As I was finishing my year of service as Miss America 2014, a gentleman enthusiastically said to me: “You look like you slept at Boardwalk Hall!" (Boardwalk Hall is the iconic theater that the Miss America Competition is held in Atlantic City). At first, I was so confused as I had an incredibly busy year traveling across the country advocating for diversity and cultural competency. When I asked what he meant, he replied; “You look the same size as you did when you competed in swimsuit!"
In that moment, I was shocked, angry, and crushed. The fact that I was being applauded for my appearance and not the achievements and accolades I had worked tirelessly for was frustrating, but also eye-opening. Especially because how my abs (or lack thereof) looked in a swimsuit had absolutely nothing to do with the actual job of Miss America.
Miss America 2.0 is here and I couldn't be more proud. This year, the Miss America Organization moved into a new era of inclusiveness and empowerment by retiring the swimsuit phase of competition.
Since winning Miss America, it was my mission to bring diversity and inclusion to the organization; I grew up feeling like I could never step into this role since I didn't fit a certain stereotype or category of “black or white." Through my travels, I've met several young women from diverse backgrounds who have approached me saying they feel like they could immensely benefit from this program, but couldn't compete in the organization because of the swimsuit competition and their cultural background and/or religious beliefs. As the first Indian American and South Asian to hold the title, I completely understand their hesitation and barrier to entry as I lived it.
I grew up in a culture and household where I was constantly taught to cover up my body from a young age, and feeling comfortable with “exposing" my body was a significant struggle, let alone feeling confident while doing so.
As a young girl watching Miss America on television, my perception of beauty was defined by the contestants on that stage. It was daunting for me. As a teenager I was always “bigger" than my friends and would avoid going to the beach or pool. It's no secret I struggled with body image for the majority of my formative years, which I've spoken openly about. And while it took me several years to overcome this, I can honestly say that when I competed in the swimsuit competition at Miss America it truly felt like a celebration of conquering my own personal limitations I had set on myself physically, mentally and culturally.
"It's unrealistic, and frankly outrageous, to think that judging women walk in swimsuits and heels is an all-encompassing approach to understanding an individual's overall health and/or lifestyle."-Nina Davuluri Photo Courtesy of Parade
I absolutely agree that living a healthy lifestyle is important. However, one of my Miss America sisters pointed out that we don't have women who look like Rhonda Rousey or Ashley Graham--both of whom are a positive representation of health, confidence and body image. It's unrealistic, and frankly outrageous, to think that judging women walk in swimsuits and heels is an all-encompassing approach to understanding an individual's overall health and/or lifestyle.
The underlying issue lies in the perception the Miss America Organization has portrayed to society: that the measure of a young woman's success is based on outward appearances.
The underlying issue lies in the perception the Miss America Organization has portrayed to society: that the measure of a young woman's success is based on outward appearances. The bottom line is that if Miss America is going to continue its legacy of empowering women and continue to stay relevant, it must start by changing the perception that it's “just a beauty pageant." Because the reality is that it's simply not just that, and it hasn't been for years.
If you look at any of our former contestants who've competed in this organization, you will see a group of highly educated, motivated, well-spoken, passionate women. However, seeing as we've kept presenting swimsuits and appearances at the top of the telecast, I can understand how our messaging has become diluted. We are now at a revolutionary time where we understand that in order to shift society's stereotypes, we must take action. Now more than ever, women are at the forefront using their voices with the #MeToo, #TimesUp and the #SeeHer movements. As a role model for young women, isn't it time Miss America does the same?
Miss America is finally at a point where, as an organization, we can truly say that we want to empower every single woman, not just certain “types" of women.
Miss America is finally at a point where, as an organization, we can truly say that we want to empower every single woman, not just certain “types" of women. That we welcome women from every background, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, shape and size, is integral to the competition's identity. The objectives of Miss America are to showcase young women's scholastic achievements and talents, to provide them with a platform so that their voices are heard and their opinions taken seriously, and to celebrate contestant's entire being based on substance and not a swimsuit. Ultimately, this change signifies that we are placing value on all the young girls (and boys) watching Miss America this year and showing them that in this new era the essence of who they are is worth so much more than keeping an archaic tradition alive. #ByeByeBikini
WRITTEN BYNina Davuluri