Ever since the Miss America pageant first wowed audiences on the Atlantic City boardwalk in 1921, its female contestants have participated in a swimsuit competition. That all changed Tuesday when organizers announced that the annual show would scrap the swimsuit portion in favor of a question-and-answer session. The decision was made unanimously by the board of directors, seven of whom are women, and will go into effect at the national contest this September. It’s part of a rebranding effort in the wake of the #MeToo movement, as well as an opportunity for the famous beauty pageant to move past its own harassment scandal. Last December, three executives of the Miss America Organization, including the chair of the board of directors, resigned when emails were published that revealed male members using vulgar and misogynistic language about former pageant winners. Former Fox News anchor, Gretchen Carlson, took over as the new chairwoman in January, and since then, has been planning a major shakeup of Miss America competitions from the state level all the way up to the top. “We are no longer a pageant; we are a competition. We will no longer judge our candidates on their outward physical appearance,” said Carlson, who was awarded the Miss America crown in 1989, on Good Morning America.
Many have already applauded the competition’s decision to shift focus away from physical beauty and toward a contestant’s personality and education. Critics of the Miss America pageant, which garnered 5.6 million viewers on national TV last year, per Nielsen, have long argued that it encourages an unrealistically high standard of beauty on women, and that the swimsuit portion of the competition is nothing more than an opportunity for viewers to ogle and objectify women clad in high heels and bikinis. This isn’t a new complaint. Fifty years ago, the beauties of the 1968 swimsuit contest were interrupted by around 100 feminist activists, who threw “instruments of female torture” (bras, curling irons, girdles) into a trash can with “Freedom” painted across it.
However, not everyone agrees that it’s a good decision to get rid of the swimsuit competition, or that it’s even necessarily a degrading experience. “I was not very confident in myself before I started pageants,” says Miss Glenville, Heather Thompson, a two-time participant in the Miss New York USA pageant (not to be confused with the Miss America pageant). “From doing that and living that experience, I’ve gained so much more confidence in my body and in myself.” Thompson got into beauty pageants a few years ago through a friend and admits that at first she thought the pageant world would be superficial. However, she was soon pleasantly surprised by the intelligence, drive and sense of camaraderie she found with the other participants. “That’s why I ended up falling in love with it, because I met so many inspirational girls.” Though Thompson has had a primarily positive experience, when asked whether swimsuit competitions serve to objectify women, she admits that it’s complicated. “I think there are people on the outside of it all that obviously think that it could be inappropriate when women are walking onstage in their bikinis. But as a woman you’re signing up for something that you have to gain confidence for, and it’s something that feels good for us.” Thompson also points out that contestants can wear one-pieces or opt to wear something less revealing on religious grounds.
Though it’s the end of the swimsuit era for Miss America, it’s not the end of beauty pageants or the debate over them. As for Heather Thomson? She’s already signed up to participate in this year’s Miss USA.