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People & Events: The Swimsuit Competition and the Century of Svelte

Kate ShindleToday many women -- and men -- worry about the contours of their bodies. Some see their physical appearance as the ultimate expression of self. Historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg writes that "the body has become the central personal project of American girls." This attitude is a recent phenomenon; Victorian girls never would have organized their thinking about themselves around their bodies.

In the 1920s, the decade when the Miss America Pageant was founded, the first American diet craze swept high schools and college campuses. For the first time, a large number of young women nationwide systematically made efforts to lower their weight by food restriction and exercise. By the 1950s, voluptuous stars such as Jayne Mansfield, Jane Russell, and Marilyn Monroe contributed to the emerging ideal of the era. The physical standards for women were reflected in the immense popularity of Barbie, a doll introduced in 1959. Barbie's improbable figure -- large chest and pinched waist, with hips somewhere in-between -- was an exaggerated version of the ideal body type of the era.

Comedian Margaret Cho described the unreal quality of contestants' bodies: "There's no creases or lines, there's no stretch marks or nipples or hair. It's kind of jarring. You think god, whose body is like that? And then you think, oh, maybe I'm not the woman. Maybe they're the women, and I'm not the woman." For contestants too, the swimsuit competition could be be unnerving -- some used spray glue to keep their swimsuits attached -- or terrifying. As Yolande Betbeze, the 1951 Miss America who refused to wear a swimsuit in pageant promotions, said, "to stand up for the first time in your life in front of fifty thousand people in a bathing suit is... is awkward." Kate Shindle, Miss America 1998, agreed, but said, "I actually found it kind of empowering because I figured that once I could get over enough issues to walk around on the stage in a bathing suit in front of twenty million people, I could pretty much do anything I wanted to."

Miss America contestants represented an ideal for many American girls. For pageant contestants in the 1960s, the average height and weight was 5 feet, 6 inches, and 120 pounds: roughly ten pounds below the national average for that age group, and twenty pounds below women overall. In a 1962 interview, pageant official Lenora Slaughter was asked whether contestants' measurements should be included in promotional materials for the pageant. "Some of the girls may not like that," the questioner suggested. But Slaughter replied, "I've found that... men are perfectly satisfied with visual measurements, but not women. They want to know exactly because they want to go home, get the tape measure and measure themselves, and start trying to reach that goal."

The swimsuit competition (today called Lifestyle and Fitness), has been a part of the Miss America competition since 1921 and is still central to the proceedings. Feminists, pageant organizers and contestants have all had problems with the segment. In 1994 the Miss America Organization asked viewers to vote on whether or not to keep it by calling a toll free number. Of those who called, 73% voted to keep it. More recently, in 2000, the pageant ran an on-line poll and 50% of the respondents said they would no longer watch if the swimsuit competition were discontinued. Viewers identified Miss America's top qualification as beauty, voted at 47%, with poise, talent and intelligence running behind.

The tension in the Miss America Pageant competition between judging women in swimsuits and offering them college scholarships is one that continues to plague the pageant. It is difficult to reconcile asking young women to speak intelligently on a social issue while in another part of the competition asking them to silently display their bodies. Cultural scholar Sarah Banet-Weiser describes one local competition where the contestants were asked to give their autobiographical speeches while in swimsuits. It was a disaster; most women struggled to maintain their poise. In the national pageant, women do not speak; they walk out and show their achievement in attaining the contemporary ideal of the svelte body. Their other attributes -- personality, intelligence, and individuality -- are judged in other segments of the competition, especially the interview.

Pageant organizers speak about the swimsuit competition as a tradition that audiences seem to demand. As the pageant works to reconcile its contradictions, it also highlights the tensions for women today. As women make claims for individuality and diversity, they still contend with traditional standards of beauty. The swimsuit competition, for as long as it exists, will continue to raise questions about the role of beauty and body image in how women see themselves -- and how they are judged by others.

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