Miss America drops bikini round - but still wears hypocrisy

VandanaJun 06, 2018 | 19:31

Miss America drops bikini round - but still wears hypocrisy

For the first time in nearly a century, the contestants of Miss America will not strut on stage, posing both for the cameras and the audience in bikinis. Well, slow claps to that.

Claiming to be initiating a "cultural revolution", the Miss America Organisation has announced that it will scrap its swimsuit round and will no longer judge participants based on their 'appearance'. Miss America says it will judge contestants for "who you are".


Miss America and swimsuits have been synonymous since the first contest was held in 1921 on the Atlantic City boardwalk. What began with contestants wearing one-piece bathing suits over the years gave way to models walking in high heels and revealing bikinis.

But when models gather for the show this year in September, they would be leaving their bikinis at home.

The changes are expected to percolate to the local and state levels in due course.

Gretchen Carlson, a former Fox News anchor and now the organisation's chairwoman, said the competition would focus more on the contestants' talents, intelligence and ideas. Mind you, Miss America will no longer be a beauty pageant but a competition.

What does that even mean?

A Miss America 2016 contestant in the swimsuit competition. Source: Reuters

Well, the contours of the announcement are so fuzzy that it leaves us wondering whether Carlson and the organisation she represents are confused about what they want to promote (or not promote), or are they just trying to confuse us to keep us hooked to what they serve?

Both possibilities are real.

If Miss America is to move from being a beauty pageant to a competition, just what sort of a competition would this be? Going by Carlson's announcement, that the intention is to judge participants for talents, intelligence and ideas, it could be anything from a painting to a speech or music competition. The question then is - why keep Miss America alive? Why not scrap the contest and start a speech/painting/quiz/card tricks/dance show-type competition instead? Why not include men too?


Beauty contests have for long been a subject of intense debate over what they do to the individuality - and commercialisation - of women. Many have raised eyebrows over how beauty contests objectify women by restricting individuals to the shape and size of their bodies. Many, including women, have opposed beauty contests, highlighting how these have led to women underestimating their self-worth, failing to realise the potential of the being who's housed in "sexy" bodies, while men have run the risk of seeing women as skin and bones lodged in bikinis.

But many have also supported the practice, saying this is an open and assertive celebration of women and their bodies, which have, for centuries, been the playfields of the politics of patriarchy. Dressing skimpily and then walking the ramp is seen by many as an assertion of the fact that the ultimate right over a woman's body is hers and no one else's.

Miss America seems to be telling us that by dressing up women a bit more, we can strike a balance between beauty and the brain, thereby seeming to whisper, guiltily, that the two do not exist together.


But if Miss America actually has woken up to the argument that women's bodies are not to be objectified, and they might have interesting minds, why should it continue to ask women to walk the ramp in any outfit whatsoever? Why have a code on what to wear and what to leave in the closet?

''I want world peace - and to take off my high heels'' Source: Reuters

The answer could perhaps lie in what has happened at the Miss America Organisation over the past six months. The developments include Carlson's appointment as the chairwoman and the inclusion of several women to the organisation's highest ranks.

Why so? Well, in December 2017, a series of emails surfaced, detailing the misogynistic and disrespectful comments reportedly made by former chief executive chairman, Sam Haskell, about former pageant winners.

Around the same time, the Miss America Organisation brought in a new advertising agency, Young & Rubicam, for its branding. Y&R, after talking to a host of people, recommended that Miss America must modernise itself to be able to relate to younger women. Y&R told Miss America that since younger women are more career-oriented and have a deeper interest in the achievements of past winners, a swimsuit competition could distract them from the message.

So dropping the swimsuit from the contest was a bid to attract the attention of younger women. Importantly, many of these "younger women" were also experiencing the power of the #MeToo movement just around then.

A contestant performs during the talent round at Miss America. Source: Reuters

The organisation says many former winners and participants have spoken about how the swimsuit made them feel uncomfortable and gave them stress. Miss America thus seems to have chosen the middle path, dress up a little more to feel more comfortable. Indeed, after a century or so, Miss America seems to be telling us that women are more than just their looks.

Good morning, Miss America.

But no one is buying this. Because the whole idea of a woman being "judged" for any of her attributes remains deeply problematic — if not blatantly sexist. Either women are seen as physical objects. Or now, they could be seen as moral-virtuous-talented objects whose "inner beauty" is more important than their bikinis.

This is just fatuous playing around.

Miss America should be bolder than that.

It should either do away with the contest altogether and tell us that it now rejects the "objectification theory". Or, tell the world that it is okay to have a contest that judges women's physicality, whether seen in flowing gowns or itsy-bitsy bikinis.

But it can't do both.

Last updated: June 06, 2018 | 19:31
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