Plenty has changed from the Miss America pageant's humble beginnings on the Atlantic City boardwalk in 1921, where the first winner was awarded the title of "Golden Mermaid." My beloved dance teacher from decades ago was a Miss America finalist, and today her same sweet personality shines through the same lovely face that catapulted her to the top of pageant circles from a small town in the Midwestern United States. As a talented dancer and natural beauty, she had what the judges were seeking to be crowned a winner in one of the most highly competitive states in the nation within the Miss America pageant circuit. She excelled at all forms of dance and for competition chose a lyrical routine to a patriotic song with strong religious references. She has continued to maintain her commitment to her Christian faith in years since. Smaller states offer few opportunities for their winners throughout the year, but her year was filled with continual speaking and performing engagements. She went on to become one of the most famous dance choreographers of her genre and still travels internationally to teach at conventions. Her pageant activities captivated my interest at a young age and laid a foundation for my attention to fashion trends that influences my work today. Her mother was also a role model for me, especially in respect to how well she and her daughter worked together at their family dance studio. Their good relationship was legendary in my community and attracted families to enroll their daughters in classes for the influence of seeing that mother-daughter relationship in action.
Though I grew up with a relative respect for modesty in dress, it was not until a few years after my dance teacher competed in Miss America that I began to learn more about the combination of modesty and femininity as it is represented through Bible verses such as I Timothy 2:9-10, "Likewise the women are to dress in suitable apparel, with modesty and self-control. Their adornment must not be with braided hair and gold or pearls or expensive clothing, but with good deeds, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God" (NET Bible). At age fifteen, I switched to a studio that taught ballet only, partly because pageant fame had drawn my favorite teacher away from town, but also because I preferred ballet above the other dance forms taught in combination at the previous studio. Never did it occur to me to enter a pageant myself, perhaps because of my greater interest in the discipline of ballet, an elegant art form that requires athletic excellence. Eventually, involvement with a high school program that discouraged dance led me away from formal ballet lessons, though decades later I still maintain daily ballet stretching and strength exercises. Full-skirted ballet costumes also remain a strong inspiration in my current design work. My unusual mix of insider knowledge about the Miss America pageant system and my current work to promote modesty in clothing led me to offer thoughts in this essay about why pageants attract girls with religious backgrounds.
The Miss America pageant is the largest provider in the world of educational scholarships to young women. Many entrants are drawn by the thought of academic aid. In reality, the costs of clothing and talent coaching required to be competitive for the state and national titles usually outweighs any scholarships received. Winners of the titles are rewarded with significant aid, such as Miss America 2013 who received a $50,000 scholarship. That amount is the same that covered my tuition and housing for a bachelor's degree in fashion at a state university, but it is not enough to cover a bachelor's degree at most universities. Part of state winners' expenses in going on to the Miss America pageant are funded by state pageant accounts, but regardless of the sources, more total money is spent preparing girls for the competitions than is dispensed in scholarship funding. One custom-fitted, beaded evening gown alone easily costs thousands of dollars.
Another hidden fact about scholarships and pageants is that not all winners go on to utilize the scholarship money they receive. Several years of competition is usually required before winning a state pageant for the one-time chance at Miss America. Seasoned competitors use most scholarships to pay off student loans from completed semesters. Fame from the titles makes finding work easy for many winners who go on to broadcasting, performance or political careers, sometimes without completed college degrees. Pageant winners also attract high-profile husbands, it seems, offering many the choice of becoming simply the wife of a successful man. Contestants are expected to have future educational goals, however, and the mid-20s upper age limit restricts women from entering who are not of traditional college age. Rules also set forth character standards and prohibit contestants who have been previously married or have had children. With these rules in place, the Miss America pageant attracts high achievers with clean histories, something that often meshes with religious backgrounds.
Pageant fashion has a reputation for being unique. "Big hair," sequins, paint-by-number-effect makeup, and perpetual smiles are staples of pageants even when runway fashions trend toward the opposite. In an effort to bridge the gap between pageant glamour and real life, a casual wear element was added to the Miss America competition from 2003 to 2005 but was dropped for lack of viewer excitement. Miss America is supposed to embody the ideal of the All-American young woman. In a seeming double standard, sensuality is expected in the appearance but not in the lifestyles of pageant contestants. On the darker side of popular culture, runway fashion celebrates the sultry, promiscuous teenager, where smiles are out of style and virtuous standards of living are obsolete. The runway model aesthetic does not do well in pageants. So, where the line is drawn between popular culture and pageants, girls with religious backgrounds excel. Their clean living lends the brightness to their eyes and faces that pageant judges favor.
A misconception exists that all pageant contestants are happy to expose their bodies in sexy outfits for competitions. This is false. From years of listening to friends who have competed in pageants as well as observing my own dance teacher's modest appearance for years in daily life, I have come to believe that many contestants, if not the majority, are initially uncomfortable with the level of immodesty required by pageant competition. To be competitive, contestants pad their figures and "get over" wearing a swimsuit in front of televised audiences of millions of people. Standards of modesty are challenged by the demands of reaching for the crown, and when those standards give way, contestants become more accustomed to exposure. Former contestants may even continue on throughout life to wear clothing they would not have worn prior to participating in the pageants. This is not true for every contestant, of course. Some feel no inhibition with pageant costumes, but the pressure for immodesty is uncomfortable for those who do feel that they must break out of their own innate modesty zones in order to be successful.
The Miss America pageant began in 1921 as simply a bathing suit beauty competition. In 1951, Yolande Betbeze became the first Miss America to refuse to pose for publicity photos in a swimsuit. Since then, official photographs have been taken with each year's winner wearing an evening gown or business suit. Until 1997, contestants were required to wear one-piece swimsuits during the swimsuit competition, well beyond the time that two-piece swimsuits were standard in popular culture. Some contestants since then have still chosen to wear one-piece suits, notably Kylie Kofoed in 2010, a Mormon from Utah. Christianity Today explored the question of why Teresa Scanlan, a strong evangelical Christian who won Miss America in the same competition with Kofoed, did not also choose a one-piece.
Miss America calls the swimsuit element "Lifestyle and Fitness in Swimsuit," to downplay the obvious sexual display of skimpy outfits. Controversy has raged throughout the decades as to whether the swimsuit element should be dropped from competition to show greater respect for women. Many who oppose this portion of competition feel that the television networks resist dropping the swimsuit display because viewer ratings would plummet. Some have called the swimsuit competition "cattle judging," in reference to the way the shape and health of animals is evaluated to set their worth. This concept reflects my own feelings of the system in place when my dance teacher went to Miss America. At that time, contestants were required to pause during their walk and pose with legs together directly in front of the judges and then turn slowly so that the contours of the legs and torso could be matched against "ideal" standards. Nearly all contestants use bra padding or surgical breast augmentation to change their shape, so what is being judged is rarely natural, anyway.
Most readers of this website are drawn here to find clothing resources that are more modest than those intended for pageants, so the question of whether to wear a cleavage-featuring evening gown or a swimsuit of any kind in public—other than while swimming—is not something you would consider. However, many girls whom we would otherwise call conservative or religious participate in pageants and wear what they feel they must in order to have the best chance at winning. It does seem a paradox, that pageants attract such a large percentage of contestants with religious or conservative backgrounds. The Miss America pageant is a little more conservative in its standards than some other pageants. Participants frequently attest to gaining valuable communication skills, confidence and opportunities as a result of the Miss America state and national titles. Miss America winners have often used their publicity to honor God and promote their faith.
Modesty, like most standards of living, is defined differently by different people. What is most important is that our society should support young women in maintaining whatever standards of modesty they have without pressuring them to change to become "better" in the eyes of people who have opposing standards. In my opinion, removing the swimsuit element of the Miss America competition would be a positive step toward this outcome. As mentioned above, the swimsuit issue has been contested for decades with the result that the swimsuit competition, with bikinis encouraged, remains intact.
For girls or their parents who feel attracted to the benefits pageants offer, please stop and consider first whether you feel comfortable with your or your daughter's conforming to the clothing and activities typical for winners of the Miss America crown. Many winners have come from small towns, and it is possible that any girl who begins to compete could make it to the top, especially if she has the clean life and positive attitude that marks the winners.
Instead of reaching for the Miss America title, maybe another goal would be a better one to set, especially for girls who come from families for which the expenses of pageant competition would be a hardship. A Russian friend of mine offered what I think is the ultimate comment on pageants. She said in regard to the Miss Moscow competition with which she was familiar, "You know, the real Miss Moscow might not be the one who wins. The real one might be at home knitting." So true. Real Miss Americas exist, too, who never made it on stage but who embody ideals of personality, talent and virtue for our nation.
Thanks to Wikipedia for documenting history details about the Miss America pageant referenced in this post. Readers may also be interested in a doctoral dissertation by Mandy McMichael that examines the role of religion in the Miss America pageant.