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Miss Undergraduate 2012: The Contest and the Controversy

Some of 2012's Miss Undergrads

Originally published in Redbrick (

It was with great enthusiasm that I first took this article on – and in the name of honest journalism, I’ll admit that this rapidly turned into mass nervousness when I realised the size and significance of the subject that I’d agreed to write about. In 500 words. (Safe to say, all word limits went out of the window.)

‘Miss Undergraduate 2012′ was launched in association with Breast Cancer Research at The Chameleon bar on the 24th of January, targeting female students from the University of Birmingham, Aston University and Birmingham City University. With the last of four heats concluding on the 21st February, the stakes are high, as the crowned ‘Miss Undergraduate’ will walk away with a holiday for two to Ibiza. However, the contest is being met with strong objections, as protests from the University of Birmingham’s Women’s Association are underway. The Guild of Students have been stated as supporting this boycott, ‘condemning’ the event and ‘viewing it as an obstacle to equality and as an expression of social values which damages the health and happiness of students.’ Alexander Blair of Touch Promotions (who are organising the competition) told the visiting BBC reporters that the event is about raising awareness and money for charity – ‘I don’t see the link with sexual objectification…It’s a glamorous night, but there won’t be a swimsuit event.’

The competing girls will be judged on their hair, make-up, the way they present themselves and their on-stage question-and-answer round, he added. The woman who raises the most money in each heat gets an automatic place in the final. Paula Young (spokeswoman for Cancer Research UK) has reported that they will not be turning down money raised from the ‘Miss Undergraduate’ contest: ‘There are certain events that we will not accept proceeds from, such as those which are illegal or pose a risk to the charity and its supporters…We do not believe that taking money from a beauty contest falls into any of these categories.’ Following such great dispute, I naturally decided to pass the exponential responsibility of debating the competition onto some of the most strong-minded and passionate people that I’ve had the fortune of interacting with in the name of Redbrick. Read on to hear the resulting arguments from representatives of the Women’s Association and some of the competing ‘Miss Undergraduates’…

Against Miss Undergraduate 2012

‘Miss’, like ‘Miss World’, implies a beauty contest. It’s based in a nightclub – where sexual harassment and objectification is commonly rife. It may be ‘fun’, but casual sexism is still sexism – just easier to dismiss. Raising charity funds doesn’t make it less sexist. Beauty contests engender patriarchal ‘divide and rule’; some women are ‘beautiful’ (i.e. the competitors) and others ‘ugly’, giving us grounds to judge women’s looks. It’s hardly ‘free choice’ when patriarchal-consumerism produces narrow ideals to judge appearance, with harmful repercussions for most women. It’s said that anyone can apply, but must provide photos – so women who don’t adhere to conventional beauty norms may feel less inclined to compete.

April Reilly, member of the Women’s Association

The Women’s Association have nothing against the women deciding to take part in ‘Miss Undergraduate’ – we take issue with beauty pageants themselves. We believe beauty pageants can affect all women. Whilst those taking part may argue they feel empowered by the pageant, they legitimise the idea that women can be judged solely on the basis of their appearance. In our society, one in 20 young women suffer from eating disorders and one in seven women students are victims of serious sexual assault or violence. This shows the importance of opposing events such as ‘Miss Undergraduate’, which promote the objectification of women and are an example of sexist practices being seen as a normal part of our lives.

Catie Garner, Women’s Association Guild Councillor 

For ‘Miss Undergraduate 2012′

I see no reason why the WA is targeting the ‘Miss Undergraduate’ contest. The contestants are educated women who have ultimate liberty to pursue their interests. To say the contest is about female objectification is a misled preconception. We’re assessed on our hair and makeup (by BCU professionals, who receive recognition), our question answers, and the money we raise. At no point are we judged on whether we are ‘more beautiful’ than one another. Females are often subjected to media pressures – it should be the magazines that Photoshop images that are accused of objectification. I regard the experience as exceptionally empowering; winning is completely irrelevant. By having a good time and raising money for a worthwhile cause, we are all winners.

Carly Davies, UOB ‘Miss Undergrad 2012′ competitor

The competition was open to all women of all ages, shapes and sizes – the only prerequisite being ‘undergraduate’. 20% of ticket sales from contestants are going to Breast Cancer UK, and the fundraising was supported by Paula Young (of Cancer Research UK) when talking to the BBC. The title ‘Miss’ was chosen to appear more upmarket, like the ‘Miss World’ competition, and did not exclude married students. Contrary to some protests, there was no swimwear round – we were asked to wear glamorous ball gowns, and judged on our question answers, hair, make-up and poise. There was plenty of opportunity for all girls to get involved. Who can define beauty? Beauty is what you make of it.

Jess Sarfas, UOB ‘Miss Undergrad 2012′ competitor.


  1. RH

    ‘At no point are we judged on whether we are ‘more beautiful’ than one another.’ Don’t be so naive.

    • Hey, thanks for your comment! I lean to agree with you. Leaning to the point of being horizontal. I feel that statement is a great idea, but somewhat idealistic…

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