Miss America announced this week they will eliminate the swimsuit and evening gown portions of the pageant. Former Miss America winner Mallory Hagan reflects on the decision.
At 14 years old, I stood devastated on stage as the first runner-up to Miss Teen Alabama.
At that moment, a local volunteer for the Miss America Organization turned me and said, “If you would have just lost 10 pounds, you would have won.”
Lance Armstrong once said, “One boo is louder than a thousand cheers.” Armstrong’s shortcomings aside, he was right.
That one piece of criticism stuck with me — or more specifically, stuck to my thighs — like glue every time I looked in the mirror. My healthy, strong, fit body was suddenly not good enough. It’s a criticism I would carry with me all the way to age 24, when I was crowned Miss America in the 2013 competition, and even after I won the title.
This week, the Miss America pageant announced that it will no longer include the swimsuit portion of the competition, saying that contestants “will no longer be judged on outward physical appearance.” In place of the swimsuit and evening gown portions of the competitions, there will now be an “onstage interactive session” with the judges where contestants will discuss their “social impact initiatives.” This is long overdue and a step in the right direction for the Miss America competition, whose goals include empowering women through leadership, scholarship, and service.
This decision is an emotional one for the long-term volunteers and participants in the Miss America Organization. After all, Miss America started in 1921 as a “bathing beauties” contest on the boardwalk of Atlantic City, and letting go of tradition can be difficult for some. But over the past decade, the relevance of Miss America’s swimsuit portion has been hotly debated among those in the pageant industry. It’s a common question in the contestants’ behind-the-scenes interview portion.
On the one hand, participating in the “Lifestyle and Fitness in Swimsuit” phase of competition can be a catalyst for young women across the United States to learn about health. When I started competing at 13, I knew little about healthy eating (I thought a salad with croutons, cheese, ranch dressing, and bacon was healthy), and it wasn’t until 18 that I learned the correct way to do execute a deadlift. For those who feel empowered to learn about exercise and wellness by the swimsuit competition, I hear you.
But there’s another side to it. My journey to Miss America also created a pretty intense internal battle over my self-image. Someone or something was always reminding me that my body wasn’t good enough. Every fitting for a swimsuit, every hour in the gym, every evening gown I tried on was another reminder. Comments like these were constant:
“Well, the dress will look better when you’re swimsuit-ready.”
“You won’t need Spanx when you lose 5 more pounds.”
“You can’t wear white unless you get rid of that cellulite.”
When I walked onstage in January of 2013 (wearing white, might I add), I may have been confident in my body but I was also mentally exhausted. For six straight months, I had obsessed over swimsuit preparation. For six straight months, I’d spent countless hours working out, counting macronutrients, and feeling unworthy to walk across the stage in a bikini.
I would much rather have put in extra time at work, spent more hours working on social issues that I cared about, or actually enjoyed a meal out with my friends from time to time. There’s nothing wrong with being healthy, but there’s nothing healthy about obsession.
And here’s the other part: Once I actually won, the year I spent fulfilling my duties as Miss America had absolutely nothing to do with how my body looked. Instead, I used my body to bring awareness to the issue of child abuse by advocating on behalf of organizations focused on the issue. I was part of a team that ultimately persuaded Congress to restore $18 million in funding in the 2014 federal budget for child advocacy centers. I traveled from school to school talking with the nation’s kids about STEM education and finding their personal passions. I sat at the bedside of terminally ill children, and I spoke with families of our service members at Walter Reed medical center.
At no point did I think to throw on a bikini to accomplish those things.
And yet the one time I did wear a swimsuit in public (on my day off), my body was plastered across every national media outlet for “gaining weight.” And, like that, the old doubts about my body were back. I still have a hard time shaking the criticisms of my body that came along with doing my job.
The Miss America Organization has been poorly marketed. Miss America is a job, and the competition people see on TV is actually won in the interview room — during a non-televised, press conference-style interview in which judges ask contestants questions about their résumé and a personal essay. Miss America is the girl with personality, confidence, and the ability to articulate a message; the good, charitable work the organization does is overshadowed by bikinis and evening gowns. It’s about time Miss America lets the “beauty pageant” days of yesteryear go.
I don’t want to see young women fretting about fitting into a bikini or enduring comments from people about how they’re 10 pounds too heavy to do vital charitable work. I want to see young women tell me how they have changed their community; share with me what they want to see legislators accomplish in regard to their platform; engage with me on pressing topics of our world.
Miss America is an advocate, a speaker, a scholar. She’s not a bikini model, and it’s high time we showcase that in our telecast, so when the audience hears the brand’s iconic song, “There she is…” — they’ll get it.
Mallory Hagan is a native of Opelika, Alabama, and holds a degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology in advertising, marketing, and communication. In 2012, she became Miss New York before winning the Miss America 2013 competition. Now Hagan is the Democratic nominee for Alabama’s Third Congressional District. She’s a shoe addict, a foodie, and dog mom to Brooklyn, her Maltese.