The Bikini Contest Is Over, but We Are Living Inside the Beauty Pageant

Of course, President Trump is the crude outlier here, as he is for so many civilized norms. But far too often when I hear a man describe a woman as “super fit,” my brain substitutes some variation of Mr. Trump’s locker-room talk.

The game is now all about discretion — of insisting you aren’t working hard while you are absolutely gritting your teeth, of telling your date that you just don’t like bread. While men pretend not to judge women for the way they look, we go to great lengths to pretend we don’t care, either.

Contestants in the first Miss America pageant in 1921 lining up in their swimsuits.CreditAssociated Press

And so we blend leaves together and call it “delicious” and “juice” instead of a mealy sludge.

We wear stilts to hike around concrete jungles and lie about how they are anything other than medieval torture devices.

We get the tiny horns on the tips of our fingers and toes painted in shades so subtle that heterosexual men don’t even realize we got them painted at all.

We shell out hundreds of dollars for magic elixirs and oils the size of Theranos Nanotainers that don’t even promise youth but boast that they are “clean.”

We lie under fluorescent lights and hold our thighs open for strips of burning hot wax while we chat about the new season of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Goodbye, Swimsuit Competition. Hello, ‘Miss America 2.0.’

It was all beauty pageant until 1936, when a talent portion was added. The competition was limited to never-married women ages 18 to 28, and for a time, until 1940, it was written in the guidelines that they must be “of good health and of the white race.” The organization would not have its first African-American winner until Vanessa Williams earned the 1984 crown.

“The Miss America state and national process was — and maybe still is — the single largest source of scholarship money for women in the U.S., yet the crucial requirements were physical, not intellectual,” the author and feminist Gloria Steinem said in an interview on Tuesday. “If the same were true for men, people would be saying, ‘No wonder China is winning!’”

“It’s not just the bathing suits, it’s physical appearance, irrelevant talents and, until very recently, being white,” Ms. Steinem added. “It’s also less about being unique than conformist.”

In 1950, the pageant winner Yolande Betbeze was among the first to break the mold, causing a ruckus when she refused to pose in a swimsuit during her reign. (“I was an opera student and didn’t have good legs,” she explained at the time.) In 1992, Catherine Ann Lemkau, a runner-up, announced that she would like to see the swimsuit competition eliminated.


Two models displaying approved bathing suits for Miss America contestants in 1997. That year, they were allowed to wear two-piece swimsuits as long as the suits were “real and store-bought.”

B. Vartan Boyajian/Associated Press

And in 1995, Miss America encouraged its viewers to call a 1-900 number to say whether swimsuits should be scrapped: two out of three said no.

“We are not stupid,” Leonard Horn, then the organization’s chief executive, said in 1993. “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.”

Appearing on ABC News to announce the change on Tuesday, Ms. Carlson declared, “We are not going to judge you on your outward appearance.” But it is hard to imagine what Miss America would be without conventional beauty standards at its core.

[Read more: Miss America appointed women to top positions months after a scandal.]

The 2017 Judges’ Manual lists the qualities and attributes required of titleholders, in this order: “beautiful, well-spoken, intelligent, talented, able to relate to young people, reflective of women her age (she should not be a 35-year-old trapped inside a 20-year-old body), charismatic, dynamic/energetic — that ‘IT’ quality that is so hard to define, mature enough to handle the job and all of its responsibilities, comfortable ‘in her own skin,’ manageable, punctual and flexible.”


In 1995, Yolande Betbeze Fox held the bathing suit she wore during the pageant. She refused to be photographed in her bathing suit after being crowned 1951 Miss America.

Bob Strong/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“The American public has an expectation that she will be beautiful and physically fit,” the manual continues. “This is the same expectation they have for all of their celebrities, from music and film to sports, and Miss America is no exception. You must look at her physical beauty as well as her physical fitness.”

Margot Mifflin, an English professor who is writing a cultural history of the pageant, wrote recently in The Washington Post that Miss America “has always been deeply invested in protecting the status quo in the face of women’s progress.”

“No amount of tweaking over the decades, from adding scholarships to mandating philanthropy, could obscure its bottom line,” she said. “Regardless of how smart or talented a woman is, she’s a loser without the one thing she can’t control or achieve: beauty.”

Tuesday’s announcement was quickly added to the lengthy list of stunning changes that have reverberated through Hollywood, politics and workplaces around the world in the wake of #MeToo. It was a ripple effect, so to speak — one that expanded the conversation from sexual harassment to the larger way that women’s bodies are viewed and consumed.


Contestants during the swimsuit competition for 2018 Miss America.

Donald Kravitz/Getty Images for Dick Clark Productions

Still, it seemed like a small step to some.

“If Miss America wants to get out of the sexism game, it should probably end Miss America,” the writer Jill Filipovic posted on Twitter.

“Sure, it’s a relatively good thing that in 2018 this organization has realized it’s dehumanizing to compare and judge women’s bodies in front of a vast, international audience,” said Julie Zeilinger, the founder of a feminist blog called FBomb. “But when Gretchen Carlson says we are ‘not going to judge you on your outward appearance,’ the implication is that the competition will still judge women — just not by measures of blatant physical objectification.”

As for the women who threw bras and girdles into the garbage can on the Atlantic City boardwalk a half-century ago — and then infiltrated the event itself, draping a giant bedsheet from the balcony that read “Women’s Liberation” — they watched with wonder, and a healthy dose of skepticism.

[Read a New York Times article from 1968 about the protest.]

“What can I say?” said one of them, Robin Morgan, the author of more than 20 books of poetry and nonfiction, including the 1970 anthology “Sisterhood Is Powerful.” “After 50 years, this is a start.”

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