By Kaiya Lyons
Although it finds its origins on the shores of Atlantic City in 1921 as a basic beauty pageant, the Miss America scholarship competition now fervently advocates for community involvement, intellectual achievement, and artistic expression. But you wouldn’t know any of that based on the televised competition we just saw hosted by Chris Harrison on ABC.
Each of the contestants has proved herself through rigorous rounds of interviews and on-stage questions through multiple levels of competition-not to mention meticulously crafting their platforms and resumes. However, on camera, these intelligent women are reduced to sex objects each year during the program’s anachronistic swimsuit portion. And last night’s show was no exception.
Last night, as in every night the annual competition is televised, millions of Americans watched college-educated and professionally accomplished women walk across a stage for an unabashed and outdated critique of their physical forms.
Which makes one thing clear: Miss America needs a facelift.
As someone who has been in the room during a state-level Miss America organization competition, I can say from personal experience that this is one of the most uncomfortable experiences. The women, who are often shaking with fear before strutting on stage, have worked their entire lives for career and education goals that, in that moment, amount to how much cellulite they have on their thighs. It’s regressive and distasteful to subject these women to largely arbitrary and highly male-centric views of beauty that have no bearing on their physical strength or health.
This is likely because the competition began as a swimsuit competition. In the 1920s, its predecessor was a “bathing beauty revue” on the Atlantic City boardwalk. However, the Miss America Organization has gone through so many changes in the years since that first pageant that this is likely the only similarity it shares with its roaring prototype. In 1938, a talent portion was added. In the 1940s, the competition eschewed furs and movie contracts for scholarships as the rewards to successful contestants.
Other changes have taken longer to enact. Although the competition abolished its self-imposed segregation policy in 1950, it would take another two decades for the first African-American contestant, Miss Iowa Cheryl Brown, to compete (and the first Black Miss America, Vanessa Williams, wouldn’t be crowned for another 14 years). And still, each winner who doesn’t fit the mold of the sweet, White Christian has faced discrimination, contempt, and ridicule from the competition’s fan base.
That’s why it is so important to make sure that the Miss America organization takes an affirmative step forward to embrace and advocate for inclusivity of race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, ability, and body type. And one of the most impactful first steps it could take would be eliminating the swimsuit competition.
In fact, the Miss America organization already has the blueprints for such a change. At the teen level of competition, known as the Miss America’s Outstanding Teen organization, contestants compete not in swimsuits, but in yoga pants and tank tops. And they don’t sashay across a stage, they dance and perform a variety of demonstrations of their physical strength for the judges—all while wearing their best ponytails and body glitter.
Called the “Lifestyle and Fitness competition,” this segment “is designed to determine the level of fitness of the contestant and to obtain a glimpse into her daily routine and lifestyle.” The contestant’s “drive, energy, and presence” are also considered in the judge’s scores, including:
(1) their overall “first impression”;
(2) the physical fitness of the contestant;
(3) the contestant’s dynamic presence and attractiveness; and
(4) the contestant’s sense of confidence and self-assurance.
As these teens push-up and burpee their way into the top 10, they’re judged not for how well their pageant-grade bikini lifts and separates their mammary glands, but by the “vitality, energy, spirit, and charisma” with which they perform.
The “Miss” level of the competition could take a hint from its younger generation: women deserve to be rewarded for their strength, determination, and perseverance; they do NOT deserve to be shamed for their bodies on national television, on stage, in school, or at home.
The swimsuit portion just has no place in a world where #BodyPositivity reigns supreme and women are fighting tooth and nail for equal opportunity in the workplace. Of course, that doesn’t mean women shouldn’t participate in swimsuit competitions. But for a competition that places such an emphasis on “empowering young women to achieve their personal and professional goals,” the swimsuit competition detracts from the more progressive aspects of the program and ostracizes an immense potential demographic: feminist millennials.
That’s not to say the Miss America Organization isn’t making an effort. Technically, they did try to increase audience awareness of the interview portion of their scoring by adding a new segment to the competition. Last night, Chris Harrison boasted that the program would include an additional on-stage question to give us a glimpse into the personalities and intellects of the Top 7 queens, a hurdle Harrison said no one had “ever faced in the 97-year history of the competition.”
However, this new segment did little to nothing to update the competition. Instead, this portion only served to heighten the political nature of the more intellectual opinions of the women in the traditional on-stage question, which ultimately hurt the feminism of the show.
And this isn’t just conjecture from a sad, wine-drinking, millennial feminist. The hosts said it themselves while explaining the new questions:
Chris Harrison: One question, they’ll have to take a stand; the other question’s gonna be on the lighter side, show a sense of humor. So a little more playful.
Sage Steele: That’s a warning ladies.
Chris Harrison: Let’s have some fun.
In other words: leave your opinions at the door, and smile! That’s a warning. And after answering pointless questions about whether they would serve as ABC’s Bachelorette or what career they would prefer in a man, the remaining women were presented with highly challenging questions about divisive cultural events. And if Twitter is any indication, people were not pleased with the contrast. Between expletives and vows never to watch Miss America again, viewers tweeted their disdain for the judges and the contestants for letting politics besmirch the competition.
But what those viewers don’t realize is those hard-hitting, often political questions are at the very heart of the Miss America Organization. In local and state pageants across the country, women and teens are challenged to use their education and critical thinking skills to present a poised and eloquent 30-second answer to questions about police brutality, national security threats, and civil liberties. They are expected to demonstrate compassion, scholarship, and individuality by answering these questions with integrity, confidence, and elegance. It’s not an easy task. But they do it all for recognition and scholarships, so they can pursue their community service missions and represent the Miss America Organization with pride and enthusiasm.
That is what it means to be a Miss America titleholder. But all that intellectualism and opinion-forming happens off-stage, far away from millions of viewers. Instead, all that Americans have to judge the competition by are swimsuits.
For an organization that prides itself on being the “nation’s leading advocate for women’s education and the largest provider of scholarship assistance to young women,” holding onto an antiquated and misogynistic swimsuit competition is more than wrong, it’s bad PR.
Until Miss America fully embraces its internal progressivism and shows the world how much truly promotes scholarship, success, style, and service, it will never be respected for the positively feminist organization it is. But first, it needs a facelift.