Miss America, Miss World, and Miss Universe pageants have drilled rigid beauty ideals into the collective psyche of women and men, generation after generation.
In a historic decision, Miss America did away with the swimsuit competition, which objectified women and, frankly, was pointless. Just like the rest of the competition, which should also be done away with.
A pageant, which gained prominence in 1921 as a swimsuit beauty contest that would bring revenue for newspapers, went to take on the world and established norms about how women’s bodies should be viewed.
As the US gained prominence and established its cultural hegemony across the world, it was not just blue jeans that travelled across the oceans. America sold the idea of freedom, of shorts, of bikini tops and Ray-Bans.
Women sans body hair, with an hourglass figure and fair, wrinkle-free skin, were considered attractive. Everyone else who did not fit into those standards was consoled with that damning phrase: ‘you have inner beauty’. Miss America, Miss World, and Miss Universe drilled these rigid beauty ideals into the collective psyche of women and men, generation after generation.
Miss America has had only a handful of non-white women winners, but all of them have faced vitriolic backlash and abuse. Nina Davuluri, who was the first Indian-American to win the title in 2014 (and had danced to a song from Om Shanti Om in the talent performance round), spoke about how she challenged the American idea of the blonde girl next-door.
What happened after was shocking, but not really. Xenophobic and racist comments took over the social media, with many calling her Arab, and linking her to Al-Qaeda. Many compared the hate messages to what Vanessa Williams, the first Black Miss America, or Bess Myerson, the first Jewish Miss America, had received in the past.
Swimsuits were only one of the problems with Miss America, nonetheless a problem that has plagued the pageant for long.
In 1993, the Miss America Organisation asked viewers to vote on if they wanted the swimsuit contest. “We are very sensitive to the fact that the swimsuit competition has always been our Achilles heel. The swimsuit competition has been controversial since the early 1920s, but it’s been retained because the majority of the people like it,” Leonard Horn, the then CEO had said.
Nothing changed for decades. People tried to justify it saying that it empowered women. Many contestants, however, said that the swimsuit competition made them physically and mentally vulnerable, and left them feeling anguished. Even if wearing a bikini empowered women, it is not a measurement of beauty, and cannot be forced on others.
Following the 2017 scandal, when HuffPost released misogynist emails by top Miss America Oganization officials about the winners, and in light of the #MeToo movement, new chairwoman Gretchen Carlson made quite a few overhauls. The top three positions of the organisation are now occupied by women. Gretchen also declared that the competition will judge women on their achievements and talents, and not on appearance. An interactive session with the judge will be given importance in place of the bikini round.
A bold statement, no doubt.
But we are really kidding ourselves if we think that it won’t be based on looks. Or, that people of all ages, sizes, colours, with moles or stretch marks, will be welcome or even voted by the people as winners.
Thanks Miss America for stopping the hideous swimsuit round, but it’s not going to erase almost a century of brainwashing on beauty standards that you left behind. If you really wanted to make a difference, there would not be a competition for an arbitrary title at all, but this is America.