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"So Miss America, Can You Cook?" Nina Davuluri On Sexism and The Swimsuit Competition

Culture

“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.

Nina Davuluri

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.

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Self

It’s Time for Women to Stop Worrying About Being “Too Much”

We are living in a time when women are rising to new heights which means they are regularly being confronted with the fear of being "too much". For women in business this is pervasive and costly.

A few ways women can be perceived as "too much" are:

Speaking up about their successes and achievements.

Sharing one too many photos of their cute kids.

Telling one too many people about that date night.

Looking a little too good in that swimsuit.

These can lead to being publicly attacked on social media or privately slandered which in turn leads to women dimming their light and walking on egg shells in hopes of avoiding conflict and judgement.

The minute a woman feels it's unsafe to shine she will begin to overthink, worry, and fear how she shows up in the world.

Forgetting to announce the book is done and the interview is live.

Choosing to focus on what's still on the to-do list rather than what's been checked off.

Many female entrepreneurs are subconsciously altering their behavior in an attempt to not attract too much attention to themselves, rather than focusing on allowing authenticity and magnetism to attract their ideal clients and community.

Women are afraid of being criticized, ostracized, and abandoned by other women for simply being who they are. This leads to quite the quantum when being who you are is simplest way to accelerate the growth of your business.

New research shows men are far more comfortable with self promotion than women are. Researchers found that men rate their own performance 33 percent higher than equally performing women. What we know is that self promotion pays off and this is where women are missing the boat.

The world needs more women to step into leadership roles and no longer be intimidated about creating six and seven figure careers.

Here are five ways to release the fear of being "too much":

1. Approve of yourself.

While it feels good to receive outside validation it will never be enough if you don't first appreciate yourself. The key to having a healthy support system is to make sure you are part of it. Being your biggest critic is what your mother's generation did. It's now time to be your biggest cheerleader. Becoming aware of self talk will reveal what belief is ready to be re-wired. Create a simply mantra that affirms how incredible capable you are.

2. Connect deeply to those you serve.

One powerful way to shift out of people pleasing behavior is to get clear on who actually matters to the wellbeing and success of your life and business. Leadership is not about being the most popular, instead it's a decision to be brave for those who can't be. Take a few minutes each day to visualize and meditate on those your business serves and supports. See your future clients moving toward you every time you choose to stand in your power and use your authentic voice.

3. Remember the legacy you wish to leave.

Having your life purpose and legacy in writing is one of the most transformational exercises you can do. Reading this often will keep you focused on what matters. Knowing what you wish to leave in the hearts of those you love most is incredibly grounding. You didn't come here to keep your mouth shut, dilute your truth, or dim your light-you came here to make a difference.

4. Forgive those who have been unsupportive in the past.

The past has a way of informing the future in a negative way when there is unresolved pain. Take a few minutes to get quiet and ask yourself who you have unforgiveness towards or maybe their name came to mind as you read this article. Listening to a forgiveness meditation or writing a letter to the person you are ready to forgive are both simple and effective ways to process and heal.

5. Be part a community of bright, successful women.

Meaningful relationships with others who have similar aspirations is what will keep you out of isolation and playing small. These connections can happen in a networking group, online community or a local Meetup. Thriving in every area of life is depend on you knowing where you belong and being celebrated there. Don't wait to be invited, go actively seek out people and places that support your dreams and desires.

6. Accept you can have it all.


Women have been fed a lie for generations that says, you can have love or money. Decide you can have it all and allow it to flow to you. You can have a successful career and an amazing mother. You can balance motherhood and loving marriage. Don't let anyone write the rules for you. This is the time to create the life you desire on your terms.

7. Celebrate everything!

The fastest way to leave the haters in the dust is to celebrate everything! At the end of each day lay in bed and recall the best moments. At the end of each week, publicly acknowledge and celebrate what's good in your life. Once a month, have a celebration dinner and share it with those who have helped you in the journey. If there's something good happening, talk about it with everyone who will listen!

May you be a woman who chooses to shine so that others may be reminded of all they can be and do.