What does it mean to be Miss America? And in a #metoo #timesup world, do we need to revisit the entire concept?

Although the words “beauty pageant” may bring to mind heavily made up faces, glittering gowns and skimpy swimsuits, according to Chairwoman of Miss America Board of Directors [and SWAAY investor], Gretchen Carlson, the time has come for those same two words to remind young women, instead, to celebrate their uniqueness and follow their professional aspirations.

Photo courtesy of Jessielyn Palumbo

“Everyday when I travel this country I meet somebody who has participated in this [the Miss America] program ... who benefited from [the competition’s scholarship prize] and became lawyers and doctors and members of Congress,” Carlson said on
Good Morning America
. “We want more women to know they are welcome in this organization.”

Carlson, who today announced that the Miss America pageant would be scrapping its bathing suit and evening gown competitions in favor of a focus on substance and inclusivity, is changing the face of the competitive “beauty” industry. Crowned Miss America in 1989, Carlson also announced that the event would no longer be known as a “pageant” but rather a “competition,” where contestants would be encouraged to wear “whatever makes them feel empowered” and reflects self expression. According to Carlson, the move isn't meant to take away the glamorous portion of the event, but rather put emphasis on judging by a more empowering criteria.

"We aren't getting rid of the evening gown category!," Carlson told SWAAY. "We are simply not judging on a candidate's physical appearance in evening attire. The difference is that candidates will have a choice of what kind of evening attire they will wear -- what makes them feel most self confident. That may still be a glamorous evening gown! We love the idea of the discipline it takes for young women (any women!) to be physically fit -- and we applaud that -- we just aren't judging on that anymore."

With the goal of encouraging more young women to enter the 97-year old event, Carlson, also the first to win a sexual harassment lawsuit against Fox CEO Roger Ailes in 2016, wants to make it clear that winning the title of Miss America will no longer be centered on looks.

When asked what would take the place of the bathing suit portion of the show, Carlson tells SWAAY: "We are still finalizing competition elements but some sort of interactive interview live on stage with the judges so the judges and the viewing audience gets to know the substance of the candidates more," says Carlson.

Another goal with the event's new programming, to be sure, is to highlight the fact that the Miss America contest has been historically designed to help women pursue educational and career ambitions.

“We have always had talent and scholarship and we need to message that part of the program better,” Carlson said on GMA. “But now we are adding in this new caveat that we’re not going to judge you on your outward appearance because we are interested in what makes you you. Tell us about your goals and achievements in life and by the way at the end of the day we hand out scholarships to these women.”

But isn’t the pageant based, at least partly, on outward appearances? Some former titleholders and current competitors think so, and are adamant that the appreciation of physical beauty does not detract from, but instead enhances the program’s mission of female empowerment. According to Jessielyn Palumbo, Miss New Jersey USA 2016 (not part of the Miss America pageant system), wearing a bikini on stage actually celebrates femalekind and all the body shapes within it.

“How are bodybuilding competitions, and the Victoria’s Secret show acceptable in today’s society, yet pageantry is still looked down upon?” - Jessielyn Palumbo

“My favorite part of the competition was the bathing suit competition, I never felt more empowered,” Palumbo tells SWAAY. “Why should I feel ashamed of my body? I worked hard and was proud of my dedication & healthy lifestyle. Furthermore, it was a chance to embrace different body types of the contestants, and display that we are all strong. My fit is not the same as another contestant's fit, yet we both lead a healthy life.”

She goes on to say: “Unless you have competed in pageants, or know someone that has, you will never understand the true value of them. People automatically assume ‘beauty pageants are sexist’ and ask ‘why do they even exist?’ Pageants are established to find an incredible woman who is determined to make a difference in the world; someone who is well-rounded in every category which includes intelligence, personality, confidence, healthy lifestyle, and yes poise. Why is that so bad?

Another title-holder, Veanna Johnson, similarly expressed the opinion that cutting the swimsuit competition actually makes the pageant seem less inclusive, as it subcounsly tells women who aren’t a size 0 that they should not be wearing bikinis. Miss Georgia USA 2017 took to the social media waves to say: “I’m sorry but why in order to be inclusive of all sizes do they have to cut the bikini competition? Why not just be inclusive of all sizes...They do know curvy girls wear swimsuits too right?”

On the other side of the coin, women like Nina Davuluri, Miss America 2014, are siding with Carlson, underscoring the belief that being a representative for the Miss America Organization has nothing to do with physical beauty. Although incidentally gorgeous, Davuluri- the first woman of Indian descent to win the crown- is also an avid supporter of racial inclusivity, gender parity and STEM education.

“Since my time serving as #MissAmerica and beyond, I’ve been fortunate to experience many proud moments in my career & recognition for my advocacy work [sic],” wrote Davuluri on her Instagram page. “My swimsuit score had nothing to do with any of them. Today, the @MissAmerica organization moves into an era where we focus on inclusivity & empowerment by emphasizing what truly matters: substance within. I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of this evolution.”

Initially presented as a “bather’s review,” the Miss America contest began in Atlantic City as the “Inter-City Beauty Contest.”

Echoing the sentiment was Miss America contestant, Maddie Steele who wrote: “They made the decision hoping the girls who don't fit in the typical pageant size would be encouraged to join the sisterhood of Miss America. Maybe women have expressed that they wish they could compete but weren’t comfortable wearing a swimsuit and heels on stage, which is absolutely fair.”

As the focus on the show moves from entertainment to empowerment, CNN reports that viewership is plummeting. To wit, last year’s Miss America pageant had 5 million viewers, while “a few decades ago” it was 85 million. Critics of the move away from gowns and bathing suits believe that taking away more of show’s entertainment value will only continue to negatively impact its popularity among an audience in search of a glittery show.

“Although I think their heart was in the right place, I see this change as the beginning of the end in pageantry,” continues Palumbo. “Viewers of Miss America tune into the pageant not only to see incredibly talented women, but to also see the diversity and fashion. The swimsuit and evening gown portions of the competition are part of the tradition. I think the organization is changing itself to appease to people who will never be pro-pageants. Meanwhile, they’re losing their existing fan base.”


If Miss America contestants want to be judged on their brains not their bodies, they should go & study neuroscience. https://t.co/lgIgQK1p5tpic.twitter.com/TJLJjYcFKw

— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) June 5, 2018

Initially presented as a “bather’s review,” the Miss America contest began in Atlantic City as the “Inter-City Beauty Contest.” Back in 1921 when the competition was first launched, event organizers had to wager for a temporary suspension of a ban on swimsuits in order to crown “America’s most beautiful bathing girl.” At the time, modesty laws dictated not even men could go shirtless on the beach in Atlantic City. The evolution from there saw skimpier swimsuits, lower necklines and higher bikini lines, and, when in 1997 the first bikini was worn on stage, it became the standard bearer for all future competitions. Since then, of course, the focus on women's body's and what many view as innattainable physical ideals has become more and more evident. Critics of the bathing suit competition have called it everything from "tacky" to "dangerous," while its supporters call it "empowering" and "body-celebrating."

So, the question remains: two piece bikini — empowerment tool or distraction device?



Belisa Silva