Saturday night was the Miss America pageant, and watching some of these extremely thin contestants strut down the runway in next-to-nothing made me, in the words of Leslie Knope, “feel a lot of feelings about myself.” So let’s talk about it. Like many women and men, I have struggled with body image, self-confidence, and weight my whole life. I remember only a few blissful windows of time when I was not worried about whether or not I was overweight. I do not want this to be my reality. Lately I have been asking myself questions like, “What is a healthy weight for me?” and “How can I gain confidence in myself?” I am now on a journey of developing self confidence and self worth, despite what the scale says. It was quite a treat viewing the Miss America pageant while processing these questions…. It seems to me like the pageant operates under the assumption that they have a monopoly on “ideal womanhood,” which threatened to exacerbate my feelings of inadequacy and “overweightness.”
What started in 1920 as an Atlantic City advertising campaign to keep tourists on their boardwalk after Labor Day has evolved into a competition to determine America’s “queen of femininity” (as the theme song went). The Miss America pageant has changed over the years as standards of womanhood and femininity have shifted, but one thing that has stayed the same throughout the years is the swimsuit portion of the evening. In this competition officially guised as a “scholarship pageant,” women are expected to strip down to two pieces of fabric to display their “fitness” as determined by their tiny waist, flat stomach, and firm legs. The hosts of the program continued to rationalize the swimsuit competition by saying, “This is how the judges see if these women take care of their body.” Really? Does strength mean skinny? Why not feature the contestants in a fitness routine? I want to see them flip a tire, do twenty push-ups, then run a mile. That would be really impressive. The truth is that there is a billion dollar industry that runs on the objectification of women, even women in this “scholarship pageant.” This was painfully obvious in the swimsuit category as the camera zoomed in on every other contestant’s butt.
I commend these 52 women for making it to the national competition. All are pursuing some sort of higher education, have defined goals for their future, and have identified a cause they are passionate about. I admire their determination, ambition, and passion, but the question remains, why do these women have to strip down to inches of fabric to win an academic scholarship?
In my opinion, this “scholarship pageant” is begging for a makeover. I want to extinguish the idea that women have to be “Miss America-Bikini-Ready” to be beautiful or confident.
One Miss America boldly refused to conform- Yolande Fox Betbeze. As Miss America in 1951, she refused to “appear in a swimsuit in public unless she were going swimming.” In response, the “spurned” bathing suit sponsor, Catalina, left the Miss America pageant and went on to create the Miss Universe competition. Betbeze wanted to be recognized as a serious opera singer, not as a national sex symbol, and because of her nonconformity she is credited as the catalyst of change in the pageant’s shift away from an exclusive beauty pageant.
In 1968 a group of feminists took Ms. Betbeze act of protest even further by demonstrating at the Miss America pageant, waving signs that said “NO MORE BEAUTY STANDARDS- EVERYONE IS BEAUTIFUL!”
After years of sporadically counting points, then calories, on-and-off exercising, crying over the scale, then literally, loudly cursing out the scale, I have come to a place where I want to feel confident, strong, and smart no matter what the scale says. That’s where my truth lies now.