Last week’s presidential debate had Donald Trump facing one of his long-buried controversies named Alicia Machado. Ms. Machado is a former Miss Venezuela who once wore the crown of Miss Universe. She was threatened with losing her job if she didn’t lose the weight she had gained after the pageant. I followed pageantry back in 1996 and even then, I was outraged by the humiliation Trump piled on this young woman, summoning the press to attend and tape her workouts for air, to photograph the body he so callously shamed, all for publicity for his multibillion dollar empire.
Fat-shaming wasn’t a common term back then, but it existed and it was, not surprisingly, prevalent in pageantry. In 1997, less than one year after the Alicia Machado “scandal,” a raven-haired Hawaiian woman named Brook Lee stood on the Miss USA stage. She made it to the top three and during the final question, she was asked about the plight of her predecessor. Ms. Lee spoke of the qualities that she believed earned Machado the international crown – and not one of them was her weight. Ms. Lee was greeted by deafening applause by an audience that appeared to be in full support of her defense of Machado. She went on to win the Miss USA crown and was subsequently crowned Miss Universe later that year.
Still, nothing changed. The week after Lee was crowned, in part for her eloquent defense of Machado, pageants were held all over the country and they weren’t just products of the Miss Universe Organization. The Miss America Organization — a completely different entity, not affiliated with Miss USA or Miss Universe — continued the swimsuit competition in local and state pageants in communities in every state, and no one so much as flinched.
Sometime over the next 20 years, there was a shift in society. People came to understand the damage that is done by shaming young, impressionable women for not being the skinny supermodels we had come to praise. Pageantry, however, didn’t catch up. The Miss Universe Organization still touts a mission of helping women feel confident in themselves, despite the fact that only those deemed beautiful enough will ever wear the glittery crown. For a pageant with roots in the modeling industry, that isn’t completely absurd.
The Miss America Organization, however, is a little more of a head-scratcher. As a former contestant on the local and state levels, I can say without a doubt that it’s a wonderful organization full of selfless volunteers who dedicate their time and efforts to securing the dreams of the contestants. Had it not been for the Miss America Organization, I never would have polished the skills necessary to launch a career in television news, or the confidence to pursue medical school, or become a part of a sisterhood of friendship with the women I met.
During the private interview portion of the competition, I had prepared to answer panelists’ questions about my community service endeavors and personal platform of child abduction prevention, along with questions about federal legislation restricting the rights of predators released to the community, the benefits and consequences of campaign finance reform, and U.S. foreign policy in relation to the Bosnian civil war (it was the 90s). In talent, I performed Victor Borge’s “Punctuation.” And at some point during the night, I sported a one-piece and walked across the stage in an annoying exercise in vanity.
I say annoying because while the Miss Universe winner typically gets endorsements and modeling jobs, the Miss America Organization brands itself a scholarship organization, promoting the importance of education and community service. Why a swimsuit competition was ever necessary to fund a scholar is beyond me, but it continued because of tradition; the Miss America pageant began in 1921 as a bathing beauty competition to extend the tourist season on the shores of Atlantic City, after all. But at some point, it becomes time for tradition to give way to evolution.
Society has evolved since the 1920s and the pageant has struggled to find its relevance in the contemporary world for decades. Mistakes have been made by those in charge, sometimes with serious consequences such as losing a network contract, but perhaps the biggest piece of entertainment malpractice has been amplifying the mission of scholarly empowerment and, at the same time, continuing to embrace the swimsuit competition while the rest of world acknowledges the flaw in standardizing superficial attributes of beauty.
Surprisingly, this year, the Miss Universe Organization’s Miss Teen USA pageant was the first to get rid of swimsuits. Of course, the decision was an easier one to make as Miss Teen USA is no longer televised and, as a result, no consideration is given to the affect on ratings. Ratings are important, there’s no doubt about that. But pageantry, in general, is not drawing the same audience share it once did, partially due to the multiplicity of entertainment options. There’s also a certain hypocrisy illustrated by the Miss America Organization’s dichotomy in billing itself as the world’s largest scholarship provider for women while profiting from the tawdry tradition of bathing beauties strutting across the stage in high heels. That hypocrisy, veiled in the promotion of health and fitness, is lethal to the claim of relatability. If Miss America truly wants to prove the organization is relatable and relevant, one way to do that would be by pioneering the concept, in the pageant world, that adult women are much more than a swimsuit body. If the women who compete on that fabled stage are taught and encouraged to be leaders, then the organization should follow suit and lead a charge against the notion that weight, whether high or low, defines a woman’s ability to serve as a national spokesperson for an organization that emphasizes, above all else, education and service to others.
Then, and only then, will the humiliation of women like Alicia Machado be condemned with the disgust it deserves, even without the fuel provided by the divisiveness of a presidential election year.