The swimsuit competition was a minor factor in pageant scores, but it overshadowed everything else and made the difference between winners and losers.
The Miss America Organization’s decision to eliminate the swimsuit portion of its famous pageant could be the natural outgrowth of an all-female leadership team, or a reflection of the #MeToo era. To me, someone who not long ago unexpectedly — and uncomfortably — walked a pageant runway in a bikini and six-inch heels, it is a welcome move by an organization that has had a complex relationship with women’s empowerment.
When I was in college, and the editor of my school’s feminist publication, I entered a local Miss America pageant in Connecticut for a journalism assignment — to immerse myself in an unfamiliar world.
I knew little about Miss America, but was curious about this seemingly outdated, sexist enterprise. Despite my lack of knowledge, I was acutely aware of the swimsuit competition, and increasingly so as the day of my pageant approached. I hoped to fade into the background; instead, I unexpectedly won the title.
More than a bikini body
It wasn’t the swimsuit competition that landed me my crown, but a contest I hadn’t known existed: the 10-minute long interview with the judges, which occurs backstage.
Contestants are grilled on current events, cultural controversies and their platforms. Technically, the interview comprises 25 percent of the total score, second only to talent, and ahead of swimsuit (15 percent). However, everyone in the pageant world told me it secretly counts the most. Most winners ace the interview, despite the fact that most viewers are unaware it exists.
After my win, to my surprise, I inherited coaches to prepare me for the next steps: the Miss Connecticut pageant, and potentially, Miss America. They were enthusiastic, insisting that I possessed intellectual and public speaking skills that were usually hardest to teach. They said I was “much more than a bikini body,” and invested their time and resources, asserting that I embodied the future of Miss America.
Understanding the pageant’s limitations, however, they explained that to win I would have to transform my appearance. Spray tans and dieting ensued, and by the time Miss Connecticut arrived, I believed I had met that beauty standard. Besides, the swimsuit competition was only worth 15 percent. The part that really mattered was the part that came naturally to me.
When I arrived for my week at Miss Connecticut, the interview was on everyone’s minds. Contestants carried binders of news clippings, eagerly quizzing one another on the presidential election, Syria, and police brutality. This made sense; the interview was a major component of the final score.
What confused me, given the scoring rubric, was the amount of time everyone spent perfecting their bodies — sneaking crunches during rehearsal breaks and subsisting on carrots and egg-whites packed from home.
There is much that goes into being able to walk on stage in a bikini and heels. Knowing you are doing so for an academic project is crucial to detaching yourself from the knowledge that judges are giving your body a numbered score. But when you step onstage knowing you must exude more confidence than a Victoria’s Secret Angel while doing something that is contrary to everything you believe, that academic distance starts to fade.
You become every part of yourself you’ve ever critiqued, every comment ever made about your body. Strutting on a slippery stage in high-high-heels, you wonder what it actually means to be more than “a bikini body.”
Most of the women I competed with at Miss Connecticut were white. All were cisgender, thin, bronzed, and waxed. Some were well-spoken, some passionate about their platforms, and some talented performers.
But those who qualified for the finals had one thing in common: a bikini body, defined rigidly — flat stomachs with contoured abs, toned butts, long muscular legs, and tapered waists. Not too athletic, no “extra” fat, a minuscule amount of difference from those who did not make it — a difference only perceptible if you were to see them nearly naked, which the judges, and everybody who attended the pageant, had the chance to do.
Winning for hard work, not bare bodies
I was “more than a bikini body,” meaning that I did not have one. Despite placing highest in the interview category — an accolade that had predicted past Miss Connecticuts — I did not even qualify for the finals. The world my coaches had described was still a vision, not a reality, and I was a failed experiment.
Since competing, I have watched the Miss America Organization be pulled in two directions. There are those who celebrate the wins of women with more progressive platforms, and those who believe Miss America should not be political, or black or brown, or different.
Revelations about how the winners are treated have led to redistribution of power and debates over who embodies women’s empowerment. But on all sides exist women who want to be seen as more than beauty queens, and acknowledged for the hard work that went into their wins. The fact that the women at this weekend’s pageant will no longer have to bare their bodies may be one step in this direction — and perhaps toward real empowerment in the form of a more diverse and inclusive sisterhood.
Winning Miss America can do many things for a person. It can help you pursue higher education. It can give you a platform to promote a political cause. It can launch a career. And until June, it meant something else as well.
As I was once promised by a former Miss Connecticut: After you win Miss America, you never have to wear a swimsuit again.
Now, no one will.
Fiona Lowenstein is a freelance writer, editor, and producer based in New York City. She writes about gender, wellness, politics and runs a queer feminist wellness collective, called Body Politic.
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