“You are crowned Miss America, the most beautiful woman in the country!” Every little girl’s dream right? Maybe not. For former Miss America Gretchen Carlson, this supposed dream turned into a nightmare.
Since she was ten years old, Carlson aspired to one day become Miss America. However, it was not until after winning the pageant in 1989 that she realized the corruption of this industry. In her recently released book, Be Fierce, Carlson states that the origin of beauty pageants is not rooted in empowering women, but rather in an idealized and virtually unattainable beauty standard.
Following the 1989 competition, the title that once seemed to her a promise of a perfect life soon became a burden. She writes now of her realization “that being Miss America exacerbates all of the inferiorities women face on a daily basis in a man’s world” (108). She soon after became a target upon which men could and did project their true perceptions of women.
After facing numerous instances of sexual harassment following her win, Carlson felt as though by accepting the crown, she was agreeing to the years of objectification that trailed it. Carlson soon became a prominent voice speaking out not against one beauty pageant in particular, but against the culture that surrounds the entire industry.
In recently joining the executive board of the Miss America pageant, Carlson’s first priority is to alter the rules and proceedings of the competition to end harassment and allow women to take their power back. With the hope of generating permanent change within no more than two competition seasons, Carlson has proposed that the maximum age requirement be raised to 35 instead of 25. This will allow women to still earn a college degree or even a graduate degree before competing rather than sacrificing prime education years to prepare for the pageant.
Beginning in 1990 when Debbye Turner was crowned the 70th Miss America, all winners were expected to have an official platform about which they were to raise awareness post-competition. However, Teresa Scanlan, Miss America 2011, frequently spoke to the press about the pressure these women face to keep up a ‘perfect’ image even long after they win the crown. Eight Miss Americas likened the aftermath of the competition to a dog show where they were paraded around, expected to always look their best, and be ready to perform at a moments notice. Although the winners each choose to raise awareness about a certain issue, it is hardly an opportunity for their independence and growth. Nina Davuluri, Miss America 2014, said that nearly all of the conferences and meetings at which she spoke were made up of men who frequently made passes at her. The idea of women establishing these platforms was meant to generate positive change nationally, yet has just turned into another outlet for men to control women through condescension and harassment.
Despite all of this, there are more signs than just Carlson’s work that the Miss America Pageant will be changed for the better. In December of 2017, 49 brave former Miss Americas formed a union against the organization’s CEO ordering for his removal due to nearly 50 cases of sexual harassment. When this man was fired, it showed the world that the pageant will no longer stand for such painful, demeaning objectification. With Carlson in the lead, many contestants are demanding that the message of pageants change from objectification to empowerment. Through the work of women like Carlson, hopefully one day little girls all over the world can dream of becoming an intelligent, hardworking woman whose internal kindness and strength become the measurements of true beauty.
Carlson, Gretchen. Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power
Back. Center Street, 2017.