Well hello progress! While the media was focused on a scandal involving racist tweets from the newly-crowned Miss Teen USA Karlie Hay of Texas (which is an incorrigible act and was rightly condemned) there was another aspect of the 2016 event which deserves some of the limelight.
Instead of the regular swimwear segment that is common place in some of the world’s biggest beauty pageants, the organizers decided to ditch the bikinis and have an athletic wear segment instead, focusing on the importance of fitness, health, and well being.
Sportswear brand Tapout sponsored the segment by providing their signature gear with the name of the corresponding state for each competitor to proudly display on stage. The event took place in Las Vegas on July 30th and the Miss Universe Organization, which runs Miss Teen USA, said this decision was part of the overall re-branding of the pageants after it was bought out by talent agency WME-IMG from former owner and current Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
So now this is starting to make MUCH more sense! We can clearly see how this was a move away from the certain brand of sexism and bigotry Donald has brought not just to the current US presidential election, but to his beauty pageants for years.
And while the event regularly maintained that the swimwear competition was about promoting health and fitness, the choice to have the competitors wear the actual clothing a person would while they are involved in athletics or any type of fitness activity gives it a whole lot more credibility.
The athletic wear segment was created to celebrate women’s strength, confidence and beauty in more constructive ways, according to a press statement given by Miss Universe president Paula Shugart ahead of the event.
“This decision reflects an important cultural shift we’re all celebrating that empowers women who lead active, purposeful lives and encourage those in their communities to do the same,” she wrote. Our hope is that this decision will help all of Miss Teen USA’s fans recognize these young women for the strong, inspiring individuals they are,” she said.
Pageant coach Valerie Hayes said this was a very “shrewd” move for the brand which is looking to expand.
“It’s consistent with the overall brand and message the new owners are talking about. I think that it will cause more parents to be open to their daughters competing in a state or local Teen Miss USA pageant, because its been a concern of parents in the past,” she said.
The most obvious implications of ditching the swimwear segment is the message it will send to all the young girls watching and wishing they could one day compete for the crown. Most of us are familiar with the conversations about whether beauty pageants are empowering or just another tool for objectification of women. Why does an event which seeks to position women from around the country and around the world as “role models” need to show them in a bathing suit, if it is about what they can achieve with their minds, hearts, and talents?
Former Miss Virginia Nancy Redd, who won the swimsuit competition in Miss Teen USA in 2003, said the major change was also a very smart business move for the organization.
“This is a great step in the right direction of women embracing their physical strength, as opposed to their appearance. This is focusing on what bodies can do, not just what they look like,” she said.
The 2015 Miss Teen USA, Katherine Haik, also praised the move saying it is indicative of the lifestyle of many teen girls in America today.
“I have been an athlete my entire life. As a member of a softball team and a competitive dance team, I spend a lot of time in athletic wear. This new direction for Miss Teen USA is a great way to celebrate the active lives that so many young women lead and set a strong example for our peers,” she said.
Of course, the switch in clothing doesn’t automatically eliminate every single concern regarding objectification or sexualization of teen girls in such a public event, but it does help to push it in a more positive direction. We certainly don’t want to start seeing trends where young women in athletic wear becomes a new form of objectification, and there is room for the Miss Universe organization to improve on this now that they are clearly wanting to make a change.
The real test will be to see how it will influence other major beauty pageants to rethink how they want to portray women on the stage. In 2014 the Miss World pageant owners announced they would be ditching their swimsuit segment form 2015 onward.
We’ve also seen some diversity creeping into what is normally a very exclusionary space, such as like Miss Missouri Erin O’Flaherty, who will compete as Miss America’s first openly gay contestant this year, Nina Davaluri becoming the first Indian-American woman to win Miss America in 2014, “America’s Choice” winner, Alexis Wineman (Miss Montana 2012) as the pageant’s first autistic contestant, and Kylan Wenzel who was the first transgender woman to compete in preliminary rounds of the Miss California pageant on the journey to reach the finals of Miss USA in 2013.
If these displays of diversity and empowerment are the new “normal” in beauty pageants, then we can’t wait to see what happens at future events! If you missed the broadcast of the Miss Teen USA competition and want to see the contestants wearing the Tapout athletic gear, watch the video below: