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Miss America and the Bikini Question


Jan 20 2011
Do modern-day pageants ask young evangelical women to compromise their values an itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny too much?

To one-piece or two-piece? That was the question for many Miss America hopefuls in 1997, when, for the first time in 50 years, the pageant allowed two-piece swimsuits. Pageant organizers say the swimsuit part of the competition, dubbed the feminist-friendlier "Lifestyle and Fitness" section in 2001, is about showing contestants' fitness, poise, and posture. Others have charged it's about boosting TV ratings, which have been sluggish in recent years. In 1995, Miss America let viewers vote on whether to drop the swimsuit section. Eighty percent said to keep it, while 42 of the 50 contestants said "they did not have a problem with waltzing around in public in swimwear." (One dissenting contestant, meanwhile, called it a "veiled strip show.")

It's hard to believe that just over a decade ago, two-piece pageant swimsuits were taboo for Miss America. In this year's competition, all but one contestant wore a black bikini and high heels. (Apparently pageant officials give contestants few swimsuits to choose from.) The young woman who donned a one-piece swimsuit was not 17-year-old Teresa Scanlan, Miss America 2011, former Miss Nebraska, and a devout Christian. No, the brave one-piecer was 19-year-old Miss Idaho Kylie Kofoed, a Mormon and music major at Brigham Young University.

Why compare Scanlan's and Kofoed's swimsuit decision? Certainly not to question the sincerity of Scanlan's faith. Mandy McMichael, a Duke PhD candidate whose dissertation explores the role of religion in American beauty pageants, attended Saturday's pageant in Las Vegas. She told me, "Because Nebraska has never had a Miss America before I wasn't paying too much attention to her initially. But, on Saturday night, when she was crowned, there was no denying that she was a Christian. It was obvious from her pointing upward and the almost reverent way that she rejoiced in her victory." The pageant program and Scanlan's blog say she will attend Patrick Henry College, which was founded for homeschooling families and prepares students to "shape our culture with timeless biblical values and fidelity to the spirit of the American founding." Scanlan will study government in hopes of entering politics (as have many other pageant winners). Further, Scanlan has made "positive body image and self-acceptance" as they relate to eating disorders her pageant platform. Scanlan recently wrote, "When I found pageantry, I realized that God had prepared me for this competition by creating me to love diversity, and here was the place I could use the talents He had given me."

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