The original Miss America beauty pageant in 1921 was a contest whose purpose was to sell newspapers and bring tourism to Atlantic City during the dwindling summer. While present-day pageants continue the longstanding tradition of celebrating women, they also provide a platform for female empowerment (especially when a female active-duty Air Force officer or female scientist is crowned). Many of today’s classic beauty pageants have adapted their formats over time, including swapping the swimsuit segment for evocative interviews. In fact, Miss Universe 2022 marked the first time in history that married women and mothers could participate; as of 2024, there is no upper age limit for contestants. To many, beauty pageants are more than just a competition, though they do cultivate the idea that there is a standard upon which beauty can be judged. Either way, America is still enthralled by the glitz, the glam and the scandal surrounding pageantry.
Should we cheer for the continuation of the beauty pageant establishment or call for its demise?
Long Live Beauty Pageants
They endorse sportsmanship and hard work
The mental determination and physical stamina of beauty pageant contestants are on par with any athlete. Training is essential, with online prep classes available or the Beauty Pageant Academy, which drill the skills and poise needed to compete. In the same way that cheerleading has been defined a sport, beauty pageant contestants are no strangers to long, grueling days of training in public speaking, how to compose oneself on stage and in interviews, plus hours spent on developing and honing a particular talent and physically keeping in competitive shape. Plus, the fact that the Miss America Organization has restructured itself and, since 2019, officially refers to itself as a competition that doesn’t judge its contestants on their physical appearances suggests a more sportsman-like nature.
They open doors to opportunity
Beauty pageants enable contestants to reach for so much more than a crown. The Miss America Foundation is the only foundation in the United States that pays off college debt. Coupled with the scholarships awarded by various pageants themselves, which began at $5,000 in 1921 and more recently soared to a $50,000 scholarship, the pageant industry has opened doors for women across America and the world. Some past Miss Universe winners have gone on to successful modeling, acting, entrepreneurial careers as well as non-profit work. Past Miss USA winner Gretchen Carlson used her crowned victory to launch an esteemed broadcast journalism career before being named chairwoman of the Miss America Organization’s board in January 2018. (She stepped down in June 2019). Competing in a beauty pageant teaches women never be afraid to set a goal, to be driven and at the very least, to be a gracious loser.
They give a voice to all women
Beauty pageants give an inclusive voice to diverse women everywhere, especially as contestants come from all different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds and even bring certain disabilities to the world stage. In fact, the new owner of the Miss Universe brand (its first-ever transgender female owner) says she wants to revamp it to uplift all women, including those from LGBTQ communities. Plus, many feel that these pageants embody feminism, which promotes women’s freedom and right to choose how to live their lives without being judged, including choosing to stand on stage and compete for a beauty pageant title. And what they do with their stage during and afterwards can be enlightening and empowering for other women. Look at former Miss America winner Camille Schrier, who did a science experiment on stage for her talent. She has now made science look cool and possible for girls and young women. Also, Miss Pennsylvania 2016, Valerie Gatto, self-identified on stage as a “product of rape” and has since used her title to educate others on sexual assault. Miss World 1998, Linot Abargil, also shed the world’s spotlight on rape. Meanwhile, during the 2018 Miss Peru pageant, contestants stated statistics about domestic violence instead of their measurements, choosing to focus the conversation on this real-world issue to promote global awareness to help combat it.
Let’s Call an End to Beauty Pageants
They feed unhealthy obsessions
In a society that pushes for body acceptance and self-love, beauty pageants cultivate the exact opposite ideals. For instance, in the 1930s, when beauty pageants were in full swing, the average Body Mass Index (BMI) of a contestant was 20.8, which is mid-range of a healthy BMI. However, in 2010, the average BMI of a contestant dropped to 18.9, which is low and therefore runs the risk of an unhealthy contestant. Coupled with statistics that 26% of surveyed contestants have reported being perceived to have an eating disorder, 48.5% have reported wanting to be thinner and 6% of contestants have reported having depression, beauty pageants can be viewed as feeding insecurities and real health risks for contestants. The pressure to attain and maintain such unrealistic body standards is also dangerous for non-contestants, as there is a clear disconnect between the BMI of the average viewer and that of contestants, whom they try but fail to emulate.
They have a pervasive culture of abuse
In December of 2017, emails from Miss America Beauty Pageant CEO Sam Haskell were leaked, revealing an emotionally damaging and degrading a culture its contestants were exposed to. The emails revealed that contestants were described as cattle and being judged offstage for their sexuality, among other debasements. While former Miss America 2013 Mallory Hagan expressed relief that the public could finally understand just how dehumanizing the culture had always been, former Miss America 1998 Kate Shindle told TODAY, “You can apologize for the bad words or the bad statements, but it’s so clear that there’s a pervasive culture of abuse.” Even after overhauling the management of the Miss America Organization following the 2017 scandal, complaints of abuse still apparently remain. Miss America 2018 Cara Mund has reported being bullied by new management, which is now composed of women.
They encourage wasting money on a pipe dream
Competing in beauty pageants can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Sure, potential contestants are lured in with promises of earning money from sponsors, scholarships and prizes, but between entry fees ($300-$500), gowns ($500-$5000) and coaching (upwards from $100 an hour), the money invested in competing professionally could perhaps be better used to expand contestants’ educational opportunities and improve their current living situations. There’s also the risk of falling victim to beauty pageant scams. The Better Business Bureau has received over 10,000 inquiries over the years, chasing false advertising from Beauty Pageants.
The Bottom Line: Beauty pageants are an opportunity to be seen and heard, and a chance at something more while obtaining valuable life skills. While they certainly put women center stage, not all the attention is good attention. Do beauty pageants have a place in our society for empowerment or should we bid them and their negative attributes farewell? Do you watch any beauty pageants?
Co-written by Rachel Segal