At first glance, it might seem far-fetched to declare beauty pageants and competitive entrance examinations as beasts of the same colour.
The former has underpinnings of glamour and beauty, and are televised live to a worldwide audience of millions. The latter is a silent affair, a scene of millions of pens around the country scratching in desperation to arrive at the correct answer that matches one of the given options in the question paper.
The competition for both is indeed intense and the winner often makes an appearance in the newspapers and TV, only for most to fade into obscurity after their brief moment in the spotlight. Yet, apart from the ruthless competition, what could beauty pageants such as Miss Universe and Miss World possibly have in common with an entrance examination for prestigious engineering colleges in India?
For both engineering aspirants in India and teenage girls in Venezuela, adverse economic conditions ultimately lead to a social conditioning where the promise of a successful life comes dangling in front like a carrot
Both countries share a grim set of social and economic conditions, which exert immense pressure on the youth who then are fetishised as source of national pride, and ultimately, feed predatory coaching industries on a large scale.To place it in context, we consider the two countries where these two competitive endeavours play a similar role – India and Venezuela.
For both engineering aspirants in India and teenage girls in Venezuela, adverse economic conditions such as severe lack of jobs and a difficult economy ultimately lead to a social conditioning where the promise of a successful life comes dangling in front like a carrot. However, there is a catch.
Getting there is not easy and they must, therefore, forego an important part of their childhood to dedicate countless hours preparing for their supposed dreamland of success – whether it is to be crowned Miss Venezuela and going on to becoming Miss Universe, or to crack Indian Institute of Technology-Joint Entrance Examination (IIT-JEE) to get Computer Sciences at IIT Delhi and finally, ending up working for Google or Microsoft in their upper echelons.
This is where the coaching industry steps in.
For many a kid growing up in India, especially the aspirant lower-middle classes, the following has been an almost ritual experience.
Tenth grade has just gotten over. The Central Board of Secondary Examination (CBSE) or whichever matriculation examination the child has appeared for brings the delightful news. The score is good. The mood in the family is jubilant; the child is made to believe in her or his immense potential. For days, the conquering young victor’s examination exploits are the centre of familial discourse.
Before the realisation sets in, the parents have projected their decision onto the unaware kid whose fate is then sealed. Science it is. Alongside engineering or medical coaching, of course.
As most successful businesses do, coaching centres are now diversifying to cater to various kinds of students apart from engineering and medical colleges
The process might vary across families, but the result arrived at is more often than not, similar. The story of these coaching institutes, then, takes the familiar trajectory. This usually entails years of intense pressure at multiple levels – from parents at home, teachers at school, the tutors at the institute, friends, and perhaps even, newspaper advertisements.
It is not much of a secret how the world of engineering aspirants is like – students in distress and anxiety, ridden with fear of failure and crushing guilt of not doing well enough. The latter is particularly strong, since parents often have to shell out a lot of money for a seat at a coaching institute. To top it all, the success stories of the toppers are blared loudly across local and national newspapers, weeks after the board results.
The flip side, often brushed under the carpet, is darker. Apart from yearly news of selected students, there is also a steady trickle of news about students committing suicide or in varying degrees of stress and anxiety.
The massive heft of these coaching institutes was recently demonstrated in the nation’s capital, New Delhi, when FIIT JEE, a coaching institute, came in as the sponsor for a new metro station outside the IIT. The acquisition was accompanied by FIIT JEE’s name painted all over the station in loud yellow hues.
As most successful businesses do, coaching centres are now diversifying to cater to various kinds of students apart from engineering and medical colleges. In a hat tip to Michel Foucault, they strongly resemble each other – engineering coaching resembles medical, which resembles the coaching centres for commerce students, which again resemble engineering coaching institutes. And they all sell similar dreams for the devil’s bargain of a hefty fee and hours of intensive classes that drain you physically and emotionally.
The Price of Beauty
The Western media covers Venezuela for mainly two clichéd instances – whenever their battered and sanctioned economy touches a new low rock bottom and when a Venezuelan beauty wins a pageant. The country has an impressive record with seven Miss Universe, six Miss World, seven Miss International, and two Miss Earth titles.
Behind this impressive tally of sashes and tiaras, lies an economy in distress with stagnating growth, income uncertainties and a lack of job opportunities. In such an environment, many young women, some in their teens, look to beauty pageants as a path to a successful life, from where they can launch lucrative careers in modelling and acting.
This is where the pageant factories play a role. The oldest of such kinds takes 600 girls yearly, and they’re taught how to catwalk and showcase themselves for pageants. The subculture of Venezuelan pageant aspirants is one of getting breast implants, butt lifts and nose jobs in early teenage years. One particular contestant had a mesh sewn into her tongue to prevent her from eating solid foods.
Behind the impressive tally of sashes and tiaras, lies an economy in distress with stagnating growth, income uncertainties and a lack of job opportunities
These aspiring beauty queens carry the burden of their family’s expectations all the way to the ramp. Furthermore, they are also exposed to certain pressures that affect them adversely, both as women and as aspiring pageant winners. They are objectified and sexualized from an early age, and their difficult economic status makes them more vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
These hazards were seen in action earlier in 2018, when the Miss Venezuela pageant was mired in allegations of sexual favours being traded by participants in exchange for money from big businessmen and top government officials.
Industry of Insecurity
Perhaps, “industry” is a misnomer for these two cousin entities, operating halfway across the world from each other. The IIT-JEE and beauty pageant coaching are more like agricultural undertakings, if nothing else. They sow fear and insecurity into large masses of youth, and they reap massive revenues. The success stories are good enough fertilisers for the next bag of seeds.
Moreover, the fact that these two industries continue to get immense amounts of profits despite the growing awareness about their harmful asks pertinent questions – what kind of youth are we raising? Are we aware of what narratives are being fed into them? Have we made them aware of the complex socio-economic realities of this world instead of pumping them with fear that drives them into the jaws of monstrous, money-minting industries?
These industries of insecurity will continue to persist in extracting a heavy toll on the minds and bodies of the youth. They will also persist in extracting their family savings. Unless we as a society introspect across all generations over the ideas that we perpetuate on subjects like success, failure, careers, relationships, etc., we will keep these industries in business. If there is no change in the status quo, we will end up with a generation of scarred and isolated individuals.
Shivam Bahuguna is a student of MA International Relations at South Asian University, New Delhi.
Views expressed here are the author’s own.