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7 Ways Our Trailblazing Miss Universe Harnaaz Sandhu Is Changing Lives And Mindsets!

It’s great to have role models like Miss Universe Harnaaz Sandhu, using her position of privilege and influence to set the right example for all.

I must admit that I didn’t think much of Harnaaz Sandhu when the news first broke out that India won the Miss Universe title 21 years after India last won. Harnaaz Sandhu is the third Indian woman to win the Miss Universe title after Sushmita Sen and Lara Dutta.

Yes, I know it’s a great deal. Yet, I don’t endorse these contests because of their pigeonholed perspective of beauty.

Remember the fiasco that happened when Pushpika De Silva, Mrs Sri Lanka 2020, winner was stripped of her crown because she was divorced? There’s no denying the misogynistic side of these pageants. However, there is some good news as from the 72nd Miss Universe in 2023, a woman’s marital and parental status will no longer be an eligibility criterion.

These beauty contests are still far from inclusive, however, because of their cookie-cutter beauty typecast, which I’ll elaborate on later in the article.

Going back to Harnaaz Sandhu, she has definitely changed my perspective about her. And how!

Owning her body like a Boss

Harnaaz has been at the receiving end of bullying for her weight gain merely three months after being crowned as Miss.Universe 2021. Some of her pictures invited the nasty comments such as “Kha kha ke moti ho gayi hai.

This reminds me of when Donald Trump had body shamed former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, publicly calling her names like ‘Miss Piggy’ and an ‘eating machine’. He made even more nasty comments saying she was “the worst we ever had — the worst, the absolute worst. She gained a massive amount of weight, and it was a real problem.” The name calling didn’t stop with demeaning the Latina actress further with the racist label, “Miss Housekeeper.”

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This is a faulty and entitled assumption that a person’s weight gain is because of their excessive food intake. Some of them struggle (sometimes lifelong) with weight gain owing to health conditions, which can be both physical and mental. Even otherwise, it is no one’s business how much a woman wishes to eat. Isn’t it cruel of us to expect women to fit into the 36-24-26 ideal size set by standard conventions and shame them for their appetite?

Harnaaz Sandhu has Celiac disease, an auto-immune disorder characterised by gluten sensitivity that’s responsible for her weight issues. “I was first bullied over being ‘too skinny’ and now they bully me, saying, ‘she’s fat’.”

Fortunately, Harnaaz has the mettle to take on her haters with her strong self-worth. Recently, she appeared on Trevor Noah’s ‘The Daily Show’ where she spoke about the bullying that came with her drastic weight gain.

“I was disheartened when I saw people bashing me for my weight gain. But, I didn’t let them describe me. There are young girls—6-7 years old—and even boys looking up to me. If they see me being timid and not strong enough, I don’t think that will be the right way to be that impactful person or inspire them. I want to tell them that inspiration starts within you.”

It’s amazing we have role models like her, who are using their position of privilege and influence to set the right example for all.

Transforming “Period Poverty to Period Powerty”

Harnaaz Sandhu has always been aware of the lack of menstrual equity thanks to her gynaecologist mother.

Menstrual equity remains a distant dream for at least 3 out of 5 girls and women in India. Nearly 500 million people worldwide experience period poverty. Menstruation is one of the main reasons for school dropouts of Indian girls because of the lack of access and affordability to menstrual pads and toilets in schools. It remains the reason for absenteeism among UK school girls who miss up to a week each month because they cannot afford sanitary pads, which are listed as a luxury item.

Unfortunately, with the stigma attached to menstruation, some women even may not mention it, leave alone asking for pads. As Harnaaz says, “Menstruation is not something you should run away from. If you don’t ask for a pad, nobody else is going to do it for you.”

Post the pandemic, women are the most hit with the drop in household incomes and many having to choose between food and personal hygiene items like menstrual pads.

Harnaaz has collaborated with Plan India, Padma Shri Arunachalam Muruganantham, and DDB For Good to break taboos around menstruation and empower women by achieving menstrual equity worldwide. They aim to educate all genders to transform the way they think about menstruation. They’ve set up affordable menstrual pad machines that are run by women, providing them a sustainable source for income.

“There are women who don’t have access to pads, who are living in such a stereotypical mindset of people around them, where teaching menstruation is a taboo. Let’s talk about it! That is not an excuse for us, that we cannot do something. We are unstoppable. We bleed every month and that should not come in between our work and achieving our goals.”

On supporting women’s choice of attire

Another instance where Harnaaz Sandhu took me by surprise was her unequivocal support to Indian Muslim women students and their choice to wear the hijab. This was in response to the Karnataka High Court’s decision to ban the hijab in educational institutions saying the uniform dress rule should be followed where it’s been prescribed.

She stated, “Honestly, why do you always target girls? Even now, you are targeting me. Like, even on the issue of hijab the girls are being targeted. Let them live the way they choose to, let her reach her destination, let her fly, those are her wings, don’t cut them, if you must (cut someone’s wings) cut your own.”

In a politically charged environment, Harnaaz could have easily played safe. Instead, she used her voice to stand up against an oppressive ruling on an oppressed collective.

“It’s important to have your perspective about anything that’s happening around the world. And at the end of the day, that girl is dominated by the patriarchy system or if that girl is wearing a hijab, that’s her choice. Even if she’s getting dominated, she needs to come and speak. Until she doesn’t support herself, how can I support her? And if that’s her choice, then that’s her choice. Let her live the way she wants to live. We are women of all colours, we are women of different cultures, we need to respect each other. I think we all have different lives, so why do you want to pressurise and dominate somebody else?”

On taking action to tackle climate change

Harnaaz Sandhu’s interview with Trevor Noah had me curious about her Miss. Universe contest. I watched it and she left me impressed with her warmth and confidence. When she was asked about what she would tell people who think climate change is a hoax in the final round, the conviction in her answer was unmissable.

“My heart breaks to see how nature is going through innumerable problems, and it’s all due to our irresponsible behaviour. I feel that this is the time to take actions and talk less because every action of ours can either kill or save nature. To prevent and protect is better than to repent and repair, and this is what I would like to convince you today.”

On beauty pageants being more than skin deep

Well, I’m still sitting on the fence about this one despite Harnaaz’s perspective—

“For me, Miss Universe was never about looking beautiful and wearing, you know, glitz and glam. It was a platform where you can talk about things that you want to do. Whenever I used to look up Miss Universes online, videos and everything, they always did something impactful and I wanted to do that, too.”

There is some truth in her statement because we have seen inspiring women who have used the platform to achieve their dreams. Whether it is Sushmita Sen who meant what she said in the contests to realize her maternal dreams without marriage, or Priyanka Chopra who makes ambition look good on women. Or winners who didn’t join the movie industry like Padma Shri Indrani Rahman, internationally acclaimed classical dancer and teacher, and Reita Faria, a doctor by profession, who holds the distinction of being the first Asian (and Indian) woman to be crowned Miss World. It’s great that now married women and mothers can take part and use the platform to achieve their goals and make a difference in the world.

While I admire the pageant winners for their achievements, I can’t say the same about beauty pageants for the wrong message it sends across to everyone.

If one gauges beauty merely by a certain size, height or age group, then it’s a shallow definition of beauty. True beauty has depth and diversity.

More than that, I reject this notion of beauty that people try to sell us. Because we are all inherently beautifulthe way we are. We don’t need a magical product or an enchanting crown for us to feel beautiful.

Kindness is Beauty

Harnaaz Sandhu has made me reevaluate how first impressions are, perhaps, not the best impressions. Today I see the 22-year-old woman as someone who’s more than a beautiful face. She’s got a beautiful mind and a heart that beats with purpose as well—whether she does it through her creativity and art in the cinemas or her social justice ventures.

Concluding with Harnaaz’s statement on the Trevor Noah show, that made me look at her in a whole new light.

“For me, it’s not about how you look. It’s about what you say and how you say it, and how you treat people. Because, at the end of the day, when you die, people will not remember you for what you wore. They will remember how they treated you. So it’s very important to have a kind heart and to remind people that kindness is the utmost important thing in this world.”

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About the Author

Tina Sequeira

Tina Sequeira is an award-winning writer and marketer. Winner of the Rashtriya Gaurav Award in association with the Government of Telangana, Orange Flower Award by Women’s Web, India's leading website for women, read more...

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