The Message Our Kids Receive From the Miss America Pageant

Did you hear the recent news, just announced on June 5th? The Miss America pageant is making some changes to its competition. It’s something people have been talking about for decades and now—it’s finally happening.

For the first time in almost a century, contestants are not required to strut across a runway in their bathing suits. While swimsuits will still be seen at many state competitions, the national competition is doing away with it, wanting the message we send to girls in today’s culture to be congruent:

  • Sexual harassment and assault is not OK. (#MeToo)
  • Crude remarks from others is inappropriate, anywhere.
  • Women have gifts, smarts and leadership abilities to be valued.
  • Judging others by their looks is not a good measure of their value.

Several past winners admitted they always felt “stress over my appearance. Did my figure measure up and do I look good enough?” It makes sense. When I’ve watched the competition, I’ve thought how awful it may feel to be distracted from sharing your talent, ideas or achievements because you must put on a small piece of clothing, and be gawked at and judged by millions of people. It’s a bit like visual social media.

Everyone’s making a comment.

Getty Images

The reason the swimsuit portion of the competition lasted so long is because former board members argued that audiences expected winners to be beautiful and physically fit. While I’m sure that will remain, the overwhelming majority of current board members (most of them women now) contend that it just did not send the right message to young girls. Some former contestants who’ve spoken out against the swimsuit competition, said it led to serious physical and mental problems. Kirsten Haglund, who was Miss America in 2008, wrote on Facebook that the swimsuit portion “perpetuated the objectification of women more than it empowered them.”

Think About the Messages We Send to Our Girls

Pause and reflect a moment about the messages we send to girls in our culture. For years (especially when I was growing up) the questions were:

  • Are you gorgeous?
  • How long are your eyelashes?
  • How tall are you?
  • What’s your waistline?
  • How do you look in a bikini?

While I understand some societal norms and media portrayals will feed females false expectations about how they should look, I am hopeful that girls growing up today may get a clearer message about their value than mere “looks” and “appearance.” (Now all we have to do is get rid of the “selfie” competition that seems to be perpetually gong on.) I realize there are flaws to every shift that happens in society, I just want to weigh in and say—I believe this shift is positive for females in our world today. Further, I’d like to challenge you to think about the “messaging” you or your organization is sending to girls by the things you say and do each day. Is it mostly comments about cosmetic or superficial beauty, or about substance and genuine value? I vividly recall when I changed my affirmation of my daughter Bethany when she was in middle school. While I still told her I thought she was beautiful from time to time, I began to talk more like this:

  • I love how compassionate you are with your classmates.
  • I am proud of the way you handled that conflict with your friend.
  • I value your sense of right and wrong when you took that last pop quiz.

My comments shifted from cosmetic issues to character issues.

Last year, 5.6 million viewers watched “The Miss America Competition” on ABC, down 10 percent from 6.2 million in 2016 and seven million in 2015. In short, viewership has dropped the last few years. One must wonder—will this change grow the television audience, or shrink it further. I think we, as parents, educators, counselors, mentors and leaders will have to decide that. We can start a new day where women aren’t seen as objects to judge by their outward beauty, but people to be evaluated by their character, their ideas, their talent and their intelligence.

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The Message Our Kids Receive From the Miss America Pageant