3min readCulture 07 October 2019
Photo courtesy of Brittany Netta; Photography by Jessielyn Palumbo
Is Miss America a walking contradiction to what our society expects of the modern young woman? Well, I am sure she is screaming a big fat yes from under her illustrious crown. Because it seems that some organizations cannot get behind the idea that an educated, respectable woman also has the ability to confidently strut her stuff in a swimsuit.
The Miss America Organization (MAO) is a "a non-profit scholarship organization led by women for women." Despite this fact, it seems that their female leadership has fallen for the antiquated notion of how a truly accomplished and intelligent woman should represent herself in today's society. In the #METOO era, have these female leaders progressed or regressed in their opinions when they equate a woman's intelligence to how modestly she dresses?
The answer to this question becomes painfully obvious when looking at recent events, specifically, MAO releasing a donor's misogynistic statement that "an educated woman does not parade around in a swimsuit." This donor, who gave money towards MAO scholarships (ironic, given the statement), was discussing why her parents would never allow her to compete in pageants. Although they have since apologized due to outrage among fans and alumni, this is a scene one's eyes cannot easily un-see.
And I say, regardless of the apology, "If you repeat it, you believe it." And that's exactly what MAO did.
For those who feel that this comment may have been taken out of context, I have two questions. Could this donor's motivation to fund these scholarships have anything to do with Miss America 2.0 eliminating the swimsuit portion of their competition only one year earlier? And, was The Miss America Organization, in sharing this statement, attempting to hail a righteous victory flag for what they believed to be the start of a successful new beginning for their now-swimsuit-less competition?
The Miss America Organization wants us to believe that the swimsuit portion of the competition was eliminated because a woman's outward physical appearance does not determine her intelligence in today's society. While that all sounds very progressive, it was simply not the motive that lead to this change. The truth about Miss America 2.0 is that they are really more concerned with updating their company's brand image in order to re-validate their place in a society that no longer values pageantry as it once did. But this resulted in little more than a pretentious façade.
Arnold Schwarzenegger was voted into office as the governor of California after years of competing in a thong on stage, but no one ever severely questioned his intelligence or ability to lead one of the nation's largest states. So why are we questioning the intellectual integrity of the women competing in Miss America today? That difference is a prime example of a double standard, and only proves we have a long way to go before true gender equality is achieved.
Consequently, I believe MAO completely missed the mark and made a huge mistake. They did not consider the broader message that their contestants send to women globally as they proudly strut in a swimsuit on national television. They forgot about the women who silently suffer from gender bias in the workplace and extreme oppression in many parts of the world who may be empowered by seeing a woman so boldly displaying herself with pride.
With that said, I'm not saying it's okay to disregard the standard dress code in the office, but women should be made to feel comfortable in embracing their sexuality and femininity in the appropriate settings. This should obviously include the Miss America stage, especially considering its rich history in their 100-year anniversary next fall.
Having competed in the Miss Universe Organization (MUO) for the past three years while working for one of the world's most admired technology companies and working towards achieving a Masters of Engineering, I can proudly say that the women who enter these competitions are some of the most disciplined, educated, and intelligent women around. Beauty and brains are not and never have been mutually exclusive.
The current Miss USA competed in a swimsuit portion of her competition, and she is also a Division One athlete as well as a practicing attorney. Miss America is an accomplished singer composer with a degree in music composition. Most of the young women who earn their state titles in MAO and MUO are highly educated, holding bachelors and master's degrees obtained by some of the most sought-after universities in the country.
Competing in MAO and MUO leave young women with wonderful professional skills, strict self-discipline, and an intense work ethic that have been a meaningful catalyst towards their careers. Furthermore, it can help elevate a woman's status nationwide to highlight many of her academic/career accomplishments through advocacy initiatives, philanthropy, and public appearances.
Instead of taking a progressive stance and believing in their contestant's intellectual fortitude to pave a path for the organization's future, MAO took the easy way out. They bowed to the antiquated notion that women's skin is inherently inappropriate. MAO holds a responsibility to celebrate how young women today choose to represent themselves —the true forward thinkers—whether they are prancing around in a swimsuit or dominating in a power suit.
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Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."
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