Article Lead Image

Wikimedia Commons VVFriedman/Twitter Remix by Samantha Grasso

Miss America is getting rid of its swimsuit competition—and not everyone is pleased

Miss America will no longer be judged based on her physical appearance. Or so they say.


Samantha Grasso


Posted on Jun 5, 2018   Updated on Feb 28, 2020, 3:23 pm CST


Miss America‘s swimsuit competition, the very competition that launched the pageant’s inaugural contest, will be no more, according to Miss America Organization chair Gretchen Carlson. Carlson announced the change on Tuesday on Good Morning America, stating that the title of Miss America will no longer be fought for in the form of a pageant, but a “competition,” with the evening gown portion of the contest also being revamped.

“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,'” Carlson said on the program. “So guess what? You don’t have to do that anymore. You’re welcome. Please, come join us.”‘

Carlson, a former Fox News host who sued the station and its late founder Rodger Ailes for sexual harassment, has advocated for the Me Too movement and other women who have experienced sexual harassment themselves. She’s also the first former Miss America to chair the organization—she won the title for Minnesota in 1989, and became chair after emails from the organization’s leadership revealed misogynistic language.

Carlson said she hopes the changes will allow the competition to be open and inclusive of women who might not have felt comfortable participating in the program given the portion that judges women’s physiques. Though the change will take effect by the 2019 competition this September, it’s doubtful that state competitors will be able to cash in on the memo—a majority of the qualifying competitions begin and end this month, while a handful in states New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont, have already held their competitions. The Miss America competitors of 2020 might be more diverse, but 2019’s women might be a group of thin, athletic women who anticipated the swimsuit competition.

Regardless, it’s an effort worth making—while a skim of the competition’s previous competitors shows slightly more racial diversity than what might have been expected 20 years ago, it’s clear that the past decade of winners are not women of size. While the average American woman wears a size 16-18, all of these former Miss Americans were long, thin, and toned at the time of their reign.

Which isn’t to say that the average American woman, nor women of size, strayed from the competition for fear of having their bodies being judged. Potential competitors, much like viewers, could have been turned off from a pageant that still took a woman’s body into account for her overall worth.

Many critics, myself included, have harped about pageants such as Miss America for having a swimsuit contest in the first place. The mere existence of the swimsuit portion negated any sort of larger impact these competitions have, such as supporting women through scholarships or inspiring younger women to make social change, because it meant that a woman’s appearance was still factored into that value.

After Carlson’s announcement, people thrilled with the change shared their approval online, tweeting praise for nixing the swimsuit competition.

Trolls, on the other hand, dismissed Carlson’s announced changes, writing them off as a detriment to the competition itself. If swimsuit-clad women were no longer a part of the competition, they tweeted, neither would their viewership.

The sexist remarks brought ire, with women pushing back on this notion that there’s nothing to be valued of women who aren’t nearly naked.

Meanwhile, a few former Miss America contestants expressed mixed feelings over the loss of the swimsuit competition. While the swimsuit portion promoted the idea of “fitness,” health and fitness are not limited to thin, toned bodies. The ending of this portion will hopefully squash these restrictive misconceptions about what healthy bodies “look” like.

Ironically, even though this exaggerated body ideal was flaunted across American television screens, the swimsuit and evening gown portions reportedly didn’t draw viewers to the competition anyway. According to Carlson, neither part of the program was highly rated, and the Miss America Organization board agreed to do away with both.

But now that we’re addressing women of all sizes being given the space to compete, when can the same be said for gay women, trans women, or women who don’t present as conventionally feminine? What about differently-abled women? Really, how will ending the swimsuit and evening gown portions of the program level the playing field if the competition doesn’t go further out of its way to represent all women?

And while it does surprise me that an institution that represents the perfect red-blooded American woman has nixed the swimsuit competition, being mindful of how young girls and boys perceive women and their bodies within the Me Too movement does not end at addressing the underrepresentation of women with “average” bodies and women of size. If the competition wanted to better humanize all women, the competition would give members of the trans, genderqueer, and nonconforming communities an opportunity to share their passions with mainstream America, too.

There’s much more to be said about the ways in which the competition uses the judging of women for entertainment, but I’m not going to be a spoilsport and altogether dismiss the symbolic and literal change that ending this objectifying portion of the competition may bring. It has the potential to influence a larger cultural shift in the way we value women and their bodies, absolutely.

But, at the same time, it doesn’t go far enough to truly make this a competition of openness and inclusivity that Carlson wants. We can scrap the portions of the competition that judge women’s bodies, but unless the organization consciously recruits from all communities that have been discriminated by their appearances, we very well may just prepare for another lineup of mostly-white, mostly-straight, mostly-thin contestants come September.

Share this article
*First Published: Jun 5, 2018, 3:14 pm CDT