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Getting Rid of the Swimsuit Contest Won’t Save Beauty Pageants

On Tuesday, Gretchen Carlson, the chair of the Miss America Organization Board of Trustees, announced that Miss America was “no longer a pageant.” No, the event hasn’t been canceled, as you might suspect if you – like me – haven’t watched it or thought about it since the late ’80s. Instead, the pageant will be canceling its infamous swimsuit competition, and supposedly will no longer judge women on their body size or physical appearance; this opens the way to “women of all shapes and sizes,” Good Morning America’s Amy Robach specified, “because typically we see swimsuit-ready bodies up on that stage.”

JUST IN: “We will no longer judge our candidates on their outward physical appearance. That’s huge. And that means we will no longer have a swimsuit competition.” – @GretchenCarlson on the major changes coming to @MissAmericaOrg https://t.co/ICRIsRN71h pic.twitter.com/IWKcVvCC50 – Good Morning America (@GMA) June 5, 2018

As you might guess from the not-so-helpful nature of that last comment (what happens if you put the swimsuit on before your body is “swimsuit-ready?” Does it explode?) this change is not exactly as revolutionary as the Miss America Organization would like you to think. People have been protesting the Miss America pageant, and the swimsuit competition specifically, since the 1960s. And maybe, if the organization had made the change back then, it would have helped. As it stands, they’re making the shift just as the tide of popular opinion is turning against superficial “body-positivity” in general, and Miss America in particular – and it may be too little, too late.

Once upon a time, beauty pageants were billed as being good for women. Not only did the Miss America pageant winners get college scholarships and a foot in the door in the entertainment world, the winner was supposed to embody some perfect balance of book smarts, personal virtue, and beauty – the pageant’s theme song unsubtly billed her as “the queen of femininity” and “your ideal” – and to serve as role models for younger women.

That model, as Roxane Gay has written, was very specific; it was limited to “single, never-married women between the ages of 18 and 28.” In the early years, contestants also had to be white. Even when those rules broadened, as per Gay, contestants fit a definite mold: “The demure, slender-but-not-too-thin woman, the girl next door with a bright white smile, a flirtatious but not overly coquettish manner, smart but not too smart, certainly heterosexual.” It’s why Vanessa Williams, the first black Miss America, lost her title in 1983, when Penthouse published nude photos of her without permission; as the supposedly perfect woman, Miss America had to embody sexual purity on top of everything else.

Feminists, of course, called bullshit from the beginning; it was a demonstration outside of the 1968 Miss America pageant that gave rise to the myth of “bra-burning.” As late as 1984, after Williams lost the title, they were railing against the contest in general and the swimsuit competition in particular: “‘It’s hypocrisy for pageants to call themselves American institutions of (feminine) rectitude and propriety,” Jean Lipman-Blumen told the Christian Science Monitor. Sure, Williams had taken nude photos, but “[how] different is it to parade women in evening gowns and then ask them to essentially disrobe into swimsuits?”

But these days, pageant organizers are probably longing for a controversy as simple as swimwear. Even in that 1984 CSM article, people wondered if beauty pageants had become “irrelevant.” In the years to come, falling viewership meant that Miss America struggled to stay on broadcast TV (it was relegated to basic cable between 2005 and 2014) and had to start filming at smaller venues in New Jersey rather than staging an annual Las Vegas spectacular.

Nowadays, the whole pageant concept is mired in deep sexual ickiness, aligned in the public imagination with the scandals of former Miss Universe owner and current President Donald Trump (who is alleged to have fat-shamed former Miss Universe Alicia Machado until she developed an eating disorder, and who has bragged about peeping on underage girls at the Miss Teen USA pageant). There are also those leaked e-mails from the Miss America Organization, whose male board members (including former CEO Sam Haskell) were caught in 2017 calling former title-holders “cunts” and “blimps.”

It’s this latter-day controversy that Carlson – the new and conspicuously female face of the board, who has made a point of noting that she is both a former Miss America and a survivor of sexual harassment at Fox News – is evidently trying to address. And, yes, once the public has read your CEO calling the contestants in his own pageant “fat and gross,” it does seem that removing the swimsuit competition is the way to go. But even this may not be enough to revitalize a cultural institution that has been slowly fading out since the Reagan era.

If you’re looking for some clear barometer of just how out of touch the Miss America pageant is with young women, it’s worth considering that Carlson announced the contest’s new body-positivity on the same day that fashion and beauty publication Racked released an entire special issue on weight, announcing that “body positivity, as we know it in 2018, is a load of horse shit.” Feminists have turned on “body-positivity” as it has come to seem less like radical self-care and more like a way to rehabilitate damaged brands. You can’t love yourself more by buying a different brand of soap or deodorant, and there is something unavoidably sleazy in the idea of an organization rebounding from a fat-shaming scandal with a new set of talking points about accepting women regardless of their looks.

For @Racked’s Size Conversation, I wrote about the scam of media-friendly body positivity and why simply telling people to love themselves purposefully ignores every actual problem with how we treat those who have noncompliant bodies https://t.co/9ZLLzPNkOq – Amanda Mull (@amandamull) June 5, 2018

I don’t envy Carlson the job of saving Miss America. By tacking toward the competition’s talent portion – “we have always had talent and scholarship,” she told Good Morning America, although a 2014 report by John Oliver showed that they’re not giving out much scholarship money, either – and away from judging women’s bodies, she’s clearly trying to bring the pageant in line with the gender politics of this century. But jumping onto the body-positivity bandwagon, several years too late, is unlikely to be the saving throw the pageant needs.

You can’t separate Miss America from the meat market. Even in its earliest iterations – when it was a newspaper contest, not a televised event – readers voted on photos of local girls before sending the finalists off to Atlantic City to be interviewed. If Miss America didn’t have a beauty portion, it would just be an academic scholarship, which could be determined by looking at test results or applications; it wouldn’t need to be on TV at all. And, actually, that’s not a terrible idea. Maybe that quiet, penitent doling out of scholarship money is the best possible retirement for Miss America, in a world that has long since moved on.

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