“Mama said, you’re a pretty girl / What’s in your head it doesn’t matter/ Brush your hair, fix your teeth / What you wear is all that matters,” – Beyoncé, “Pretty Hurts.” The iconic first verse from this Beyoncé anthem details the superficial focus of beauty pageants, which puts value on the level of a woman’s attractiveness or the way she chooses to dress.
Pageant culture has been criticized by many for rewarding the achievement of an ideal standard of physical appearance over other, more substantive qualities, acting against society’s efforts to improve the way in which it regards women. Detractors point to certain parts of the competition, especially the swimsuit portion, where contestants walk the stage clad in revealing swimwear, as particularly regressive and objectifying.
In 1921, businessmen in Atlantic City created Miss America, one of the country’s most famous beauty pageant organizations. In crowning a Miss America, the organization strives to find a woman who young girls can look up to. Miss America should be someone that will use the position as a platform to do good, encouraging similar philanthropic aspirations in others.
Due to the backlash they have faced over the sexist nature of the pageant’s selection process, the Miss America organization recently announced that they will no longer have the swimsuit portion of the competition. It will be replaced with a Q&A session, in which contestants will speak about past accomplishments, ambitions for the future and what changes they hope to bring about if crowned Miss America.
With these alterations, the competition will reportedly no longer judge women by their physical appearance — the progressive, commendable move seems to have been made for the right reasons.
However, can we truly say that outward appearance will no longer be a factor? Throughout its history, the competition has heavily emphasized the physical appearance of the women, and traditions this deeply ingrained die hard.
Additionally, the concept of judging others based on their looks extends beyond formal pageants. The so-called “beauty bias” occurs when people considered more attractive are favored and more likely to be associated with positive personality traits.
This bias lurks deep in the abyss of the subconscious, difficult to prevent even for those aware of it. How will Miss America tackle the lingering influence of this deep-rooted prejudice? Or is the issue impossible to fix, making the only real solution eradicating pageants altogether?
Maybe trying to stop considering physical attractiveness isn’t realistic. Instead, the competition could stop comparing the women to society’s standard of beauty and start celebrating beauty in every form.
As of now, many of the women fit the mold of conventional attractiveness, but Miss America could push to include more women of color, women of different sizes and women of varying sexualities — in other words, women that more accurately represent the diversity of beauty in the United States.
A variance in outer beauty mixed with the inner beauty of amazing, powerful women? Sounds like a recipe for a more positive, empowering pageant culture.