Op-Ed

We women are all living inside a beauty pageant

In this 2015 file photo, contestants wear swimsuits as they compete in the 2016 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, N.J. The Miss America Organization is dropping the swimsuit competition from its nationally televised broadcast, saying it will no longer judge contestants in their appearance.
In this 2015 file photo, contestants wear swimsuits as they compete in the 2016 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, N.J. The Miss America Organization is dropping the swimsuit competition from its nationally televised broadcast, saying it will no longer judge contestants in their appearance. AP Photo

On Tuesday morning came the news that the oldest beauty pageant in America is no longer a beauty pageant.

Nearly 100 years after the first Miss America contest took place in Atlantic City, the organization has said so long to the bathing suit competition. “We are not going to judge you on your outward appearance,” said Gretchen Carlson, the chairwoman of the Miss America Organization.

Ms. Carlson is the perfect person to lead Miss America through this transformation. She won the crown herself in 1988 and went on to a career at Fox News, where she laid the groundwork for the #MeToo movement, blowing the whistle on Roger Ailes long before there were headlines about Harvey Weinstein.

Miss America 2.0, as the event has been branded, will be “a competition” — not a pageant, Ms. Carlson said on “Good Morning America.”

“We’re experiencing a cultural revolution in our country, with women finding the courage to stand up and have their voices heard on many issues,” she added.

But saying that women won’t be judged for the way they look is a bit like a Miss Oklahoma or Miss Oregon saying she wishes for world peace. Getting rid of the bikini contest won’t stop judges — and the rest of the world — from critiquing contestants’ outer beauty. As all women know, that happens even if we are shuffling down the block in old sweats.

The real reason the bikini contest was done away with is that it’s simply too explicit for our euphemistic era, where “strong” is the code word for skinny, and “healthy” for beautiful. Our culture hasn’t stopped objectifying women. We — men and women both — are just getting better at pretending it’s not happening. Ours is the age of Pilates and athleisure, of detoxifying and “wellness,” of organic and biodynamic, of game-ifying weight loss by calling calories points.

Standing up on a stage in stilettos and tiny squares of nylon held up by string is just too gauche for 2018.

The game is now all about discretion — of insisting you aren’t working hard while you are absolutely gritting your teeth, of telling your date that you just don’t like bread. While men pretend not to judge women for the way they look, we go to great lengths to pretend we don’t care, either.

And so we blend leaves together and call it “delicious” and “juice” instead of a mealy sludge.

We wear stilts to hike around concrete jungles and lie about how they are anything other than medieval torture devices.

We get the tiny horns on the tips of our fingers and toes painted in shades so subtle that heterosexual men don’t even realize we got them painted at all.

We read about the beauty routines and morning routines and nighttime routines and midday routines of women infinitely more wealthy than we are and then study their social media accounts to see how we might approximate their lives.

We spend hundreds of dollars on makeup that makes it look as if we aren’t wearing any makeup at all.

We muss our hair and pout our lips and Google “best angles” and hold our cameras ever so slightly above our faces.

In the meantime, we brutally assess the facial symmetry of potential mates on dating apps without enough vowels and post pictures of ourselves that our friends have approved via group chat.

We are so much more than this. But we can’t help but get distracted by the whole charade. And we are the women who have the luxury of even thinking about having it all! This is what having it all looks like.

I won’t miss the bikini contest a lick. I haven’t watched Miss America since I was in middle school, and I was incredulous even then. The thought of growing up to be like the women on the screen never crossed my mind. It’s not because I wasn’t ambitious: It’s that I looked at them and felt confident I was a different species. I’m sure the bikinis had something to do with it.

But there was also something strangely honest about it. We are being watched and scrutinized and judged. We are watching and scrutinizing and judging. It is, as Ms. Carlson said, a competition.

Bari Weiss is a staff editor and writer for the Opinion section.
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