When the Miss America Organization announced on Tuesday that its namesake contest is eliminating its swimsuit competition, some fans and former contestants alike welcomed the move as a sign of progress and liberation from a mode of judging women on their looks.
The current Miss America 2018, Cara Mund, tweeted “#byebyebikini.”
The news comes as part of a larger change in the pageant’s standards, explained former FOX News anchor Gretchen Carlson, who chairs the Miss America Organization’s board of trustees and was herself crowned Miss America in 1989. “We will no longer judge our candidates on their outward physical appearance,” she said. “It’s going to be what comes out of their mouth that we’re interested in.”
The shift is, as Carlson put it, “huge” — considering events like Miss America have long been commonly known as “beauty pageants.” But, say historians who have studied the evolution of the American pageant industry, the change is very much in keeping with that past.
In fact, though Miss America started specifically as a swimsuit competition, that format was then considered by some to be liberating for participants.
The first such event, held in 1921 in Atlantic City, N.J., was originally conceived as a marketing stunt to keep summer tourists around after Labor Day; it worked, and pageants started being held at other resorts nationwide for the same reason. This was a moment in history when the sportswear industry was booming amid the rise of middle-class leisure time and tourism, which was in part a product of the establishment of the 40-hour work week. It was considered liberating for women to be free to show off bare limbs in a swimsuit, when even a trip to the beach had long required respectable American women to dress modestly.
“In some ways, you could say women were participating in these contests because they saw them as vehicles for a degree of sexual liberation,” says historian Blain Roberts, author of Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth-Century South. “This was a time women were cutting off their hair. Cosmetics were not acceptable before this time period; only actresses and prostitutes wore makeup. These are middle-class women saying, ‘I should be able to wear makeup and go out in public in [shorter clothing] that doesn’t go down to my ankles.’ They are rebelling against Victorian mores saying you have to cover your body.”
Even the tanned skin that endures for some as part of a typical pageant look was part of that larger historical change. The sun-tanned look became considered desirable in the U.S. when the working class began to move from outdoor, agricultural labor to indoor, industrial work. Exposure to the sun no longer implied lower socioeconomic status. At the same time, as middle-class workers began increasingly to enjoy the time and money to take vacation, evidence of fun in the sun began to seem like a good thing. The people who would have been watching or participating in the Atlantic City pageant in 1921 would have been part of that group, eager to make the most of the beach trip and to show off to the world that they’d been on vacation.
“Tanned skin becomes a sign of wealth and leisure,” says Roberts. “It means you’re not inside factory doing work all day long and means you don’t have to do that type of labor.”
Nevertheless, the swimsuit competition caused controversy — controversy that underlines Roberts’ point. It was cancelled from 1928 to 1932 because local community leaders in the Atlantic City area didn’t think it was acceptable for women to stand around in swimsuits. As Roberts points out, there’s a certain irony to the idea that “conservative religious ministers were condemning these women [in the pageant] and saying these feminist women are rebelling against who they should be.”
So in some ways, Roberts argues, the end of the swimsuit competition is actually the continuation of a pattern. The Miss America Organization, like other such groups, has repeatedly reframed its programming to deflect criticism that it’s just a beauty contest. In 1935, the talent portion was added. Along with the college scholarships that started being awarded in 1945, under innovative director Lenora S. Slaughter, the organization made an effort to attract proper, respectable, educated women.
Starting in 1947, right around when the bikini was invented, no two-piece swimsuits were allowed, explains Hilary Levey Friedman, an expert on beauty pageants and Miss America competition and a sociologist who’s a visiting professor of Education at Brown University. (That changed when Miss America 1998 Kate Shindle wore a two-piece; ever since then, Miss Americas have worn a bikini.) As fashion and society moved ahead of the Miss America rules, the modest swimsuits that had once seemed like a sign of modernity started to seem like the opposite.
“All of those things that were at first possibly sources of liberation become constricting,” as Roberts puts it, when women felt as if they were becoming expected to wear their makeup, hair and swimsuits a certain way. On a macro level, as more platforms emerged for women to make a statement with something other than their looks, the more the purpose of such a pageant came into question.
The moment perhaps most emblematic of that change came fifty years ago with the 1968 protest of Miss America. On Sept. 7 of that already tumultuous year, more than 400 feminists stormed the boardwalk throwing bras in “Freedom Trash Cans.” While it was widely reported that they burned the bras, that didn’t happen because starting a fire on the boardwalk was illegal — but the protest did burn the image of feminists as bra-burners into the minds of many.
But, while the protesters didn’t succeed in killing off the contest, Friedman points out that their message clearly resonated, even among contestants. For example, Miss America 1974 Rebecca Ann King decided to use her scholarship money to go to law school. “I think the Miss America program is moving along, looking for another kind of woman,” King, who had been Miss Colorado, told Barbara Walters at the time. The Sep. 24, 1973, issue of TIME described the pageant that year as “consciousness-raised” and King as “one of a new breed.” Viewers were especially surprised that she didn’t cry when she won. “When her sister said she expected to see Becky cry only on her wedding day, Becky retorted: ‘That’s not a very realistic possibility,’ adding that she might not even get married,” the magazine reported. “Ms. America, an Iowa farmer’s daughter and college graduate, has other plans first, like law school and a juvenile court judgeship.”
In 1989, the platforms requirement was added, in which contestants promote charitable causes. That shift was, in part, a reaction to the first black Miss America Vanessa Williams being forced to give up her crown after photos surfaced showing her posing nude with another woman while working for Penthouse magazine as a photographer’s assistant. By adding the platforms component, the Miss America Organization was showing it was “about women of substance,” as Friedman puts it. (At Miss America 2016, the organization’s chairman apologized to Williams, who had gone on to become an acclaimed actor and recording artist, for the way the organization treated her about 30 years earlier.)
Ratings indicate that Miss America may not be as widely watched as it used to be, but the change in programming could make people more curious to tune in to see what it all means. Friedman argues young people watch television and discuss it on social media with a more critical eye.
“Today’s youth are savvier in questioning media representation, and they know about retouching,” she says. “Young women are much more aware that you don’t roll out of bed and look that way. Before there wasn’t as much of an understanding of that.”
And, while it remains to be seen whether the judges will truly follow through on the promise not to judge women based on their looks, Friedman has a some perspective on that too, as the daughter of Miss America 1970 and a judge of the 2017 Miss America’s Outstanding Teen Pageant in Orlando. She says there’s one outward attribute that judges have long used and that’s unlikely to go away anytime soon: “Does the contestant feel comfortable in their own skin? If you don’t feel good about how you look that will come through.”