Shortly after winning the Miss America swimsuit competition—and making the top 10 in the pageant overall—I was signed by my first television agent, who was a senior partner at one of the best agencies in the business.
It was 2003, and back then—before Instagram, YouTube, and the sheer volume of reality TV we have now—talent scouts all watched pageants to suss out the next big thing. At 37, I am among the most senior of the millennials. Coming of age in the nineties and early 2000s, before social media existed, a surefire way for a young woman with no celebrity connections to make it on TV and get her voice heard was by having a title like Miss Virginia or Miss New York. Pre-Twitter, the pageant was one of the few remotely feasible outlets that let you “go viral” in a positive way.
Thus, ambitious, talented young women across the country, myself included, saw parading around in high heels and a swimsuit as a semi-inconvenient hurdle to jump over to achieve our life goals. We were future award-winning journalists, rocket scientists, esteemed actors, lifesaving oncologists—and we all thought that spraying our bikinied behinds with “butt glue” to keep wedgies at bay and painting our teeth with Vaseline to keep lip gloss from staining our bright white smiles was a great way to move toward these goals.
Over time, with the rise of social media as a platform, and especially over this past year of #MeToo and Time's Up, that age-old system has officially stopped working—last week the Miss America Organization canceled the swimsuit competition.
"We are no longer a pageant," Gretchen Carlson, the organization's new board of trustees chairwoman, announced. "We are a competition. We will no longer judge our candidates on their outward physical appearance. That's huge."
It is huge. While its clout has been diluted over the years, and despite rebranding efforts, the Miss America title is still synonymous with a beautiful, hot body. Rebuking swimsuits, as Miss America has done, along with nixing the evening gown competition, means that essentially the original purveyor of American beauty standards is saying #EffYourBeautyStandards.
It is an unexpected enigma, to say the least, and I welcome it wholeheartedly.
When I competed for Miss America 15 years ago, 10.3 million viewers watched ABC as I was called into the top 10 (about 5.6 million watched last year’s show). As I tottered gingerly on high heels that I never fully managed to dominate, Bachelorette sweethearts Trista Rehn and Ryan Sutter excitedly told the audience that I had won the preliminary swimsuit competition, which to the world meant that I had the best body in my group.
I did not, not by a long shot. In preparation for the pageant, I lost over 50 pounds during my senior year at Harvard, where I majored in women’s studies and wrote my junior thesis on minorities in the Miss America Pageant. While I looked great, even my youthful 21-year-old skin hadn’t fully snapped back from the weight loss without some sagginess. Nor did my weight loss cure my self-esteem issues—I hated my body as I walked that stage, a fraught discovery that became the impetus for my career as the best-selling author of photography-driven health books Pregnancy, OMG! and Body Drama, which feature tons of un-air-brushed images of women of all body types.
And I definitely didn’t have the best walk; in fact, I stumbled and nearly fell on the nationally televised Miss America stage—a nightmare fuel that haunted my dreams for months.
What I did have, however, was the “best” #thinspo story, which I honed for months with an interview coach who reminded me constantly that the Miss America swimsuit competition was won “from the neck up.” (Meaning that if the judges liked me in my interview and wanted me to do well in the pageant, they’d be more forgiving of the spray tan streaks and stretch marks.)
When the time came, I squeezed into a perfectly tailored $400 gold-plated sunshine-yellow size zero bikini and pranced around the stage for about 20 seconds in heels purchased from a quirky Manhattan store that seemed to cater exclusively to drag queens and pageant girls. My performance was enough to snatch that coveted diamond-shaped Lucite award and $2,000, which was, ironically, about half of what I had spent on personal training, spray tanning, seaweed wraps, and body waxing to get my body “swimsuit ready” for the Miss America stage.
Despite my many substantive accomplishments since, even today as a grown woman with a legit mom bod who rocks an XL bathing suit, I am often introduced to new people, whether in auditions or at wine nights with friends as “a beauty queen.”
I didn’t just win a onetime swimsuit award; I had won a lifetime of societal acceptance.
I am extremely proud of how I’ve used my smidgen of social capital to stand at the forefront of the body-positivity movement and help many women, and myself in the process, find self-acceptance. During my reign as Miss Virginia, I marched for choice, performed in The Vagina Monologues, and visited countless schools across the state, where I spoke to thousands of young women and men about a variety of topics important to me, including the then revolutionary concept that feminism wasn’t a dirty word and that boys could be feminists too.
The only reason any of these kids listened to me was because I had a crown on my head, the 2003 version of 150,000 Instagram followers. Would I have been just as successful as I am in my adulthood even if “Miss Virginia” and “swimsuit winner” weren’t in the first paragraph of my biography? The answer is probably no. But for this next generation of young, ambitious women, it’s different.
Time is up for the pedestaling of an individual based on looks. I recount my experience not to lambast the Miss America pageant of yesteryear but to showcase how far the organization has come.
Options to inspire and motivate young people have expanded infinitely. We don’t need a Miss America anymore—the many screens we are tethered to show us a diverse array of wonderful female role models like Tarana Burke, Issa Rae, Gabi Fresh, Michelle Obama…the list goes on and on.
Time is up for the pedestaling of an individual based on looks. I recount my experience not to lambast the Miss America pageant of yesteryear but to showcase how far the organization has come. The first Miss America was crowned in 1921, a mere 11 months after American (white) women gained the right to vote. Increasingly, the nearly 100-year-old event, which started as an Atlantic City tourist draw, has often seemed like a societal anachronism, flying in the face of each new wave of feminism. But it is important to not discount the fact that the diversity of its 91 winners is evidence of its incremental and meaningful evolution. Long before the commercialization of the body-positivity movement and corporate-mandated inclusive advertising, back when the peach crayon in the box was almost always called “flesh,” the Miss America pageant introduced the world to the idea that deaf women, black women, women with short hair, Asian women, opinionated women, children of immigrants, and more could all be considered "beautiful" and "successful" on a global scale. For hundreds of thousands of women from all walks of life, the pageant’s influence on beauty ideals, while nowhere near perfect (considering the limited range of body types), was and remains mind-boggling powerful.
Even if Miss America’s rallying cry for a new era of equality turns out to be a swan song for the competition at large, they have determined that it is better to go out in flames on the right side of history, and this is an honorable and brave call.
The loss of a tradition is worth a future of possibility.
GLAAD-award-nominated on-air personality Nancy Redd is the best-selling author of the new book Pregnancy, OMG!, the first-ever diverse photographic guide for expecting women. Nancy’s other books include Body Drama and Diet Drama. Two weeks after graduating from Harvard with a degree in women’s studies, she won the title of Miss Virginia and became a preliminary swimsuit winner at Miss America 2003. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children.