Q. Recently* an Israeli won the title of “Miss World”. What, if any, is the Jewish perspective on beauty contests? I know the Purim story focuses on Esther who, because she won a beauty pageant, became queen of Persia, but are not such contests a mundane exploitation of the physical form?
Precious spices and oils figure frequently in the Bible as means of enhancing female beauty and attractiveness (e.g. Shir HaShirim 5:13). Brides in particular would spend a long time beautifying themselves (Shir HaShirim 3:6).
But physical beauty could be over-emphasised. Isaiah has a long, disapproving list of beauty aids: “anklets, fillets, crescents, pendants, bracelets, veils, head-tires, armlets, sashes, rings, nose-jewels, aprons” and so on (Isa. 3:18-23).
King Solomon, whose record suggests a fondness for (presumably beautiful) women, declares that piety and character are what really matter: “Grace is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who is God-fearing, she shall be praised” (Prov. 31;30). The Talmud praises the bride who has “neither paint nor rouge nor hair-dye, yet radiates charm” (Sanh. 14a).
Not only female but male beauty, too, led Judaism to advise caution. In the days of the Greeks whose hellenisation of Eretz Yisra’el eventually led to the Maccabean rebellion the almost idolisation of the (naked) male form was regarded as an emphasis on the wrong things and a breach of modesty and morality.
Which suggests that the simple answer to your question is that beauty contests simply have the wrong agenda from the Jewish point of view and what we should be concerned with is perfecting the mind, soul and character.
* This article first appeared in 1998.