Breaking the pageant mold

Staff Writer Kate Wehlann

Ordinarily, I don’t care about the Miss America pageant — before, during or after the contest. I don’t typically care about any pageant where contestants have fewer than four legs, to be honest.

I’ve always found contests pitting women against each other, especially based on looks, to be demeaning. Yes, I know Miss America is supposedly the “largest provider of scholarships for women,” though, not to the extent people are led to believe. Yes, I know there’s a talent portion and they have sometimes pretty burning questions to answer, in 20 seconds, no less. Let’s face it, though, they could do that just as easily (and more comfortably) in business casual. There’s no need for dresses that cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars and certainly no need for skimpy bathing suits unless that’s what these women really want to wear.

There’s no need to exclude women of a certain size, either, which, while it may not be explicitly stated, happens almost as a matter of course because “beauty = tall and thin” is pretty much the rule in our society and this is, at its core, a beauty pageant. Also, just try finding Miss America pageant-level evening gowns in plus size. You won’t. Big designers don’t think women larger than a size 12 are worth creating for and going up to a size 12 is being pretty generous. Given the average women’s height and dress size in America, restricting in practice a contest measuring women’s “womanlyness” to low single-digit sizes is restricting women in general. The same goes for skin color and ability.

In short, there’s just too many other things actually worth paying attention to. Such as the state of healthcare or education in America. Or Netflix show “Trollhunters.” Or my houseplants.

That’s why, when Stephanie called me and asked if I’d heard about the changes coming to the pageant, I found myself actually paying attention. I even Googled it to find out more.

“We are no longer a pageant … We are a competition,” said said Miss America Organization Board Chair Gretchen Carlson (and Miss America 1989) on Good Morning America. “… We will no longer judge our candidates on their outward physical appearance. That’s huge.”

And it is huge. That means no more swimsuit contests where smart, strong, beautiful women are reduced to how they look wearing about a single yard of fabric total. Women will be able to wear whatever clothing makes them feel comfortable and confident during what’s typically the evening gown portion of the show. That means little girls watching on TV will see these women as people instead of Barbie dolls in pretty dresses; people with thoughts and social impact initiatives and individual agency, coming in all colors, shapes and sizes. Hopefully, they will see women using wheelchairs, hearing aides and other devices.  

Hopefully, they will see themselves, or who they want to be, on that stage. They will aim for being educated agents of good in the world instead of accentuating their cheekbones or starving themselves into a size 0. They will focus on being smart and beautiful, just the way they are, instead of cutting off parts of themselves to fit the mold of what society says “beauty” looks like. Women are so much more than the way they look and what society thinks of those looks.

Because this might make the pageant actually worth watching.

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