The Miss America pageant has altered its standards several times over the years--embracing intellectual heft and wonkery over drop-dead beauty, for instance, and permitting pants and bare feet in addition to gowns and spike heels.

But this time, officials may have gone too far.

Yesterday the pageant's executive director said he would delay implementing new eligibility rules that many feared would bring widespread moral turpitude to the annual contest, now underway in Atlantic City.

The Associated Press reported Monday that pageant officials had decided to break with nearly 50 years of tradition and, starting next year, no longer require the hopeful misses to stipulate that they had never been married or pregnant. The move would have opened the door for divorcees and women who have had abortions, thereby dispatching the veneer of virginity that glossed the pageant all these years.

After state pageant directors received copies of the new rules in August, they went to court to fight the change, complaining that such contestants would ruin the event and endanger hundreds of thousands of dollars from sponsors.

Yesterday the pageant's chief executive, Robert L. Beck, agreed to postpone the changes pending talks with state officials, who run the feeder pageants that provide the contest's 51 competitors.

"We have agreed to engage in a dialogue with our franchisees to explore possible alternatives that ensure we are compliant with applicable law and consistent with the traditional values associated with Miss America," said Beck in a statement.

He said the board had decided to change the rules after a review showed the contract might not comply with current anti-discrimination law--as if Miss America needed some sort of legal face lift before sashaying into the next century.

Miss America 1993 said she was shocked--shocked!--when she heard about the suggested change.

"I was like, 'What?' Out of all the things I could have expected, that is one I wouldn't think of in a million years," said Leanza Cornett, who now hosts a show on Lifetime television.

"There are still little girls out there who have held Miss America and others like her up on a pedestal," she said. "When you're sitting around the dinner table with your daughter or your little niece, it'll bring up so many questions."

The outcry seemed to overlook the fact that under the new rules, contestants would not divulge their romantic histories or the issue thereof.

If a girl--and contestants are always called "girls"--kept her smile firmly in place and her lips firmly zipped, no one would be the wiser.