As I was finishing my year of service as Miss America 2014, a gentleman enthusiastically said to me: “You look like you slept at Boardwalk Hall!" (Boardwalk Hall is the iconic theater that the Miss America Competition is held in Atlantic City). At first, I was so confused as I had an incredibly busy year traveling across the country advocating for diversity and cultural competency. When I asked what he meant, he replied; “You look the same size as you did when you competed in swimsuit!"
In that moment, I was shocked, angry, and crushed. The fact that I was being applauded for my appearance and not the achievements and accolades I had worked tirelessly for was frustrating, but also eye-opening. Especially because how my abs (or lack thereof) looked in a swimsuit had absolutely nothing to do with the actual job of Miss America.
Miss America 2.0 is here and I couldn't be more proud. This year, the Miss America Organization moved into a new era of inclusiveness and empowerment by retiring the swimsuit phase of competition.
Since winning Miss America, it was my mission to bring diversity and inclusion to the organization; I grew up feeling like I could never step into this role since I didn't fit a certain stereotype or category of “black or white." Through my travels, I've met several young women from diverse backgrounds who have approached me saying they feel like they could immensely benefit from this program, but couldn't compete in the organization because of the swimsuit competition and their cultural background and/or religious beliefs. As the first Indian American and South Asian to hold the title, I completely understand their hesitation and barrier to entry as I lived it.
I grew up in a culture and household where I was constantly taught to cover up my body from a young age, and feeling comfortable with “exposing" my body was a significant struggle, let alone feeling confident while doing so.
As a young girl watching Miss America on television, my perception of beauty was defined by the contestants on that stage. It was daunting for me. As a teenager I was always “bigger" than my friends and would avoid going to the beach or pool. It's no secret I struggled with body image for the majority of my formative years, which I've spoken openly about. And while it took me several years to overcome this, I can honestly say that when I competed in the swimsuit competition at Miss America it truly felt like a celebration of conquering my own personal limitations I had set on myself physically, mentally and culturally.
"It's unrealistic, and frankly outrageous, to think that judging women walk in swimsuits and heels is an all-encompassing approach to understanding an individual's overall health and/or lifestyle."-Nina Davuluri Photo Courtesy of Parade
I absolutely agree that living a healthy lifestyle is important. However, one of my Miss America sisters pointed out that we don't have women who look like Rhonda Rousey or Ashley Graham--both of whom are a positive representation of health, confidence and body image. It's unrealistic, and frankly outrageous, to think that judging women walk in swimsuits and heels is an all-encompassing approach to understanding an individual's overall health and/or lifestyle.
The underlying issue lies in the perception the Miss America Organization has portrayed to society: that the measure of a young woman's success is based on outward appearances.
The underlying issue lies in the perception the Miss America Organization has portrayed to society: that the measure of a young woman's success is based on outward appearances. The bottom line is that if Miss America is going to continue its legacy of empowering women and continue to stay relevant, it must start by changing the perception that it's “just a beauty pageant." Because the reality is that it's simply not just that, and it hasn't been for years.
If you look at any of our former contestants who've competed in this organization, you will see a group of highly educated, motivated, well-spoken, passionate women. However, seeing as we've kept presenting swimsuits and appearances at the top of the telecast, I can understand how our messaging has become diluted. We are now at a revolutionary time where we understand that in order to shift society's stereotypes, we must take action. Now more than ever, women are at the forefront using their voices with the #MeToo, #TimesUp and the #SeeHer movements. As a role model for young women, isn't it time Miss America does the same?
Miss America is finally at a point where, as an organization, we can truly say that we want to empower every single woman, not just certain “types" of women.
Miss America is finally at a point where, as an organization, we can truly say that we want to empower every single woman, not just certain “types" of women. That we welcome women from every background, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, shape and size, is integral to the competition's identity. The objectives of Miss America are to showcase young women's scholastic achievements and talents, to provide them with a platform so that their voices are heard and their opinions taken seriously, and to celebrate contestant's entire being based on substance and not a swimsuit. Ultimately, this change signifies that we are placing value on all the young girls (and boys) watching Miss America this year and showing them that in this new era the essence of who they are is worth so much more than keeping an archaic tradition alive. #ByeByeBikini
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.