Miss America Scrapping The Swimsuit Competition Won't Make It More Inclusive

Photo: Donald Kravitz/Getty Images.
On Tuesday, the Miss America Organization announced that it would be scrapping the swimsuit competition, replacing it with a "live interaction session" with judges. The pageant — which literally started out as a bathing beauty competition in 1921 — as we know it is no longer.
"We are no longer a pageant," Gretchen Carlson, chair of the Board of Trustees of the Miss America Organization, said. "We are a competition."
On Twitter, the pageant competition tweeted, "We're changing out of our swimsuits and into a whole new era #byebyebikini #MissAmerica2019," along with a GIF of a white bikini vanishing in a puff of smoke.
As a former pageant competitor, I couldn't help but roll my eyes — so hard, they almost rolled out of my head.
While I never competed in the Miss America system, I did compete in the Miss USA system (which is under the Miss Universe Organization and was formerly owned by President Donald Trump) for many years in New York, which means I have strutted across a stage in a bikini and high heels many a times.
I can confidently say that Miss America's decision to get rid of the swimsuit competition isn't about creating an "inclusive" competition; it's about trying to correct a PR disaster and staying relevant.
Last year, the organization was thrust into turmoil after it was revealed members of their board slut-shamed and fat-shamed women, including former winner Mallory Hagan (who just won the Democratic primary in Alabama). The sudden pivot to no bikinis (and no evening gowns, either) seems to be a direct result of the organization's credibility as an empowering outlet for young women taking a beating. The timing is also suspect because the pageant's TV ratings have been declining for years.
I call BS on the assertion this is being done so women of all body types will feel like they can enter and win the competition. To me, Miss America is pretty much saying, "Yeah, it's true we've historically only rewarded slim women, so to avoid having to truly work on what it means to be inclusive of all types of body types and beauty, we're just going to get rid of the swimsuit competition entirely." You don't get brownie points for doing the bare minimum, Miss America.
We can't ignore the fact that Miss America and Miss USA — and pageantry more broadly — have typically been spaces for thin, tall, white women. In the 1930s, Miss America had a rule that "contestants must be of good health and of the white race." A Black woman didn't even compete in the pageant until 1971 and didn't win it until Vanessa Williams captured the crown in 1983 — a full 62 years after Miss America first started.
But, while Miss America claims the end of the swimsuit competition is the start of a new, more inclusive era, they are conveniently ignoring other aspects of their organization that are far from progressive.
For instance, in order to compete, the official rules state one must be a "natural born" woman, which means transgender women need not apply. (The Miss Universe Organization has allowed transgender contestants to compete since 2012.) If you want to enter, you must be under the age of 24 and you cannot have ever been married, ever been pregnant, or have a child. The pageant can take away the bikinis and rebrand itself as a "competition," but that doesn't change the fact that it is still enforcing outdated ideas of what being a woman and being a role model are. And those ideas are nothing but reductive in 2018.
Competing in the Miss NY USA evening wear competition
Competing in the Miss NY USA swimwear competition
The idea that walking around in a bikini is inherently degrading further plays into the notion that in order to be taken seriously, women must dress a certain way; that if you wear skimpy clothes, you're asking to be disrespected and harassed. In my 28 years of life, I have felt degraded by strange men who choose to catcall me on the street while I am fully clothed; by male colleagues who made unsolicited comments and advances on me in the workplace; by internet trolls who disagree with something I've written and decide to attack me on the basis of my looks and race.
I never felt degraded while on the pageant stage. Rather, I felt empowered: I was owning my body and it was on my terms. There is nothing wrong with a woman embracing her body and showing it off if that's what she wants to do. The fact that I wore a bikini and a tight dress on stage doesn't diminish my college education or my career; it doesn't render my community service and causes I am passionate about null and void. It doesn't make my opinion any less important or my voice any less heard.
If Miss America really wants to become Miss America 2.0 and truly be an organization that empowers every woman, it would start by giving their contestants a choice — wear a bikini, wear a one-piece, wear active wear, wear what makes you feel beautiful. The organization would also actively recruit women of all body types and eliminate the "natural born" woman rule. Then, it would support contestants and reward them in a competition that's judged on confidence, personality, and poise.
I know I speak for a lot of pageant fans when I say I want to see more body types represented on stage. I want to see women larger than a size four strutting in their bikinis and evening gowns; I want to see women with disabilities in the lineup; I want to see women who have stretch marks, cellulite, and whatever other characteristic society has deemed unattractive up on that stage on national television. I want the old beauty ideals smashed and I want that to be more than just a marketing ploy.
Changing the standard of beauty that has dominated our society for centuries takes actual work. The fashion and beauty industries are just starting to make small strides to becoming places more reflective of the real world. The pageant industry can do the same.
But, it's going to take more than telling women to cover up.

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