Since the dawn of American civilization, our nation has been defined by competition: competition to reach the West Coast, competition in the free market and competition to become an international power.
Sports competitions have also become a major part of American culture: the Super Bowl, the Olympic Games and the World Series, for example.
But there’s one competition that claims to embody the class and sophistication of American culture at its finest: the Miss America pageant.
Each year, after several rounds of elimination and months — sometimes years — of preparation by the contestants, the most proper, beautiful, intelligent and talented woman from each state, as well as Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, meet onstage in Atlantic City.
Don’t let the makeup, sparkles and smiles fool you, though. This competition is cutthroat. The woman chosen has to be the full package. The theme song of the competition says that Miss America is “ideal” and that the title is “the dream of a million girls who are more than pretty.”
“She is a real combination of beauty, grace, and intelligence, artistic and refined. She is a type which the American Girl might well emulate,” states the Miss America website.
However, like so many competitions that aim to celebrate the whole woman, it seems to viewers that outward beauty is held in the highest esteem. Despite the fact that only 35 percent of the scores are based on the swimsuit and evening gown parts of the competition, these are the parts that receive the most attention from the public.
If the Miss America competition is supposed to determine who girls in America should aspire to be, why is 35 percent of the role model’s performance determined by looks? Although the judges in this year’s show said that the swimsuit and evening gown scores are based on confidence, why is walking on stage in a swimsuit the only way for the women to prove they’re confident?
I saw plenty of confidence in other areas while watching this year’s pageant.
Kelly Johnson, who is Miss Colorado, stood onstage in scrubs for the talent portion amongst the other contestants in evening gowns and used her time to perform a monologue about the power and importance of being a nurse. That took confidence, and she didn’t need to be nearly naked to have it.
Referring back to the other qualities that comprise a Miss America, what other women have the combination of beauty, grace, intelligence and art?
As a sports fan, I would argue that many female athletes are icons of all four of these traits. Although Serena Williams just lost in the U.S. Open semifinals, Williams displays beauty, grace, intelligence and art whenever she’s on the court. She is confident and successful at what she does.
Ronda Rousey, a UFC fighter who is known for her 34-second takedowns and willingness to take on Floyd Mayweather, is the epitome of a confident and beautiful women. She was featured in ESPN’s Body Issue in 2012 and shared her body-positive attitude by posing nude in an inspirational, respectful way, rather than by objectifying herself. She carries herself with poise in and out of the ring.
Williams, Rousey and many other female athletes get body-shamed for their muscular and healthy body types. But, are they what the Miss America panel of judges would call “ideal”?
Would these female athletes be more ideal if we saw them walk across a stage in a swimsuit? Would they be more beautiful or more womanly if they wore evening gowns? Are we looking for role models who can be confident in what they wear or confident in what they do and who they are?
America is full of women who are graceful, confident, intelligent and beautiful, but these women might not be thin or good at walking in heels. As the media moves toward more open acceptance of all body types, hopefully Miss America will start to look for a more representative pool of women who are judged beyond the length of their legs, whiteness of their teeth and volume of their hair, and instead on what makes women truly great.