Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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Not our ideal

Q: Last week, Caressa Cameron, a 22-year-old student from Virginia, was crowned Miss America, a pageant that once epitomized a certain kind of beauty, talent and promise. Is this kind of contest completely outdated, or does it offer a legitimate path to success for the young women who compete?

I still remember my brush with fame via a beauty contest. I wore velvet and lace. Pouty red lips under a pile of curls. I strutted stylishly across the stage. My mother was somewhere out there in the darkened auditorium, watching anxiously.

I was six years old. Mom had enrolled me in "charm school" at Strawbridges (a great old department store, now gone) as an antidote to the evil effects of growing up with a bunch of brothers.

Our "graduation" from charm school was 1958's version of a child pageant. No swimsuits were involved! My head still hurts as I remember the preparatory ritual -- tight rollers wrapping my hair after a smelly, stinging Toni home perm, my introduction to suffering for beauty. The pin curls popped out as a frizzy fringe underneath my black velvet beret. My flouncy gray plaid crinoline skirt reached to the top of my anklets, with -- what else? -- black patent leather maryjanes completing the "look" of the most adorable child on stage.

The Miss America pageant today seems as outmoded as that Toni home perm and crinoline skirt. Beauty contests are a throwback to an era when girls and women were supposed to look a certain way, walk with hips swaying just so, talk in a vaguely vacuous style that would never threaten a man's intellectual sense of himself. For all of the superficial ways these pageants try to claim substance -- the "talent" competition part, the no-brainer "interview" questions -- they are primarily about women's bodies and men's ideas about how women should look.

Sex sells, and back in the day when television was more prudish, the Miss America pageant was one of the few legitimate ways for guys to do some skin viewing legitimately.

But as the pageant tried to become more content-driven after years of feminist criticism, ratings declined because nobody wanted to watch Miss BighairState play the accordian or struggle with the answer to peace in our time. Viewers wanted more swimsuits (actually, less swimsuits, if you get my meaning!) but the networks felt constrained. Ironically, the pageant moved to cable just at a time when shows like "Dancing with the Stars" had contestants wearing far more suggestive clothing than anything ever on Miss America's stage.

In an era when people can get their 15 minutes of fame doing just about any ridiculous thing uploaded to YouTube, women who want to strut their stuff in beauty contests are as much a part of the visual culture as guys who compete in monster truck contests. It's all about the bodies.

Bodies come in all sizes, shapes and skin tones, however, and what continues to be the most serious problem for the Miss America pageant is the exaltation of a narrow definition of beauty. While Caressa Cameron is the seventh African American winner in the pageant's 89-year history, many critics contend that darker-skinned women with more distinctive African features could never really win -- nor could white women with thick thighs, or women wearing thick glasses, or women in wheelchairs or those wearing battle fatigues. I doubt that a woman with punk-rocker hair or multiple face piercings or tattoos of snakes up her legs would have much of a chance, either.

I'm glad that Miss America competitors have a chance to win college scholarships, since brains are also beautiful. But America's strength today is our great diversity, so the notion that one "Miss America" represents "our ideal," as Bert Parks used to sing, is as old-fashioned as those long-ago pin curls.

By Patricia McGuire  |  February 8, 2010; 12:02 AM ET  | Category:  Pageants' relevance Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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