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The Problem with Miss England Claiming to Be a Feminist

23/06/2014 12:23 BST | Updated 23/08/2014 10:59 BST

Cambridge medical student Carina Tyrell has explained at length how she reconciles being a feminist with being Miss England Unfortunately, her arguments that contestants are judged on more than just looks, and she could do great things with the exposure, sound at best naive and at worst tragic.

Had she written 'yes, I'm a feminist, which means I have the option to find empowerment at my own prerogative - be that studying medicine, writing for a national publication or posing in a swimsuit', she may have garnered some more support, although the underlying patriarchal nature of the argument would be no less problematic.

As it is, it seems impossible to understand how a self-proclaimed believer in gender equality can not only partake in, but also endorse and justify, the pageant industry, which reduces women to physical appearance, and also feeds into the ubiquitous perception that female beauty is completely objective, and that the women with the most value are those who most closely resemble magazine cover models.

Look no further than the social media storm which followed Miss Indiana's appearance in the US version of the pageant, when the world expressed shock at the fact that she was a 'normal' size and shape. In fact, she is a US size 4 (UK size 8), and the average US woman is a size 12-14 (that's 16-18 in UK sizes). By normal, it would appear, viewers simply meant 'not underweight'.

Contestants such as Ms Tyrell may argue that if they have the genetic luck, ambition, and drive to make their bodies fit the pageant mold, and raise awareness for some important issues along the way, where's the harm?

The harm lies in the fact the women are routinely judged on their appearance, regardless of any other talents and abilities. Hillary Clinton faces scrutiny on everything from her hair to her weight on most occasions she appears in public; Miley Cyrus's undeniable achievements are irrelevant compared to the column inches devoted to her garments - or lack thereof; historian Mary Beard appears on Question Time only to be faced with a barrage of comments pondering the details of her genitalia.

Needless to say, Obama's suits draw little attention, male musicians have the privilege of being able to appear in their music videos fully clothed and still achieve notoriety, and David Starkey's penis is rarely a trending topic on Twitter.

In Venezuela, baby girls born into poverty are brought up striving to the perfect body, as beauty pageants are often their only hope to escape the favelas, inner city shanty towns some of which lack basic human necessities, such as clean water and electricity. Their efforts can range from starving themselves to undergoing extreme cosmetic surgery, often performed in unsanitary conditions.

How lucky we are to live in a society where little girls are brought up to believe that they can be doctors, writers, politicians, academics, or stay-at-home mothers, if that's what they'd like to do. It's our choice to set our sights on a future, and we are told it's not determined by our gender.

But what about the less overt misogyny of a culture which judges women on their body first, their face second, their hair third, and their intellect last? It's time we stop justifying pageant contents in the context of them being a way to reach our higher goals. Male medical students wouldn't pose in a swimsuit as a way to achieve great things, so why should female ones.