The Miss America Organization announced this month that they will no longer be functioning as a pageant, and will instead be a competition. This means the swimsuit event will be eliminated and the evening gown competition will now allow contestants to wear whatever “makes them feel confident, expresses their personal style, and shows how they hope to advance the role of Miss America.”
According to chairwoman Gretchen Carlson, they “will no longer judge [their] candidates on their outward physical appearance.” This reflects our current culture of body positivity, inclusivity, and female empowerment, but it’s quite a big step for the organization. Carlson also said, “We’re experiencing a cultural revolution in our country with women finding the courage to stand up and have their voices heard on many issues. Miss America is proud to evolve as an organization and join this empowerment movement.”
But is it empowering? Not everyone agrees.
You would think all candidates and women would rejoice, but that’s not the case. Miss Utah said, “I have never felt more confident, beautiful and empowered as I have in the swimsuit and evening gown portions.” While Miss California told the LA Times, “Walking out in a bikini before a crowd cheering your name gave me a rush and sense of courage I never thought possible.”
This begs the question: is strutting around in a bikini (or taking a #bikinisselfie) empowering, or is it hurting the cause? There is a surprisingly big division in the opinion.
What about sexy bikini selfies?
Is strutting around on a pageant stage in a bikini or posting a sexy bikini selfie feminist in nature—proof that we’re in control of our own bodies and should proudly flaunt them? Or are they evidence of the fact that we’re highlighting our physical attributes instead of all the other things we have to offer?
Sure, we should all have the right to do what we want with our bodies, and to show them off (or not show them off) as we please. But our sexy selfies seem to stem from a need for external validation. Many women claim that the images they post of their bodies are empowering and a testament to the strides we’ve made. The image above is Kendall and Kylie Jenner’s Instagram post, clearly eliciting a sexual response. The image doesn’t even show their faces, where they are, or anything they’re doing or have to say. It’s purely posted for physical accolades. When we’re posting for likes and comments (often from men), and our definition of “sexy” is fairly narrow (and traditionally determined by men), who’s really in power?
It’s a slippery debate.
A quick history of Miss America
Since the very first group of women strutted on the Atlantic City boardwalk in the inaugural Miss America in 1921, the swimsuit competition has been a part of the pageant. Over the years, the relatively conservative one-pieces have evolved into bikinis, but the swimsuits have been a mainstay of the annual competition—until now.
This isn’t a sudden decision, however. For decades now, there have been calls for Miss America—both from inside and outside the organization—to update the nature of the competition. For years the organization has grappled with the inconsistencies between its purpose and its execution: empowering women’s education and professional lives through scholarships, while obligating them to wear bikinis in order to be eligible. This move to eliminate swimsuits and give contestants more freedom with what they choose to wear is a significant change, but it’s been a long time coming for the now female-led organization.
Is the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue next?
Miss America’s change isn’t the first of its kind. either. Miss World got rid of the swimsuit portion of its competition in 2014, and Miss USA followed suit (excuse the pun) in 2016. It’s clear that there’s been a ripple effect in recent years: organizations and corporations are catching up to the cultural conversation. In February, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue—whose purpose is to feature beautiful, sexy women in beachwear—gave a nod to the ongoing women’s movement by having its models write words on their bodies that express who they are beyond their looks. A couple of months later, PEOPLE renamed its “Most Beautiful” issue “The Beautiful Issue.”
While these moves may be a step in the right direction, what impact do they really have on female empowerment? What do words written on a model’s body in permanent ink or the renaming of a list of conventionally beautiful people achieve within the larger social movement? At the end of the day, the sole purpose of these publications is to sell copies using sexualized images of women. Let’s not pretend that this trend of companies jumping on the female empowerment bandwagon is anything more than a well-timed PR stunt.
How about posting naked photos?
One step above the sexy selfie, nude or nearly nude photos (some done artistically and others, not so much) are all over our social media feeds. Are these empowering? Sure, we should be proud of our bodies—their resilience and strength, especially—and yes, our bodies are all beautiful. But if we want to live in a world that sees us as more than sexual objects, should we present ourselves to the world as sexual objects? To be honest, I really don’t know the right answer.
Model Emily Ratajkowski is not only the queen of Instagram posts that leave little to the imagination, she’s also known for her feminist advocacy and views on sexuality. The model, who has 18 million followers on Instagram, is very vocal about her belief that her sexy photos—and all women’s sexy photos—are feminist in nature. That a woman being confident in her body and presenting her body to the public sexually is in fact an act of power.
Again, I agree that Emily and any other woman who wants to post naked photos should absolutely have the right to. And I think it’s great that they’re sharing their own images to their audiences on their own terms. But I’m not convinced that these images really further the feminist movement in any meaningful way. As editor Charlie Hale put it, “is a peachy bottom and a lace wedgie really the most effective vessel to get across a feminist message?”
What does it all mean?
Miss America’s elimination of its swimsuit competition and magazines’ focus on being more inclusive and body positive (whether for PR reasons or not) are steps in the right direction. But there’s such a long way to go. And in order to truly be where we want to be in terms of female empowerment, we have to take a critical look at our own behaviors.
It’s not enough for a model to feel empowered by posting a nude photo. Most of us don’t feel represented or emboldened by models on Instagram. In fact, many of the stereotypes we’re working to move away from are perpetuated by this prevalence of sexualized women. Can we really demand to be seen as strong, complex human beings instead of sexual objects, when we’re the ones portraying ourselves as sexual objects?
What do you think? Tell us in the comments!
Feature image from Kendall Jenner’s Instagram.
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