Young women parading in bikinis, talking about world peace, and getting marks out of 10 for their physical appearance. That is probably what most people think of when they hear the words “beauty pageant”. A throwback to another age that has somehow continued unfettered, the very notion of the beauty pageant is questionable – after all, it is as close to an actual manifestation of the objectification of women as you can get.
So a rather unusual beauty pageant in Israel this week has caused some controversy. Fourteen women, aged between 74 and 97, competed for the title of “Miss Holocaust Survivor”. Whittled down from 300 entrants, each of the women had survived the horrors of World War II.
Certainly, it jars to think of judging ageing women who have endured so much on the basis of their appearance. Critics said that the contest was macabre and offensive, while the cosmetics company recruited to dress the women for the pageant was accused of using the survivors for a cheap marketing stunt. Pageant organisers Shimon Sabag responded that it was a “celebration of life” and that just ten per cent depended on appearance, with women being judged also on their stories of survival and their contribution to their local communities.
The strange disjunction of the event is illustrated by its judging panel – three former beauty queens, and a psychiatrist specialising in Holocaust trauma. There is something about it which sounds like dystopic satire.
Yet for the participants, it clearly meant something. The winner was 79-year-old Hava Hershkovitz, who was forced to leave her home in Romania in 1941. She said: "This place is full of survivors. It puts us at the centre of attention so people will care. It's not easy at this age to be in a beauty contest, but we're all doing it to show that we're still here."
Esther Libber, a 74-year-old runner up who fled Poland as a child, hiding in a forest before being rescued by a Polish woman, echoed this sentiment: "I have the privilege to show the world that Hitler wanted to exterminate us and we are alive. We are also enjoying life. Thank God it’s that way.”
There is something moving about the women’s attitudes: the fact that they are still standing is testament to the strength of human spirit. But is a beauty pageant really the best way to illustrate this? Lili Haber, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, posed the same question : "Why use a beauty contest to show that these people survived and that they're brave?"
The discomfort in Israel has largely originated from the sense that Holocaust survivors should be spared such frivolities. The Holocaust saw over six million Jews killed, and millions of people in Israel have either lost family members to the Holocaust, or are related to survivors. Around 200,000 survivors live in Israel.
Gal Mor, editor of the popular Israeli blog "Holes in the Net", summarised this:
"Why should a decayed, competitive institution that emphasizes women's appearance be used as inspiration, instead of allowing them to tell their story without gimmicks? This is one step short of 'Survivor-Holocaust' or 'Big Brother Auschwitz.' It leaves a bad taste. Holocaust survivors should be above all this."
It appears to come back to the bizarre preoccupation with women’s appearances that can be seen across the world. It is hard to imagine an equivalent contest being held for men. Why is it that a celebration of female life must be through the prism of their looks? Even if, as competition organisers said, physical appearance was just a small component of the judging criteria, there is something peculiar about setting stories of survival against each other. Participants were judged on their stories of the Holocaust, as well as their subsequent contributions to their community, adding a competitive element to a great tragedy. This beauty pageant may have been well intentioned, but it is strange to say the least.