On Wednesday, Paula Shugart, president of the Miss Teen USA pageant, announced that the swimsuit segment of the competition will be eliminated and a new athletic wear portion will take its place. In a memo, Shugart shared that Miss Teen USA's evolution is meant to "reflect an important cultural shift we're all celebrating that empowers women who lead active, purposeful lives and encourage those in their communities to do the same." (Ages for Miss Teen USA competitors are 14 to 19.)
Although I am supportive of Miss Teen USA's new format, I want to be clear: The swimsuit competition was not about being sexy or objectifying competitors, as some seem to think. It was a part of the pageant competition that showcased a competitor's knowledge and dedication to healthful eating and fitness, and required extreme hard work and discipline on behalf of the contestants. Furthermore, if you look at clips of previous Miss Teen USA pageants, all the contestants wore age-appropriate and conservative suits. The pageant system enforced strong regulations around swimwear that banned sheer fabric, thongs, or other revealing cuts for competitors.
I think this change is an example of swinging the pendulum too far in terms of respectability politics. Even the part in Ms. Shugart's statement about the change being an "important culture shift...that empowers women," made me cringe. After all, teenage girls wear swimsuits every day in America. Many of them are far more revealing than the pageant contestants' suits. The amount of fabric on a bikini doesn't necessarily correlate to a level of self-esteem or personal empowerment.
Perhaps Miss Teen USA's transition to activewear is only for the reason of appealing to a wider audience, primarily corporate sponsors not willing to take PR hits from the "pageant police." (The "old school" feminism types who hate pageants, bras, and lipstick.) It will be interesting to see if the activewear portion of the Miss Teen USA pageant, particularly at the local levels, encourages more participation from those that may have otherwise been intimidated by pageant life. However, I hope that the swimsuit portion is never removed from Miss USA or Miss Universe. (These pageants are for competitors aged 18 to 27.)
The reason I say this is that the swimsuit component is such an important phase of the competition. Perhaps more than any other sections of the pageant, it really showcases physical fitness and self-discipline, as well as poise, confidence, and goal-setting.
I never competed in pageants as a teen. There was no way I would have been able to convince my mom, a staunch feminist, to enter me. I had to wait until I was 20 to enter my first pageant. And before you get any ideas about me being brainwashed by the media to adhere to a narrow standard of beauty, let me stop you.
I was a horse-riding tomboy with a BA in Communications when I made the decision to enter a local pageant after watching Miss USA on television. I thought it looked fun and wanted to challenge myself. And although I was a four-year varsity letterman in track during high school, the pageant's swimsuit portion was my first introduction to the science of nutrition. (Years later I began competing in bodybuilding competitions and learned that nutrition can be as much an art as it is a science.) I can say without a doubt that creating a nutrition and exercise plan for myself, executing it, and mustering the courage to stand on a stage in a swimsuit in front of hundreds of people gave me the type of grit needed to tackle later obstacles.
Fortunately for me, the local pageant organizers provided free coaching for participants. One of the organizers was a former Miss USA and owned her own marketing company. Every week, a group of competitors took over her office for the weekend, and we were coached in interview skills, public speaking, and how to properly walk in high heels (I couldn't walk for the life of me!). Guest speakers presented on correct application of makeup, appropriate hairstyles, and wardrobe basics. The pageant workshops were a great introduction to the soft skills I needed as a recent college graduate.
Pageants aren't for everybody. However, those girls who are attracted to the competition are coached into well-rounded young women. Pageant competitors in the Miss USA system participate in an opening number, where contestants are introduced to the audience during an upbeat, choreographed musical number (I wish I had a video of my opening number; I'd never taken a professional dance class a day in my life and it had to be horrific!), followed by a personal interview, evening gown segment, and either swimsuit or, for teens, the new athletic wear segment. (The Miss America pageant system differs in that competitors are required to demonstrate a talent.) All in all, I had a great time competing in pageants and know that people are too quick to judge without a full understanding of the type of camaraderie and mentoring that takes place in the pageant system.
The Miss Teen USA pageant hasn't been televised for years, so many people won't even notice the format change. However, I'm sure that the competitors and pageant organizers will do a great job of making the new athletic wear segment high-energy, entertaining, and a lot of fun. Even so, the lesson remains: Every pageant girl knows it's not what you wear, but how you wear it that really matters.