Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
For decades, women competing in the “Miss America” contest donned skimpy swimsuits and heels and paraded on the national stage — before TV cameras and millions of men and women, boys and girls across America – turning carefully so judges could inspect their bodies from every angle.
No more. On Tuesday, Miss America Cara Mund tweeted a video of a white bikini going up in smoke.
In an interview on “Good Morning America,” Gretchen Carlson, chairwoman of the organization’s board of directors, announced the event will no longer feature a swimsuit competition and contestants will be able to wear “whatever they choose” during the evening gown contest. “We will no longer judge our candidates on their outward physical appearance. That’s huge,” she said.
It is. But so is the larger problem it is trying to chip away at.
It can’t be coincidence that the changes were made now, when for the first time the Miss America Organization is being run exclusively by women. The women took over after previous leaders were accused of making inappropriate comments about the sex lives and weights of contestants.
And the decision must feel like special vindication for Carlson, who competed in the swimsuit competition herself before being crowned Miss America in 1989. Some 27 years later, Carlson received a $20 million settlement and an apology from 21st Century Fox after she accused former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes of sexual harassment.
Ailes was a major supporter of President Donald Trump, who has used beauty pageants (he co-owned Miss Universe, Miss USA and Miss Teen USA) to achieve his business goals around the world — and boasted that he could walk in on contestants, naked in their dressing rooms (“I’m allowed to go in because I’m the owner of the pageant and therefore I’m inspecting it”).
This is the larger context — and ongoing challenge – against which Carlson and the Miss America Organization have made their revolutionary move. It is #MeToo time, and so it is high time for Miss America, which bills itself as “one of the nation’s leading achievement programs for young women” – to stop being all about beauty and sex appeal.
But while women everywhere can certainly celebrate this retrograde institution catching up with the country’s cultural moment, the truth is society as a whole hasn’t quite made this leap. In short, the problem with judging women based on their appearances didn’t go up in smoke with that white bikini.
Indeed, women remain more assiduously regarded and judged than men based on their personal appearances in everyday life.
In a 2015 study, for example, a researcher at the University of Cincinnati found that, when people look at pictures of women and men, they gaze at the women for longer amounts of time.
The media reinforces this emphasis and, despite noble pushback from institutions like Miss America, it is literally everywhere you look. Last year when human rights attorney Amal Clooney went to the United Nations to warn the world about a genocide in Iraq, Time magazine tweeted, “Amal Clooney shows off her baby bump at the United Nations.”
Even so-called feminists do it. In her best-selling book “The Female Eunuch,” Germaine Greer wrote that women want “freedom from being the thing looked at rather than the person looking back.” But that didn’t stop Greer from disparaging Meghan Markle’s “cow turd hat” in an interview last month. Men rarely get such treatment.
This petty emphasis on women’s looks rather than accomplishments isn’t just inappropriate, it also promotes gender inequality and makes it harder for women to compete with men.
In her memoir, Hillary Clinton complained about “how much effort it takes just to be a woman in the public eye.” She calculated that she spent a total of 25 DAYS in a hair and makeup chair during her 2016 presidential election campaign. That’s time she wasn’t out campaigning in swing states.
It’s also cuts into women’s income. A 2017 Groupon study found that, over the course of a woman’s lifetime, she’ll spend over a quarter of a million dollars more than a man on her appearance — spurred on by a vast fashion and beauty industry whose stock in trade is the canard that a woman’s worth is tied directly to how good she can make herself look.
Focusing on women’s bodies rather than their contributions to society is also, of course, deeply unhealthy. It can help explain why women are twice as likely to be depressed as men, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Among teens, for example, negative body image is a key driver of depression, anxiety and suicide.
So it is great that the Miss America contest isn’t going to overtly judge women based on their bodies anymore. But, to fix the bigger problem, all of us need to demand that our other cultural institutions do the same—and slowly push back the sexist tide that continues to wash over our culture.
And on a personal level, we can all follow the ethos of the Miss America competition, and make a conscious effort to start looking more at what women are contributing to the world, and less at what they’re wearing.
This article is updated from an earlier version, which included an incorrect Editor’s Note.