Is Miss America Growing Up or Going Backwards?

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When the Miss America pageant comes to mind, people usually picture tall, slender, perfectly coiffed beauties strutting across the stage in their best swimsuits and designer gowns. This ideal has apparently outgrown its relevance for the modern woman, as the Miss America Organization announced June 5 that it is dropping the swimsuit and evening gown portions of the competition.

Gretchen Carlson

Gretchen Carlson, Miss America Organization Chairwoman

Former Fox News anchor and Miss America 1989, Gretchen Carlson, is the organization’s new chairwoman. “We are no longer a pageant; we are a competition. We are not going to judge you on your outward appearance,” said Carlson ABC’s “Good Morning America” on the day of the announcement. “We are moving it forward and evolving it in this cultural revolution.”

According to a statement by the organization, the new format will instead have the contestants participating in live interactive sessions with the judges. Contestants will highlight their achievements and life goals and how they will use their “talents, passion, and ambition to perform the job of Miss America.” They will be asked to wear attire that makes them feel confident and expresses their personal style.

Many women have longed rallied against the pageant for being a sexist, patronizing event that objectifies women. Some of them have said that they welcome the change but would prefer to see an end of the pageant altogether. Many viewers are concerned about the body image ideals the competition portrays.

According to PsychGuides.com, nearly one third of Miss America constants are underweight. A study provided by the University of Saskatchewan Canada shows an “ideal correlation between ideal body images highlighted in television and the media.” According to the National Eating Disorder Association,” of American elementary school girls who read magazines, 69 percent say that the pictures influence their concept of the ideal body shape. Forty-seven percent say the pictures make them want to lose weight.

Bethany Wheeler is an Atlanta-based licensed dietitian who specializes in eating disorders and disordered eating. “We live in a disordered society, so disorder eating has become normalized,” Wheeler says. “We live in very weight-biased culture.”

Those in favor of keeping the beauty-based portions, argue contestants are actually showing their dedication to fitness and a healthy lifestyle by wearing swimsuits. In addition, the swimsuit only accounted for 15 percent of the total score, and 70 percent came from talent, private interviews and onstage interview competitions. Some state pageants, including Georgia, say they will keep the swimsuit competition.


Some men are pointing out that contests judging men based on their “sexiness” or muscle mass are likewise objectifying men. Piers Morgan posted on Twitter, saying, “I presume People [magazin] will now be cancelling its annual ‘Sexiest Man Alive’ special, right?”

What most should know, however, is that the competition wasn’t considered a “beauty pageant.” It provided a means for attractive, smart women to financially support their educational goals and sociopolitical platforms. According its website, Miss America.org, the pageant “is a leading advocate for women’s education and the largest provider of scholarship assistance to young women in the United States.”

What began as a popularity contest in 1921 called the “bathing beauty revue,” ultimately transitioned from its primary emphasis on physical beauty, specifically the swimsuit competition, to a more well-rounded representation of women. This changed came under the direction of Lenora Slaughter, who was hired as a Miss America organizer in 1935.

Slaughter served for over 30 years and was a major influence in the development of Miss America pageant, as well as others. In 1948, she demanded that pageant winners be crowned in evening gowns rather than bathing suits. She explained in Angela Saulino Osborne’s 1995 book “Miss America: The Dream Lives On” that “First thing, I had to get Atlantic City to understand that it couldn’t just be a beauty contest.”

In her 33-year reign as pageant doyenne, Slaughter 1) introduced a talent competition; 2) conceived of awarding college scholarships; 3) banished businesses from sponsoring individual contestants, while luring big-name companies to support the pageant financially as a whole; 4) established that participants must be age 18 to 28, and never have been married; 5) created a hostess committee of unimpeachable ladies to serve as chaperons for contestants, and brought in mature women to serve as Miss America’s traveling companions; 6) shifted the setting from Atlantic City’s Steel Pier to its Convention Hall.

Coming in 2019, Miss America 2.0 will highlight inner beauty, inclusivity and empowerment, in hopes of gaining ground with a younger viewing audience. Meanwhile, the very demographic the organization seeks to attract includes the more than 100 million social media followers of beauty mavens like Kylie Jenner and other top beauty influencers. Thus, the issue may not be that the modern woman isn’t interested in seeing beautiful women dressed in a swimsuit or gown; the issue may more likely be that the spokespeople, including the judges, need to be more representative of the viewers’ interests.

We’ll all have to wait and see, not necessarily who wins, but if this new Miss America competition itself will win.


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