When we heard the announcement last Tuesday that, after years of criticism, the Miss America Organization had decided to abandon its controversial swimsuit competition, we wondered if it might be a case of “too little, too late” in the pageant’s attempt to appeal to a new era of feminism.
“We are no longer a pageant,” said former Miss America Gretchen Carlson, new chairwoman of the organization’s board of trustees. “We are a competition. We will no longer judge our candidates on their outward physical appearance. That’s huge.”
It was definitely big news to former Miss Virginia Nancy Redd, who was a Miss America contestant in 2003 and winner of the pageant’s swimsuit competition that year. The now-author wrote about her experience for Glamour:
In preparation for the pageant, I lost over 50 pounds during my senior year at Harvard, where I majored in women’s studies and wrote my junior thesis on minorities in the Miss America Pageant. While I looked great, even my youthful 21-year-old skin hadn’t fully snapped back from the weight loss without some sagginess. Nor did my weight loss cure my self-esteem issues—I hated my body as I walked that stage ....
My performance was enough to snatch that coveted diamond-shaped Lucite award and $2,000, which was, ironically, about half of what I had spent on personal training, spray tanning, seaweed wraps, and body waxing to get my body “swimsuit ready” for the Miss America stage.
Fifteen years later, Redd describes herself as a “grown woman with a legit mom bod who rocks an XL bathing suit,” but she admits that she still benefits from the privilege and automatic acceptance of having been a beauty queen, telling Glamour, “I didn’t just win a onetime swimsuit award; I had won a lifetime of societal acceptance.”
But Redd is also quick to admit that the moment for Miss America to get in step with the times may have passed, though she urges us not to diminish the pageant’s almost centurylong impact (the first Miss America pageant was in 1921):
Time is up for the pedestaling of an individual based on looks. I recount my experience not to lambast the Miss America pageant of yesteryear but to showcase how far the organization has come. ... Long before the commercialization of the body-positivity movement and corporate-mandated inclusive advertising, back when the peach crayon in the box was almost always called “flesh,” the Miss America pageant introduced the world to the idea that deaf women, black women, women with short hair, Asian women, opinionated women, children of immigrants, and more could all be considered “beautiful” and “successful” on a global scale. For hundreds of thousands of women from all walks of life, the pageant’s influence on beauty ideals, while nowhere near perfect (considering the limited range of body types), was and remains mind-boggling powerful.
But the question remains: Swimsuit competition aside, what does a Miss America pageant have to contribute to the culture now? Despite her history with the pageant, Redd seems to think we’ve outgrown it:
Options to inspire and motivate young people have expanded infinitely. We don’t need a Miss America anymore—the many screens we are tethered to show us a diverse array of wonderful female role models like Tarana Burke, Issa Rae, Gabi Fresh, Michelle Obama…the list goes on and on.