fitness," which is the equivalent of using a round of "Jeopardy!" to assess a person's intelligence. How satisfying would it be to have a judge yell from his perch: "Miss Uruguay! Drop and give me 30!"
The pageants do some good work, through charitable donations and scholarship programs. Isn't belting out a bluegrass version of "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" blessedly little for a young woman to do for a shot at a four-year college scholarship? And is it any more egregious than a young man suiting up in a unitard and pinning another similarly dressed fellow to a vinyl mat in hopes of winning the same sort of higher-ed largess?
Beauty pageants offend, irk and entertain with their silliness. There are those who would argue that beauty should not be rewarded because it is not something that is earned. But certainly it can be appreciated and applauded.
It is the way in which it is strutted and celebrated, however, that seems to cause all the furor. Beauty is criticized when it is divorced from modesty, separated from thoughtfulness, lacking in intelligence. Beauty can be fleeting, and folks look askance at those who try to hold on to it long after it has faded.
Beauty incites anger and jealousy because it is such a valuable gift that is bestowed without reason and without merit. In Nigeria, the outcry was over the public display of beauty, the revealing of it in a way that was outside the boundaries of religion -- at least one interpretation of it.
Beauty without humanity is hollow; religion without tolerance, we are reminded once again, is deadly.