Miss America Turns Body Positive?

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When it comes to the topic of feminism, the notion of beauty pageants certainly raises many eyebrows. You might even say that the custom of lining up a collection of women who fit a certain physical criteria and judging them upon their appearance is a tad anti-feminist. After all, one of the most iconic moments of the second wave feminist movement, the 1968 protest of the Miss America Pageant, was spurred by what was then and still viewed as archaic and toxic notions perpetuated by pageant culture. However, just as we near the 50th anniversary of this momentous event, the world is surprised to hear that the Miss America Pageant plans to change its longstanding traditions.

This past Tuesday, the chair for the board of trustees for the Miss America Organization, Gretchen Carlson, went on Good Morning America and announced a shift in how the pageant operates, stating “We are no longer a pageant, we are a competition.” She further explained this statement when she added “We will no longer judge candidates on their outward physical appearance.”

In their efforts to reflect these claims, the organization had done away with the infamous swimsuit competition and plans to hold a “live interactive session” in its place. Among other amendments is the modification of the evening wear competition, in which contestants will be given the option of wearing anything that makes them comfortable, rather than strictly evening gowns. Carlson expressed a hope that these changes would open up the pageant to women “of all shapes and sizes.”

While we certainly must wait and see what exactly these changes will mean, this announcement is particularly shocking in light of the history surrounding the Miss America pageant. The very first Miss America pageant was held in Atlantic City in 1921. Originally conceived as a profitable marketing stunt for both the newspaper industry as well as the resort business of the location, as the Labor Day pageant would rake in more profit at the end of the summer vacation season.

In this long history, the pageant has remained relatively stagnant. All eligible contestants had to be between the ages of 18-28, single, and not once married. Before 1940, there was a “Rule 7” that required all contestants to be of “good health and of white race.” Writer Roxanne Gay analyzes the pageant of always promoting a very narrow definition of womanly beauty, “that of the demure, slender-but-not-too-thin woman, the girl next door with the bright white smile, a flirtatious but not overly coquettish manner, smart but not too smart, certainly heterosexual” sort of woman.

But now, it seems like the organization is looking to make a change. It is notable that this comes at a time when we see a larger mainstream movement toward body positivity. However, as noted by ELLE, the true meaning of body positivity has perhaps been marred as the notion has come to seem “less like radical self-care and more like a way to rehabilitate damaged brands.” At a time where many industries have been accused of pushing narrow and exclusive beauty ideals, body positivity and acceptance does seem like a convenient bandwagon to jump on.

Given the current climate, it would make sense that the Miss America Organization would seek this change. The fact of the matter is that we are beginning to be more conscious not only of how society has alienated many people from the definition of beauty but also of how the weight of these notions have led to the objectification of women in general. Even Carlson herself – who is Miss America 1989 and a survivor of sexual harassment – has garnered attention as a voice in the #MeToo movement and the first titleholder to head the pageant organization. Given her history, these changes do appear to be a natural next step for the pageant. Whether or not Miss America can redeem itself in these modern times is something only time will tell.

Featured Image via Wikimedia Commons

Proud Latina Feminist. My likes include strong coffee, watching the previews that come on before the movie, and things that come in pretty packages. I've been a bibliophile and fashion lover since well before I could read or tie my own shoes.

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