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Miss America contestants: the judgement’s never over

This might not come as a huge surprise, but I’m not a big fan of beauty pageants. (Weird, right?) I understand that some of these competitions have scholarships that are really helpful for some winners, that some contestants do have real talents that they can showcase, and that some use the platform to push good causes.

And yet… I am not convinced. And a recent spread in Us Weekly online showing pictures of the “Top 16 Best Bikini Bodies” of the Miss America 2013 competition reminds me why.

First of all, I love how they’ve created a competition-within-a-competition here by selecting what they think are the best 16 of the 50 women competing for the crown.

Secondly, is it just me, or do all of the women look… eerily the same?

By my count there were two or three women of color out of the 16 listed as having the “best bikini bodies;” but I guess that shouldn’t be too surprising. The Miss America list of finalists seems to indicate that there aren’t even more than ten women of color in the competition.

Of course, the media coverage of the event isn’t the fault of the contestants — anyone is free to decide to enter a competition for whatever reason they like.

But Us Weekly is certainly to blame for perpetuating the elements most upsetting to me about these competitions.

I find it difficult to discern the differences between the women listed by the magazine as having the “best body.” The hair is the same, the makeup is the same, and, of course, the bodies are the same. Like we need another photo slideshow of the same idealized, long, slim, toned, and bronzed body type hammering home that this is what they think women should shoot for. So, it’s kind of like… one body, repeated 16 times.

Wouldn’t it have been nice if instead they’d tried to profile the causes the women support? For example, the winner of the competition, Miss New York, supports the prevention of child sexual abuse. Seems a worthier topic than whose “bikini bodies” were as stellar as hers.

Of course, US Weekly is hardly the only one guilty of this. Even the pageant hosts played into the physical ideal by mocking the contestants who had lost by sending them a platter of donuts and remarking how difficult it is to be deprived of carbs.

This seems like a bit of a catch-22, doesn’t it? Making jabs at them for not eating carbs and then giving them a plate of “bad” foods when they lose, implying that since the competition was over they could finally indulge? This also sends the message to winners (and fans) that depriving themselves of the donuts is precisely what got them to the podium.

One of the reasons I have a hard time being convinced that pageants are anything other than a beauty competition that inherently make the non-winners feel less attractive is because of the very way the media talks about it — who is the prettiest, who has the best body, and who has the best gown, all in the name of awarding tiaras predominantly on the basis of physical appearance.

What do you think? What is your take on beauty pageants?

Larkin Callaghan is an epidemiology and health communication fellow at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, where she also received her doctorate in Health Behavior and Education. She blogs regularly at her own site, I’m Not Tired Yet, about women’s and adolescent health issues.

3 thoughts on “Miss America contestants: the judgement’s never over

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  1. Ugh. My gag reflex is tickled immediately when thinking about the utter regression of continuing to publicize these pageants and how they objectify women and reinforce a beauty ideal. I get it. Viewership has significantly waned in the past decade, so splashing tabloid magazines with these cookie cutter images (Larkin, you are spot on by saying that they all look the same!) is really just a weak attempt to engage and bait the public interest. All are disproportionately white and the same svelte size. The “causes” and “talent portion” are merely just fluff. They attempt to push the “Well rounded” descriptor, but fall so ridiculously short. A well rounded individual to me is one that has NOTHING to do with appearance or how effortlessly one can don the banal bikini bod. I would love to see the score sheets of one of these competitions. I am pretty certain that less than ¼ is dedicated to the merits of one’s character. Dog shows have more diversity than these pageants. Great piece!

  2. I would actually love to know the marketing strategy for this year since I just read that their “ratings soared” and were the highest they had been in nine years.

    On another note, one thing I also find myself conflicted over is the allowance of trans women to compete in the Miss Universe pageant. I am so grateful that they are being acknowledged as women and that just because they weren’t born with the appropriate chromosomes, they will be barred from “women only” competitions. But I’m left wondering how good this is for females of any sex/identification since we’re still reducing women to body parts to be rated and representative of a certain aesthetic. We are still playing value on appearance. Pageants will just never be a meritocracy. I’d love anyone’s thoughts on this equality for transwomen, but the continuation of the beauty ideal and objectification.

  3. I follow and compete in pageants and although I can understand your stance on how the media covers these pageants and how it’s one certain body type that is being pushed and promoted as ideal, I have a different perspective on “pageants” as a whole.

    One being that not all pageants are the same. Miss USA and Miss America are the most prestigious out of the pageant world. There are hundreds of pageants where contestants of varying body types are competing and winning. I wish these pageants systems were more widely covered in the media. But they do exist.

    “there aren’t even more than ten women of color in the competition.”

    Women of color rarely enter to begin with. In every pageant that I have either followed or competed in, there’s usually 1 or 2 women of color for every 20 contestants (that’s an estimation) that volunteer to sign up, before any eliminations are made. I’ve never heard of a pageant turning away contestants based on ethnicity, height, or weight. Really, they don’t turn down anyone at all for entering.

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