The unthinkable has happened. Miss America, the iconic 97-year-old beauty contest, has decided to drop the swimsuit round. The organisers are not just going to ask women to stop parading in teeny-weeny bikinis, but have also promised that they will not even — gasp — “judge the participants on appearances”. Even seasoned hucksters make more credible promises, of course. But what has spurred this sudden makeover?
The chair of Miss America, Gretchen Carlson, said this was a way to respond to the #MeToo movement, and evolve at a time of a “cultural revolution” in sexual mores. Carlson, a former winner of the contest, has been a part of that mutiny: She recently sued Fox News CEO Roger Ailes for sexual harassment, leading to his resignation. The sight of women in high heels, walking down the ramps in swimwear, without a pool in sight, might have been a concession to the male gaze too difficult to live down in this day and age. The beauty contest itself seems a naive anachronism today, when women (and men) have willingly offered themselves to be judged on their appearances, on every social media account, from Instagram to Facebook. But for many young women, it is also an opportunity to be seized, a step up the ladder into professions of modelling or fashion. Some fairy tales still begin with a crown —and so be it.
Beauty is skin deep — but pageants also tend to be monotonous even in this celebration of the superficial, with a toxic, constricting idea of the perfect female body that has not changed in decades. So, while honourable in intent, this tweak in format is less of an earthquake than the appearances industry would like you to believe. The lack of a swimsuit round alone is not an affirmation of body diversity. Will Miss America also makes sure it includes women of all skin colours, sizes and appearances — whether or not they are wearing an evening gown or a burqini? An answer that could change the world.