Skin Deep? | Jessica McBride

spring2008missscotland1I’ve got beauty pageant fatigue, or more precisely, Miss Scotland fatigue. My preconceptions of beauty queens, and the general populous as a whole cause me to think that beauty pageants wrongly attempt to represent the ‘ideal’ woman and figure of beauty. Surely a competition that promotes young women as mere one-dimensional characters, where their sole requirement is to be judged by their appearance and decorum and ranked accordingly is shamefully outmoded, and well, sexist? Why do these girls hold themselves up as (seemingly) dim-witted Barbie dolls, presenting themselves as role models?

The only way I could find out was to ask one of them myself. Well groomed and auspiciously poised, Nieve Jennings—aka Miss Scotland—doesn’t appear as the bronzed, spuriously painted or the dense clichéd image of what beauty queens are recognised as. Softly spoken, self-assured and making eye contact at all times, she values, and lives by, the niceties of etiquette. But as lovely as it is that a person may speak and act with precision politeness, you’ve got to wonder how much of this ought to be taken as genuine rather than a facade of conformity that has been trained into them?

“It’s not about how you look, it’s all about what’s on in the inside,” Nieve explains as we’re nestled into the elegantly cushy chairs at the Hilton Hotel, where we meet. “…how intelligent you are, the kind of girl you are, how you carry yourself… And that’s the disappointment because people don’t realise that. I think in years to come they will.” No doubt these are worthy values, yet the fact she, and pageants, rank one’s intelligence as somehow on par with one’s deportment is a little disconcerting to say the least.

Nieve repeats the importance of these qualities over and over during our time together. It’s something she’s obviously thought about a lot. “Beauty comes from within, and probably comes from the heart.” “Respect,” she carries on “being honourable, mannerly, genuine, friendly, and most of all being a very good, trustworthy friend.” Fair enough. Parading oneself in a swimsuit on stage is not a test of ‘how beautiful you are on the inside.’

This is the crux of my dilemma in judging Miss Scotland: if Nieve Jennings genuinely believes in the principles she continually insists upon, why then would she enter into the Miss Scotland contest, which clearly focuses on superficial beauty? “I think it does raise your profile a lot,” she retorts. “It’s not that I just wanted to raise my profile, I did want to be a role model to everyone – young girls, teenagers, everyone.”

Aah, the profile. For Nieve Jennings is not just a beauty queen—she’s a model, actor and performer as well. Graduating from the GAMTA in ‘07, she then went on into the world of showbiz, and found herself in the running for Miss Scotland. Asked what she wants to be doing in a year’s time, she responds, “…raise my profile as much as I can, so by the time June comes I can keep working and perhaps go even further. I’ve done so much in the past year, but I think maybe this time next year who knows, somewhere…”

An admission perhaps not all girls would divulge, Nieve saw the opportunity to be the ‘face’ of Scotland as helpful in opening doors to her theatrical career. Does she, now that she has won the title of Miss Scotland and is recognised by the public at large, see herself as a celebrity?

“Depending on how well you push yourself and what your ambition is, I think you can become a reasonably well known celebrity. It’s just how far you want to take it… whatever your thoughts are really. To be honest, I don’t know where I fit in but I guess I’m just Miss Scotland, and to some people I’m a well known celebrity.”

To cynically consider Nieve’s status as being used solely to further her career, however, would be to under appreciate the way in which beauty pageants hold a mirror up to society. There are things to praise as well as criticise here.

Just as quickly as she can talk about career ambitions, Nieve turns to highlight the ways in which her own celebrity can benefit others, as she takes takes seriously her role in various charitable works too. “Turning up to these charity jobs and seeing how happy people are, and how happy I make people just by doing the slightest thing is so overwhelming, and makes me so happy… I think that’s the great thing and makes me want to do more.”

The role of a beauty queen entails more than being gawped at: the women representing their countries are there to be positive examples of how one can make a difference to those at home and abroad. While in China for the Miss World contest, they managed to raise five million dollars in four weeks for the Red Cross and Aids foundations. “It’s changing the world really. It’s beauty with a purpose,” Nieve tells me. “That’s the amazing thing about it, that it’s not all just to look good. It’s full of intelligent girls.”

Beauty pageants do not simply judge on objective ideals of beauty. Implicit in the event is the emphasis on issues relevant to society. Although some portions of the competition are admittedly fairly trivial, others demonstrate the values and standards that the participating ‘delegates’ and nations uphold. The ‘Beauty with a Purpose’ contest within Miss World provides a case in point—its aim is to bring attention to and engagement with certain causes from the delegate’s region for the betterment of their community: as with Nieve Jennings, who has helped in raising money for various charities in Scotland. Whether these kinds of activities in some way allude to how the feminine is a wholesome morality-led figure is questionable.

In the end the Miss World contest of 2007 was a success, yet Nieve ranked 16th in the pageant, and never got that sparkly crown on her head. Yet this was never the main point for her. She says “people forget that if you don’t get anywhere in Miss World it doesn’t matter because you’re still representing your country.” Again, striving to achieve one’s best is the crucial thing for her. “I think [I represent my country] very well and to the best of my ability, I tried every day like it was the only day, I couldn’t have done any better and I think everyone knows that back home and I’m really grateful.”

Back in Scotland, she has proudly embraced the role as an ambassador for Scotland, a representative in a sense as “a young intelligent person who can speak on behalf of lots of people and just show people in and around Scotland what it is made of.” Not only that, upon her return she was awarded the Miss United Kingdom crown too.

What enabled Nieve Jennings to win both titles has less to do with how beautiful she is and more to do with how Scotland, and the United Kingdom, has exposed its own notions of what is deemed an ideal beauty. By choosing Nieve as a representative and role model for the public, and for young girls in particular (let’s not forget, they and their mothers are the main demographic), she has been judged ‘best in show’ in evoking the standards of deportment, femininity and national ideals. As each nation differs on particular forms of etiquette and varying conceptions of beauty and femininity, a broader range of women are in fact represented in Miss World than some might readily assume.

And this is where she comes into her own, for she is not afraid to speak out on issues she sees as important, and implicit, in being a positive role model. A case in point is her view on the drinking culture in Britain, especially Scotland, which she feels needs to be addressed. “Drinking and smoking and all that as Miss Scotland is completely non-acceptable. People drink to just get absolutely drunk here, I don’t approve of that at all It’s a really good thing for young girls to know that you don’t have to conform and go out and get drunk to achieve anything; they think it’s cool—not at all. For any girls who think it’s nice to do that then it’s completely not. It does set me apart, and make me different from others, and people remember [me] for that. It’s much more ladylike.”

Here—in full role model mode—she acts with express intent to highlight a concern of hers, which is echoed in Britain as a whole. Being a spokesperson for the values in propriety and against the culture of binge-drinking in this country Nieve has demonstrated that she is capable of expressing and challenging preconceived notions of beauty queens as one-trick ponies. Whether one agrees with her opinions or not, she nonetheless engages with issues and concerns that some ‘celebrities’ would no care to address.

And that’s why I have beauty pageant fatigue. I don’t know what to make of Miss Scotland, or indeed all beauty queens. Some may say that she is indeed a positive and effective role model—that really is in little doubt. Yet part of me still believes that Nieve (as a young, clever, and ambitious woman) has somewhat let herself down in conforming to such conventionally idealised versions of femininity. She may not have a problem with this, but I do.

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