Sunday night I settled in with a notebook and pen to watch Miss America, just as I have for the past several years. In 2011, I had the opportunity to attend the 90th anniversary pageant in person in Las Vegas, but a trip to Atlantic City was not in the cards this fall.
Over the past seven years, I’ve grown attached to the pageant and more than a little defensive when individuals dismiss it summarily.
This is not because I don’t see any problems with it. On the contrary, I’m all too aware of the salacious and unsavory aspects of pageantry.
I’ve observed its obsession with idealized beauty. I’ve witnessed unhealthy images glorified, objectifying music played, inappropriate comments made and more. I’ve also seen a side of pageantry that many people don’t take time to notice.
I’ve seen eating disorders overcome, positive self-images formed and reinforced, friendships nurtured and, perhaps most surprisingly, faith strengthened.
Pageants, like most things in life, are complicated. So are those pageant girls we like to pigeonhole as vapid, starved Barbie dolls. They are complex individuals and they each have a story. It is their stories that captivate me.
â— Vonda Kay Van Dyke (Miss America, 1965) spoke at Billy Graham Crusades and worked with Youth for Christ.
â— Terri Meeuwsen (Miss America, 1973) founded a nonprofit dedicated to helping orphans worldwide and serves as co-host of the 700 Club.
â— Teresa Scanlan (Miss America, 2011) helped lead a Holy Land tour.
Doctors, lawyers, teachers and, yes, even ministers, are former Miss Americas. So when I watch, I try to do so with a critical but charitable eye.
This year’s Miss America pageant boasted an Army sergeant with tattoos, a young woman born with one hand, and a woman with a torn ACL who competed in spite of her injury.
I sat enthralled as I watched, voicing my frustration that they always start with “Lifestyle and Fitness in Swimsuit” instead of talent or on-stage questions. Why can’t we begin the elimination with those who can’t think on their feet?
I followed @PageantChris and @MissAmerica to get live tweets from Atlantic City and enjoyed commentary from other friends watching the pageant.
I cringed and applauded through the talent portion, and I was a little sad when my picks didn’t make it as far as I had hoped.
At the end of the evening, Miss New York, Nina Davuluri, walked away with the crown, making her the first winner of Indian (south Asian) heritage.
Moments later, social media blew up, as documented by BuzzFeed. A simple search of #MissAmerica highlighted the wide range of people tweeting about the pageant and its newly crowned representative.
What always amazes me, however, is that so many people are paying attention. The winner of Miss America is newsworthy. People care. Not everyone, of course, but enough to warrant media coverage year after year.
It seems, then, that in spite of reports of its demise, the Miss America pageant is here to stay. The oldest running pageant in the United States, it has weathered economic hardships, wars, protests and more.
Like it, love it or loath it, the Miss America pageant is an American tradition and Miss America an icon. She’s the ideal.
As we see more diversity in the types of women allowed to serve as America’s ideal, I have hope that the world’s definition of beauty is slowly expanding. But, as a Christian, I remain aware that it is not the world’s job to define beauty for me.
As we see Miss Americas engage in acts of service and succeed in a variety of careers, I have hope that the world’s understanding of women’s place is slowly expanding. But, as a Christian, I know that it is not the world’s job to model equality between the sexes.
Christians need to lead this conversation. We need to ask tough questions about what the overall culture of beauty is teaching our children, both male and female, and we need to be proactive in teaching our own standards of beauty that are independent from body weight and pant size.
We must stress to our sons and our daughters that God has good work for each of us to do that is not dependent on our gender.
Then, should our daughters choose to participate in pageants (or football or gymnastics or band), we will feel confident that they know what and who has made them beautiful. They will know what gifts they have and who gave them those gifts.
We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t acknowledge the complexities that surround us and seek to demonize the other rather than providing tools for navigating it.
So why should Christians care? Not because pageants are some sort of religious rite of passage or ritual, but because they are complex sites of cultural expression that demand attention and interpretation.
Miss America – I’m not advocating it. But after seven years observing “pageant girls,” I’m no longer willing to dismiss its influence either.
Mandy McMichael is assistant professor of religion at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Ala. She is completing her doctorate in religion from Duke University specializing in American religious history. Her doctoral dissertation is titled “Religion, Miss America and the Construction of Southern Womanhood.” You can follow her on Twitter @mandyemcmichael.
Mandy McMichael is Assistant Director and J. David Slover Assistant Professor of Ministry Guidance in the Department of Religion at Baylor University. She is the author of “Miss America’s God” (Baylor University Press, 2019). McMichael and her husband, Chad Eggleston, have two children.