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The Pageant Trap: How Miss USA Gets it Wrong


Art Credit: Gerard Girbes

Miss Utah’s non-answer to her onstage question about the gender wage gap during the 2013 Miss USA contest was, quite frankly, a travesty. But what’s worse is that a woman who could have given the answer that 5.5 million viewers needed to hear Sunday night, wasn’t given the opportunity because a pre-constructed standard for what's beautiful probably barred her from the competition.

By what standard is a pageant contestant's beauty measured? Is it by her rock hard abs or how gracefully she floats across a stage in her custom made gown? Yes, looks aren’t everything. But it sends an unspoken message to young women when a specific standard of beauty ends up actually mattering a whole lot.

The Miss USA Competitions and their weighted score values are 25% for Fitness in Swimsuit, 25% for Evening wear, 25% for Personal Interview, and 25% for On-Stage Question. With a combined score value of 50% for articulation, and a combined score value of 50% for fitness and poise, the Miss USA competition is—at least technically—equally about brains and beauty.

But how does it all really play out? While the pageant may be a competition to find the most capable spokeswoman—not necessarily the most beautiful—the danger lies in the judges, coaches, contestants, and audiences potential to rank beauty over brawn before a contestant even has a chance to demonstrate her strength and intelligence.

As a former Miss San Francisco in the Miss America program, I know that the competition year is grueling. The closer one comes to competition day, the easier it is to get sucked into the comparison game—which is always easier to do with looks than with ability. “Who is taller, thinner, tanner and how do I compare?” can make the most confident woman regret she ate a piece of bread or wish she’d put in more hours at the gym. Backstage, contestants drill each other with possible interview questions, practice poses, sneak in a couple hundred crunches, and touch up with yet another layer of spray tan.

But there are some crucial differences between the Miss USA pageant and the Miss America pageant that should not be overlooked. When a colleague asked, "I thought they were essentially the same thing. I mean don't these women traipse around the country fundraising for charities and stuff?" To which my response is, well, yes and no.

While pageants may have these "rights of passage" in common, the Miss America and Miss USA pageants are fundamentally different (not to mention, completely separate!) programs. Miss America is awarded a substantial scholarship award to the college or grad school of her choice ($50,000 this year), while Miss USA's prize includes custom diamond jewelry, a 1-year scholarship to a film academy, haircare products, wardrobe, a luxury apartment during her reign, a modeling portfolio, among others.

It's also worth noting that the Miss America pageant originally began as a scholarship program whereas the Miss USA pageant—currently owned by none other than the (Donald) Trump Organization—was founded by a swimsuit company as a promotional tool. A scholarship vs. clothes and beauty products? When it comes to which pageant is measuring what, you do the math.

While neither program is perfect, Miss Utah definitely had the disadvantage of competing for a pageant program that prioritizes molding a woman's body over nurturing her mind. It's not entirely fair for Miss Utah to receive so much flack for her flub, when she was competing in a glorified swimsuit competition.

If we want the Miss USA competition to start producing contestants who are truly the whole package—beauty and brains—instead of made up models who answer rehearsed lines to predictable questions, let's start with throwing out its perilously unspoken preconceived and exclusive standard of beauty.

(Photo by Gerard Girbes )