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“We are no longer a pageant,” announced Gretchen Carlson, the TV host and former Miss America, Tuesday on Good Morning America. “We are a competition.”
The pronouncement came alongside the news that the 97-year-old Miss America pageant would no longer hold its swimsuit or evening gown portion. In place of floor-length sequins and bikinis (once they were allowed in 1997, contestants have largely worn two-pieces), the contestants will instead take part in a “live interactive session with the judges” where they will be asked to “demonstrate their passion, intelligence, and overall understanding of the job of Miss America.”
It’s a move that underscores the pageant’s statement that it will no longer judge contestants on their appearances. Instead of the evening gown portion, the women will wear attire that makes them feel confident and express their personal styles.
“We’ve heard from a lot of young women who say, ‘We’d love to be a part of your program, but we don’t want to be out there in high heels and a swimsuit,’ so guess what, you don’t have to do that anymore,” Carlson, who is also the chair of the board of the Miss America Organization, added. “Who doesn’t want to be empowered, learn leadership skills, and pay for college and be able to show the world who you are as a person from the inside of your soul? That’s what we’re judging them on now.”
The current Miss America, Cara Mund, tweeted a promotional video that referenced the coming of “Miss America 2.0” in the 2019 competition, which will take place on September 9:
Though the two major pageants in the US have always been linked to swimwear (the first Miss America in 1921 took place on the beach in Atlantic City, and the Miss USA pageant was founded by a swimsuit company), the “swimsuit portion” has always been controversial.
In 1993, the chief executive of the Miss America Organization admitted as much, saying, “We are not stupid. We are very sensitive to the fact that the swimsuit competition has always been our Achilles’ heel. The swimsuit competition has been controversial since the early 1920s, but it’s been retained because the majority of the people like it,” according to the New York Times. The same year, the reigning Miss America said she thought the swimsuits should go.
The decision to scrap the swimsuit portion isn’t entirely surprising — the organization has been plagued by controversy after emails between CEO Sam Haskell and lead writer Lewis Friedman, in which contestants were referred to as “cunts” and called “piece of trash” and “huge,” among many other misogynistic comments, became public last December. Since then, the organization has named Carlson — a vocal advocate of the #MeToo movement after settling a sexual harassment lawsuit against former Fox head Roger Ailes — as its chair and has appointed several more women to its board.
Miss America also isn’t the only pageant to rid itself of bikinis. In 2016, Miss Teen USA eliminated its version of the competition, replacing the dress code with athletic wear. At the time, it too was celebrated as a “cultural shift” and a harbinger of female empowerment.
Swimsuits in pageants have long been rationalized by claiming that they exist to gauge contestants’ “physical fitness.” But Miss America isn’t American Ninja Warrior — looking hot in a swimsuit has close to nothing to do with a person’s overall health. And even with the competition’s new iteration, it’s unlikely we’ll crown a Miss America whose “personal style” doesn’t fit the highly narrow definition of womanhood that the pageant has championed (thin, cis, white, able-bodied) come September.
What’s more likely to change, however, is the definition of what pageant wear even is. If the nation’s most celebrated pageant no longer involves swimsuits or sparkly evening gowns, it seems natural that lower level and regional competitions may follow suit. Either way, it’ll be interesting to see what pageant boutiques look like when the only requirement is that the contestant feels confident and empowered.