If you were to pick the main influencers in my life, Miss America would rank at the top. I competed in the Miss America program for six years, winning two local titles and going on to represent Washington State in the National Sweetheart Pageant after a 1st Runner-up win at Miss Washington.
I was not someone who grew up competing in pageants. I had, however, grown up competing in the sport of swimming. I swam from age eight to fourteen. I reached the level where I was competing in the same swimming pool as Olympians (granted - in the slow lane) and had to make a decision to get serious and swim to that level or focus on other things. I decided to focus on other things, like music, theatre, and my schoolwork.
When I was a competitive swimmer, I never had body image issues. I was fearless wearing a swimsuit up to five hours a day. I would go to a beach or a pool and never feel self-conscious. Because I was working out 20+ hours a week, I was in killer shape. But, when I stopped swimming, my body started changing until suddenly I realized, I didn’t want to wear a swimsuit in front of my friends or even my family. I avoided it at all costs.
When I went to college, I desperately needed scholarships to finish school. I happened to run into Miss Pierce County’s Outstanding Teen. She told me how in the Miss Pierce County Program, and most Miss America programs, you earn a scholarship whether you win or lose. I was certainly apprehensive and uncomfortable with the swimwear portion, but I decided I’d try anything once and the scholarship was worth my discomfort.
Before I walked onstage in my swimsuit that first year, I was so nervous it took my breath away. I just wanted to get it done as fast as possible. But, when I walked offstage, I had immense pride. I had done the thing I was most scared of. I had walked onstage in my bikini with nothing to hide and everything to gain.
After that, I became serious about getting healthy. While all my friends were gaining the ‘freshman 15,’ and in some cases, the ‘freshman 30,’ I was learning how to work out in a gym with weights and how to eat healthy. Preparing for the swimsuit competition forced me to learn how to live a healthy lifestyle at an age when most people are partying and eating junk food while Netflix binging. Nobody in the Miss America Program ever told me to starve myself or exercise until I dropped dead. Actually, it was quite the opposite. My local programs provided access to fitness coaches who taught us how to live a healthy life forever - not just for a competition. The last time I competed, I was the healthiest and strongest I have been in my life. I was darn proud of my body. I worked hard on it and I was proud to walk across that stage. I was more confident than I’d ever been in my life.
If I had not competed in a swimwear competition, I don’t think I would have ever thought myself capable of attaining that level of fitness again. I also think I would have fallen deeper into a cycle of unhealthy food with limited exercise. Since I ‘retired’ from my pageant career, I have gained a few pounds back and am not quite as strong, but guess what? I am still confident in my own skin - because I have walked across a stage in a bikini. If you can walk across a stage in a bikini, you can do ANYTHING. Miss America gave me that.
Miss America just announced that they would be dropping the swimwear portion of the competition. Do I think that’s a good idea? Yes and no. No - because of all the things I learned and gained through having to compete in swimwear. Until you’ve done that, you never really truly know what it feels like.
On some level, I am glad because many who haven’t competed in this program and who don’t know someone who has competed in this program view it as exploitative. I have seen cries on social media declaring ‘misogyny’ and ‘sexism.’ I do see why they could misconstrue the purpose of this aspect of the competition if they have no knowledge of it. I do agree that a woman’s brains and heart should be the most important part of the competition. Those are the primary qualities of a good leader.
But, I have to say I never saw Miss America as just someone with a brain and a heart. If I could rename the pageant, it would probably be ‘Miss Ultimate Renaissance Woman of America.’ Miss America to me was a woman who could be BOTH smart AND beautiful. She could be BOTH fit AND talented.
As a child and even now, society has told me a woman cannot be all things. She cannot be smart AND beautiful AND fit AND talented. I believe Miss America is here to show us that a woman can be all things. She can be exactly who she wants to be. She has the power to create her own life exactly as she sees fit.
I want to be Miss America, or rather, Miss Ultimate Renaissance Woman of America. I want to be smart, beautiful, fit, and talented. I don’t believe these qualities to be mutually exclusive.
What now? I will continue to be a Miss America fan. I will support the competition and the winner (and ‘losers.’) After all, this is an organization about supporting and empowering other women no matter what, is it not? I believe in the power of this program to change the lives of women everywhere. I am happy to see an all-female leadership board. I am ecstatic that this change has started a conversation about what female empowerment means and looks like. I have faith that this team of women will do their absolute best to empower women across America and I look forward to seeing them succeed.