This Saturday we will be subject to the degrading spectacle of the Miss World contest on television. Women will be paraded, ogled at and inspected like so many pieces of meat. They will be judged for the size of their breasts, the shape of their legs or the smoothness of their skin. A 'bubbly' personality or an interest in 'children or current affairs' may be an asset, but only if the contestant matches up to a stereotypical and sexist image of what is 'beautiful'.
In the 1960s Robert Morley, the founder of Miss World, summed up the 'material' he was looking for: 'Girls between 17 and 25, ideally five foot seven, eight or nine stone, waist 22-24', hips 35-36', no more no less, a lovely face, good teeth, plenty of hair, and perfectly shaped legs from front and back - carefully checked for such defects as slightly knocked knees.' This disgusting stereotype bears absolutely no relation to the wide variety of shapes and sizes of women in the real world. Nearly half the women in Britain, for example, are size 16 or over.
Appraising our bodies in this humiliating way puts women under intense pressure to match up to the 'perfect' figure. Women are made to feel like failures if they don't fit the stereotype. Millions of women become obsessed with whether they are too fat or thin, agonising over whether their thighs are too wobbly, their bums too big or their breasts too saggy. A minority of women completely ruin their health through starving themselves in pursuit of a 'perfect' shape. The bosses of the beauty industry in Britain rake in some £8.9 billion a year by playing on women's insecurity about their looks.
Above all, Miss World sends out the message that women are not the equals of men and it helps to belittle women's role in society. What matters is not what we think about the world or whether we are talented mechanics or musicians, engineers or artists, but how we look. Our education, jobs and pay come second.
That is why the Miss World contest was one of the first targets of attack of the women's movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1970 over 100 protesters stormed the contest at London's Albert Hall. 'We threw smoke bombs, flour, stink bombs, leaflets, blew whistles, waved rattles,' described one of the women. 'I felt the event symbolised my daily exploitation.'
The protests were important in highlighting the degrading treatment of women and linking it to the wider oppression of women in capitalist society. When I was a teenager in the late 1970s it had become quite commonplace to describe the event as a 'meat market'. Me and my friends railed against women being seen as sex objects and spoken to like children. We kicked up a storm when we heard of plans for a mini Miss World type event at our local further education college.
In 1988 Miss World was finally taken off the TV screens. The sexist ritual no longer fitted so many women's expectations to be treated as the equals of men. So why is Miss World back on TV a decade later? The protests against Miss World in the late 60s and early 70s were part of an outward looking women's movement. Many of those involved linked women's oppression to the whole set up of capitalist society. Today those ideas have come under attack. 'New lad' magazines like Loaded and FHM have taken degrading pornographic pictures of women off the top shelves and made them respectable.
Sadly too many 'new feminists' and 'post-feminists' have reinforced the idea that 'anything goes'. So too have a string of popular TV shows in recent years, for example The Girlie Show. That has helped create an atmosphere where Miss World boss Julia Morley can get away with calling the contest a triumph of girl power. 'These girls are young and beautiful. They should make the most of their bodies while they can. That is what girl power is all about,' she said. This turns the whole idea of women's liberation on its head.
Thankfully a new generation of young women, and men, are rejecting the sexism churned out by magazines like Loaded. The National Union of Students is organising a protest outside the Miss World contest at the Olympia stadium on Saturday. Let's make it is as angry, loud and disruptive as the demonstration in 1970!