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Miss America's Overdue Makeover Is a Win for Our Daughters

The nearly 100-year-old beauty pageant is eliminating various aspects of the contest that many feel objectify women. Here's what that means for our girls.

Miss America 2018 Donald Kravitz/Getty Images for Dick Clark Productions

In 2021, the Miss America competition will turn 100, and with that milestone just a few short years away, the beauty pageant has undergone a headline-making transformation. The contest will no longer feature a swimsuit competition or an evening gown portion, and contestants won't be judged on looks, the organization announced on Tuesday, June 5.

Instead of being judged on how they look in skimpy bikinis, the contestants will take part in a live interactive session with the judges. They'll also be encouraged to wear attire that makes them feel confident and expresses their personal style, and they'll discuss how they will advance their chosen causes, called "social impact initiatives" by the Miss America Organization.

Of the major shift, Gretchen Carlson, chairwoman of the Miss America Organization, told Good Morning America, "We are no longer a pageant. We are a competition." Carlson elaborated, "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. 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 changes may seem gasp-worthy, the organization celebrates their ability to transform with time, stating on the competition's website:

"On August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified, granting women in America the right to vote. The next year in September 1921, Margaret Gorman of Washington, D.C., made history as the inaugural Miss America. With every major milestone in our nation’s history, Miss America has evolved with our society, serving as a voice for women’s empowerment when it was uncommon for women to be vocal; promoting women’s education at a time when women were discouraged from joining the workforce; and serving as a champion for Civil Rights and HIV/AIDs awareness when each were deemed controversial. Time and time again, history has been made from the Miss America stage."

Nonetheless, this is one seriously overdue makeover for the self-described scholarship organization.

But will be impactful? The show isn't really the relevant entertainment juggernaut it may have once been. Miss America's ratings these days are pretty low, especially when compared to its hey day. (In 1954, 27 million people tuned in, whereas 5-7 million have watched in recent years.) Not to mention the fact that in 2018, girls are likely influenced far more by Instagram and YouTube stars, reality shows, and their own friends on social media than an old school beauty pageant. 

That said, it's still a part of societal fabric, something American girls grow up seeing—if not literally on TV, then peripherally, learning from a very young age that such a competition exists.

And while growing up surrounded by unrealistic beauty standards, they're suffering. A recent report from child advocacy Common Sense Media found that more than half of girls think their ideal weight is thinner than their current size. And by age 7, one in four kids has engaged in some kind of dieting behavior. Seeta Pai, vice president of research for Common Sense Media and author of the report, told CNN, "I think there's a lot of talk about teens and body image, and many parents become aware of that when kids hit puberty, but kids as young as 5 are already expressing a desire for a body that is thinner than their current self or future self."

This unnerving reality stems from a variety of factors, including how parents talk about their own bodies. But seeing that society is cool with a contest in which women with homogeneously slim, tan bodies—in bikinis nonetheless—are judged by their physical appearance certainly doesn't help. (Not to mention that contestants themselves were suffering as a result of unrealistic beauty standards. Research on beauty pageants in general found over a quarter of participants were coping with an eating disorder.) 

Jaclyn Mellone, a mindset and marketing mentor, speaker, co-host of the All Up In Your Lady Business podcast, and a mom acknowledges, "Young girls watch events like the Miss America pageant and start to believe that in order to be on stage, to be heard and recognized, and to be deemed the 'winner' they need to look a certain way. These beliefs consciously and subconsciously are carried into adulthood and can hold women back from putting themselves 'out there' to make an impact if they don't feel they fit into a certain mold."

Now, our daughters will grow up knowing that Miss America is chosen not because of how she looks but for her "passion, intelligence, and overall understanding of the job," which is inherently a leadership position. They'll hear contestants sharing well-laid game plans for achieving socially-conscious goals. They'll hopefully see contestants with all different body types and shapes, rocking the kind of wardrobe choices that women wear when entering a boardroom or running for office. 

Mellone believes Miss America 2.0 will "open up the minds of our girls as to what success and making an impact truly looks like." And for that reason, she's excited to share the new iteration with her 5-year-old. "As she starts to discover her own talents, explore her own passion and find her ambition, these contestants have the opportunity to be positive role models," she says. "Let's face it, sometime they need to hear these things from someone other than Mom to actually pay attention!"

That's the thing. No matter how relevant Miss America was yesterday, today, and tomorrow, our daughters are always paying attention. So, knowing that, going forward, competition will be doing better by them is definitely something to celebrate.