The Bikini Contest Is Over, but We Are Living Inside the Beauty Pageant

By Bari Weiss
Ms. Weiss is a staff editor and writer for the Opinion section.
June 5, 2018

Miss America contestants in 2017.CreditTom Gralish/The Philadelphia Inquirer, via Associated Press

On Tuesday morning came the news that the oldest beauty pageant in America is no longer a beauty pageant.

Nearly 100 years after the first Miss America contest took place in Atlantic City — back then, the ladies wore one-pieces closer to burkinis than bikinis — the organization has said so long to the bathing suit competition. “We are not going to judge you on your outward appearance,” said Gretchen Carlson, the chairwoman of the Miss America Organization.

Ms. Carlson is the perfect person to lead Miss America through this transformation. She won the crown herself in 1988 and went on to a career at Fox News, where she laid the groundwork for the #MeToo movement, blowing the whistle on Roger Ailes long before there were headlines about Harvey Weinstein.

Miss America 2.0, as the event has been branded, will be “a competition” — not a pageant, Ms. Carlson said on “Good Morning America.”

“We’re experiencing a cultural revolution in our country, with women finding the courage to stand up and have their voices heard on many issues,” she added.

Only the likes of Piers Morgan would be opposed to a Miss America contest that promises to be more “empowering” and “inclusive.” But saying that women won’t be judged for the way they look is a bit like a Miss Oklahoma or Miss Oregon saying she wishes for world peace.

Getting rid of the bikini contest won’t stop judges — and the rest of the world — from critiquing contestants’ outer beauty. As all women know, that happens even if we are shuffling down the block in old sweats.

The real reason the bikini contest was done away with is that it’s simply too explicit for our euphemistic era, where “strong” is the code word for skinny, and “healthy” for beautiful. Our culture hasn’t stopped objectifying women. We — men and women both — are just getting better at pretending it’s not happening. Ours is the age of Pilates and athleisure, of detoxifying and “wellness,” of organic and biodynamic, of game-ifying weight loss by calling calories points.

Standing up on a stage in stilettos and tiny squares of nylon held up by string is just too gauche for 2018.

Of course, President Trump is the crude outlier here, as he is for so many civilized norms. But far too often when I hear a man describe a woman as “super fit,” my brain substitutes some variation of Mr. Trump’s locker-room talk.

The game is now all about discretion — of insisting you aren’t working hard while you are absolutely gritting your teeth, of telling your date that you just don’t like bread. While men pretend not to judge women for the way they look, we go to great lengths to pretend we don’t care, either.

Contestants in the first Miss America pageant in 1921 lining up in their swimsuits.CreditAssociated Press

And so we blend leaves together and call it “delicious” and “juice” instead of a mealy sludge.

We wear stilts to hike around concrete jungles and lie about how they are anything other than medieval torture devices.

We get the tiny horns on the tips of our fingers and toes painted in shades so subtle that heterosexual men don’t even realize we got them painted at all.

We shell out hundreds of dollars for magic elixirs and oils the size of Theranos Nanotainers that don’t even promise youth but boast that they are “clean.”

We lie under fluorescent lights and hold our thighs open for strips of burning hot wax while we chat about the new season of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

We read about the beauty routines and morning routines and nighttime routines and midday routines of women infinitely more wealthy than we are and then study their social media accounts to see how we might approximate their lives.

We spend hundreds of dollars on makeup that makes it look as if we aren’t wearing any makeup at all.

We muss our hair and pout our lips and Google “best angles” and hold our cameras ever so slightly above our faces.

We practice for future careers in STEM: If I burn 450 calories at Soul Cycle I can totally get away with a little sushi at lunch. Or maybe better go for the sashimi and hold out for a second glass of rosé at dinner?

We give ourselves shots in the stomach that make us want to murder everyone at the office so that one day we can become the boss of that office and have a kid alone at 50 with our frozen eggs.

In the meantime, we brutally assess the facial symmetry of potential mates on dating apps without enough vowels and post pictures of ourselves that our friends have approved via group chat.

We are so much more than this. But we can’t help but get distracted by the whole charade. And we are the women who have the luxury of even thinking about having it all! This is what having it all looks like.

I won’t miss the bikini contest a lick. I haven’t watched Miss America since I was in middle school, and I was incredulous even then. The thought of growing up to be like the women on the screen never crossed my mind. It’s not because I wasn’t ambitious: It’s that I looked at them and felt confident I was a different species. I’m sure the bikinis had something to do with it.

But there was also something strangely honest about it. We are being watched and scrutinized and judged. We are watching and scrutinizing and judging. It is, as Ms. Carlson said, a competition.

Bari Weiss (@bariweiss) is a staff editor and writer for the Opinion section.

About MZR

I am a middle aged man trying to be the best person I can become, make a positive difference in our world, while trying to make sense of my life's journey.
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