The American Dream? Eight Ways the 2013 Miss America Pageant Failed at Equality

“Winner!” (2012)
(c) Daena Title
Oil, acrylic and pastel on canvas
42 X 42″


By Chelsey Anderson

Last month, the Miss America Pageant crowned Mallory Hagan, 23, as its newest winner, who will have the ability to support a cause of her choosing, travel and speak all over the United States, and put $50K towards furthering her education. While the Miss America competition is often touted as being good for women given these opportunities, there are still many questionable aspects about the pageant and its promotion of society’s ideal of the perfect woman. From exclusionary practices to limited appreciation of women’s value, here are eight ways the Miss America pageant undermines the value of American women.

Appearance Above all Else: Though the candidates are judged on talent and interviews, appearance is still a huge part of the contest. Almost half of the final scoring points are based on how the candidates look modeling with and without clothing, with 20% of points going towards the Lifestyle and Fitness in Swimsuit category and 20% of points towards Evening Wear category. This reflects that, while we have come a long way to show that beauty is not everything, looks are still a requirement and can stop a woman with stellar intellect or talent from getting ahead.

Unhealthy/Unrealistic Ideals of Beauty: The large percentage of the competition that’s based on appearance is judged on a narrow, if not unattainable, definition of beauty. The swimsuit competition is described as a test of the candidates’ dedication to health, fitness, and confidence, and though we know health and fitness can come in any size there is very little diversity in the figures of Miss America candidates. As of 2006, the average height and weight for Miss America winners was 5 ‘ 6.5 ” and 121 lbs., yet the average American woman is shorter and heavier at about 5′ 3″and 166 lbs. Many of the contestants mentioned in the pre-show interviews said that they were hungry and that they held back on eating before the competition; later the losing Miss America candidates were given donuts as a joke, making light of the eating and binging measures that many women put themselves through to attain such thin figures. While padding is used as an enhancement, many choose plastic surgery to get the perfect look, along with tanning, fake-tanning, and fake hair. Excessive makeup is the status quo. And taking extremes to alter one’s looks like wearing fake teeth are fair game to be competitive. Again the message driven home to the average woman that their natural state is far from the most desirable one.

Lack of Women of Color: The competition hasn’t had the rosiest of backgrounds regarding ethnic and racial diversity, from its founding in 1921 when competitors were required to “be of the white race”, to questions around racism and what’s prompted the plethora of beauty pageant support in the South. Though eight African Americans have won since 1970, other women of color have had even less representation. There’s only been one Asian winner and a Latina has yet to be crowned despite the fact that Latinos make-up 16.7% of the American population. Sadly, this shows that the pageant and its idea of the perfect American woman have a long way to go to be truly inclusive and reflective of the country it represents.

Promotion of the “Desirable Virgin” Ideal: Miss America candidates must be, as Jessica Valenti observes in The Purity Myth, “sexy, but not sexual”. Though Miss America is allowed to enhance her sexual appearance and is required to model her almost-naked body for judges and audience members, she can not seem as though she actually has sex herself. This instills the idea that self-serving sexuality is not for “good” women, and yet she must still live up to the expectation of being visually pleasing to others in a sexual way.

Slut Shaming: The fine line Miss America competitors must toe to be desirable—yet respectable—often doesn’t make sense and rings very clearly that some women’s display of sexuality is more respectable than others. When commenting on the swimsuit portion of the competition one of the candidates stated that Miss America is defined more as classy rather than sexy, while another explained that Miss America is a different type of sexy than Victoria Secret, because Miss America is about character and poise. Essentially the swimsuit portion of the competition and any Victoria’s Secret fashion show are identical—women with socially-acceptable, sexually-desirable bodies model pieces of clothing that cover just the essentials. This competition shows that we the values of our society are arbitrary, with inconsistent definitions of what is a “respectable” woman, leaving many to easily fall from grace or be shamed simply by winding up on the wrong side of an opinion.

Knocking Women “Down a Peg”: It is typical sexism to want to believe that a woman can never have it all, and nowhere does that idea come out more strongly than in the ridicule of beauty pageant contestants. The airhead beauty queen is a treasured stereotype, and the media coverage of the Miss America pageant gives the public what it wants. From this year’s coverage of Miss California confusing the term “euthanasia” with a vaccine to the former Miss Teen USA South Carolina’s stumble over an incomprehensible answer, viewers are assured that, even while they admire certain characteristics of the beautiful candidates, they can still take satisfaction in ridiculing their shortfalls and mistakes.

Pseudo Female Empowerment: Though candidates have stated that Miss America represents the modern woman who could possibly be a future CEO or president, the obsessive focus that the pageant places on a woman’s appearance runs counter to that claim. According to an article on Beauty Redefined, “research proves undue attention to physical appearance leaves fewer cognitive resources available for other mental and physical activities, including mathematics, logical reasoning, spatial skills, and athletic performance”. By requiring that these women spend so much time, effort, and energy perfecting their appearance, it becomes more challenging for women to reach their full potential. Furthermore, while this competition is praised for the opportunities it gives the winners, the fact that issues such as race, ability, size, and perceived beauty are such large stumbling blocks for otherwise potential winners means that the door is firmly closed for a large percentage of women.

Mainstream Sexism: Of course, women should have the right to do what they want with their lives. If their dream is to be Miss America, with all that it entails, that’s their individual prerogative. However, Miss America is not a small, off-the-wall program that only the dedicated find and are exposed to; its presence on a mainstream network means that people across America, including little girls forming their identities, will watch and receive its sexist and exclusionary message. Furthermore, while other types of competitions may focus on a specific talent or achievement, like singing or bodybuilding, Miss America isn’t just about the best female tap-dancer, the best female bikini model, the best female interviewee—it’s about the best female, period. The message is sent that to lose the Miss America contest is to fall short in the very definition of what it means to be a woman.

While Miss America has made some strides, including this year with Miss Montana becoming the first autistic competitor, there are still issues of inequality the competition, and in turn, the society it reflects, must address before we can truly say that it comes close to a just definition of the ideal American woman.

Victoria’s Secret and Miss America: Totally different?

Victoria Secret Fashion Show
Victoria Secret Fashion Show
Miss America Swimsuit Competition
Miss America Swimsuit Competition

5 thoughts on “The American Dream? Eight Ways the 2013 Miss America Pageant Failed at Equality

  1. Great point about the fact that beauty is conveyed as something achievable through the consumption of products and procedures. But to clarify, beauty is not biological. Our current *standard* of beauty is found in some people due to genetics, but mostly those in the media use artificial tools to fit the mold. And that mold is every changing. In less than a generation we’ve gone from heroine chic to voluptuous hourglass. Neither is real beauty, just an every changing perspective on what’s thought to be beauty.

  2. Great article! The problem with beauty, especially in the modern day and age, is that it is conveyed as something that is achievable (thank you marketing!), when it is almost completely biological. Just about the only thing you can really control is weight and muscle tone, and to some extent one’s skin quality. Real standards of beauty include symmetry, size of breasts/waist/butt, height, etc – and these are all just fate. This is, I think, what bothers many women about beauty contests – and beauty in general. Beauty is for the most part intrinsic, and we want autonomy, we want to able to be responsible and take control of all aspects of our lives. For certain women to win contests, make more money and have careers based on their looks derives all women of the self-determination that we crave.

  3. Thank you both for the compliments and reading the article!
    To Allison, perhaps I left out some important context. I definitely agree that altering/working on one’s appearance, just like any other hobby, is not bad in moderation and doesn’t leave the woman dumb for taking time to engage in it. That quote comes from an article about self-objectification, meaning the definition of “undue focus” is not about women who simply choose to take some time to work on their appearance, but ones that place an “undue” amount of value on their appearance (to the point that they see themselves as objects and/or become obsessed). What it’s talking about here is valuing one’s appearance above anything and everything else; doing it to the point where it’s no longer fun or enjoyable for the person involved, but is done as a necessity or compulsion. Given that self-objectification has been known to lead to depression and lack of self-efficacy, and that depression and lack of self-efficacy takes a toll on mental resources/motivation, it would make sense that this very common and promoted obsession would negatively impact women. It doesn’t make them dumb, it just means that this outside pressure is helping to put up more obstacles and make it harder to succeed in other realms.
    But, yes, I agree with what you said. Simply engaging in the activity is not the problem, and to blame women or accuse them of wasting mental resources just for doing it would be wrong and counterproductive. Mascara is not the devil, and like I said in the article, mocking and belittling women who try to be seen as pretty is not helpful or empowering for women as a whole. What’s more important is WHY we do what we do, and how doing it (or not doing it) makes us feel.

  4. This article makes a lot of wonderful points that we as a culture need to think long and hard about. I’ve never been able to stomach that the “ideal representative of women in America” needs to parade around in a swimsuit in front of cameras and conform to the stereotype of what a pageant queen looks like. The lack of minority contestants and winners is also a huge issue, and one that ties in with the wave of “whitewashing” splashed across fashion magazines and the demotion of minority women to supporting or comedic roles in TV and movies. I think it’s great that this article brings these issues up, and hopefully we can start a discussion around them.

    I did have one question I wanted to ask, particularly about this quote:
    “Research proves undue attention to physical appearance leaves fewer cognitive resources available for other mental and physical activities, including mathematics, logical reasoning, spatial skills, and athletic performance.”

    Is this just a pseudo-science way of reiterating the stereotype that women can’t be intelligent and focus on their appearance at the same time? Are “beautiful” women or those who take more time to put on makeup or pick out their outfits in the morning less mentally capable than those who go to the grocery store in sweatpants, because they’re wasting mental resources that could be spent curing cancer on putting on mascara? I understand that taking personal appearance to an extreme and valuing it above all else is a problem, but the wording of this sounds more accusatory than helpful. Let’s spend more time as women bringing each other up, rather than deciding what’s the “right” way to embrace one’s femininity and what’s not.

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