My sons — then 3 and 5 — saw their first beauty pageant last summer.
I was a judge at the 2017 Miss America’s Outstanding Teen Pageant in Orlando, and I convinced my husband that this was a great opportunity for the kids to see Disney. I also felt it was good for them to attend because as a parent of boys, I want them to see girls and women celebrated as smart, talented and strong. I felt this was one place to accomplish that.
Originally, I wasn’t sure the boys should attend the competition because I thought it might bore. But it turned out that this pageant — known as Miss America’s little sister — was perfect. The opening number featured the high school-age contestants marching through the auditorium holding their state flags, which are a particular interest of my eldest’s. The evening gown competition was set to music from “Moana” (the soundtrack of the year 2017 if you have children of a certain age). And the talent competition was very strong with entertaining musicians, dancers and singers. Honestly the pageant was about as wholesome as you can get.
Because this pageant is the teen version of Miss America, a swimsuit competition was not included. Contestants wore exercise clothes, which were form fitting, and they had to perform a set exercise routine on stage — first as a small group and then individually. I didn’t give the appropriateness of this phase of competition a second thought when it came to my sons sitting in the audience.
Given the recent announcement that Miss America has eliminated the swimsuit competition, I have been reflecting about whether I would allow my children to watch a pageant that features women in tiny two-piece swimsuits while wearing high heels. I question this as a mom and as a pageant judge — one who also teaches a course on beauty pageants at Brown University. In fact, I have been surrounded by pageant talk my entire life: My mother was Miss America 1970.
So when pondering whether pageants would be more palatable as a mother, I immediately considered that my sons certainly saw just as much skin, and high heels, watching the most recent “Dancing With the Stars: Athletes” season. We tuned in to see some of their favorite athletes from the most recent Olympic Games compete.
Sticking with dance shows, we sometimes watched “Dance Moms” together. It strikes me that these much younger dancers actually wore very revealing costumes, often going so far as to “paint” on abs with makeup (in all honesty, it was the yelling moms that made that show go away for my family!). Many of those girls are still revered by young fans. So the amount of clothes worn in a competition does not seem to be an issue for a large swath of television viewers — especially young girls.
Would I feel differently if I had daughters instead of sons? Actually, I do. With my boys I watch these shows so that they don’t think certain activities are only for girls. If I had a daughter, I would worry about the impact of those very deliberately stylized bodies on how they might view their own bodies. I myself have never had thighs that don’t touch or very toned arms, and being around worlds that value a particular body aesthetic at times made me feel I was inferior. Thankfully having children gave me a profoundly different appreciation for my body.
So is Miss America minus the swimsuits more family-friendly than before? Yes. Eliminating an event that bears no relation to reality (what woman wears six-inch heels to the beach?) will only make it more appropriate for a younger audience. If your children’s bedtime lasts beyond 9 p.m., it’s worth a watch to see how young women display their talent and service (and yes, their overall bodies) to a large audience. Who knows, it may inspire an interest in a new skill or community initiative. But, thankfully, no longer concerns about an inner thigh gap.
But I’m not sure we will see an accompanying increase in Miss America’s viewers. Perhaps we will this September given all the media attention, but beyond that it is unclear. With shows like “Dancing With the Stars” (and “American Idol,” “America’s Got Talent,” “So You Think You Can Dance,” and the list goes on), why tune in to a two-hour special in which you barely get to know the contestants? Though the answer to that question has little to do with high heels and bikinis.
So here is why I wanted to take my boys to Miss America’s Outstanding Teen Pageant: After watching it, my boys and I discussed the winner. We talked about how nice she seemed to be, how she danced up on her toes, and that she was from Alabama. Besides commenting on her pretty dress, her looks were never addressed.
In fact, the winner, Jessica Baeder, was not the skinniest girl in the competition. To some she may not appear to have a traditional pageant figure. That said, she is clearly physically fit. She’s about to start college at West Point, which has rigorous fitness requirements. After her four years at the United States Military Academy Jessica will go on to serve our nation.
I’ll take her as a role model for my young boys, and any girls, any day — and she didn’t have to don a swimsuit to get a college scholarship, or the respect of myself or my boys.
Hilary Levey Friedman teaches in the education department at Brown University, where she has taught a course on beauty pageants. Her mother, Pam Eldred, was Miss America 1970, and Prof. Levey Friedman has judged local, state, and national beauty pageants. She is working on a book, out in 2020, about the links between pageantry and American femininity. She tweets @hleveyfriedman.
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