Culture 22 January 2018
“So Miss America, can you cook?"
“Oh honey, why you readin' The Economist? That's a man's world."
“You graduated from University of Michigan? So you're actually smart?"
The person inquiring about my culinary skills?
An older Indian man, who asked me this right after I had the honor of hosting a reception & introducing the Indian Prime Minister Modi at a sold out crowd in Madison Square Garden.
And the one concerned about my literary capacity?
A seemingly friendly southern man who was sitting next to me on a flight to Boston when I was on my way to give a keynote address at Harvard.
The woman surprised by my degree?
She approached me immediately after I finished a speaking at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Kenya about my work on social entrepreneurship.
As Miss America 2014, I've heard my fair share of sexist comments. Never mind that in the past three years since I've been crowned, I've spoken at almost 45 different universities including Harvard, Princeton, and Yale; had my advocacy work recognized by President Obama and was invited to collaborate with the First Lady on her campaign, “Let's Move"; and embarked on a 14-day tour in India sponsored by the U.S. Department of State—promoting education, women's empowerment, and diversity.
To top it off, I co-produced and hosted a reality television series, “Made in America," a show that empowers young South Asian women. But this isn't just a Miss America problem. In light of this past year's #MeToo & #TimesUp movements, it's finally dawned upon society how dark & pervasive sexist behavior is ingrained across all industries and cultures.
So regardless of my achievements in a professional setting (and the unseen amounts of hard work and perseverance that went into them), why am I being reduced to archaic notions of gender roles and stereotypes?
Some might argue it's because of the Miss America organization and the sexist stereotype that plagues pageants and the swimsuit competition. It's no secret that the swimsuit competition has undergone much scrutiny and criticism over the organizations history. And to be honest, it was far from my best friend. I struggled being overweight as a child and constantly had issues with my body image. It took me three times to even win a local title in the organization and almost threw in the towel because of my personal struggle. I've talked openly about overcoming my eating disorder, and my transformative fifty pound weight loss journey to health and fitness. However, the most significant part of this journey was discovering a feeling I had never had before; a feeling of mental clarity and focus. It gave me a sense of discipline and strength that was reflective across all facets of my life. I never imagined I would be crushing daily crossfit workouts and become fluent in acronyms like AMRAPs and EMOMs, but my goodness there is a tremendous sense of accomplishment and pride when you know you've pushed past your self imposed limitations.
"So regardless of my achievements in a professional setting (and the unseen amounts of hard work and perseverance that went into them), why am I being reduced to archaic notions of gender roles and stereotypes?"
That being said, let's imagine a scenario in which there was no Miss America pageant or swimsuit competition. Would the people quoted in the beginning still have asked about my culinary skills or imply that I can't possibly understand what was written in The Economist? To me, the answer is a stark “YES."
The underlying issue isn't about a swimsuit competition or being Miss America, it's the sexism and gender roles we face as women, regardless of whether we've ever been involved with pageants or not. Just like the time when my badass surgeon sister (with no history of competing in Miss America) finished operating on a patient and went to inform the family upon successful completion of the procedure. Immediately upon seeing her, they assumed she was the nurse, subsequently called her “sweetie" and asked when they could speak with the doctor. As women, we know hundreds and thousands of instances like this.
One of the largest issues surrounding the Miss America Organization is that many people still view the organization solely as “beauty not brains." In all fairness, I can understand how the messaging and brand of Miss America has been lost through the many years. After the recent & appalling email scandal within the Miss America organization, the women who have the highest stake in this organization did what we do best: communicate, organize, and take action. As former Miss America's, we were deeply concerned about the future of the organization. By collectively electing Gretchen Carlson as chairwoman of the board, it's safe to say that we are entering an optimistic era of leadership for the future of the organization. For the first time ever in the organizations history, we have female representation in the chairman position. And with a powerful group of women leading us into this pivotal and revitalizing moment, I trust we will successfully shift the perception that we're “just a beauty pageant" and truly showcase the narrative that has always been woven into the fabric of who Miss America is.
The thousands of women who have been involved in the program have earned scholarship monies to further their education. They have gone on to become doctors, lawyers, hosts, news anchors, CEOs, engineers, PhDs, Broadway performers, political servants, and so much more.
For too long the women and men who believe in this iconic program, many of whom are volunteers, have defended the organization as relevant and empowering. When in fact, we are part of the feminist movement in our own right. Breaking stereotypes has been embedded in our history. Our young women have represented various cultures, races, religion, ethnicities, socioeconomic groups, and communities. We advocate for ourselves, our platforms, and the constituents we represent.
We have stood together in solidarity for the rights of our sisters and the organization. This is empowerment at its core. Our voices are being heard. We are relevant. We are creators, groundbreakers and role models--past, present, and future.