Last month, you might have heard that the Miss Teen USA pageant made an announcement: After 23 years of asking teen contestants to take the stage in high heels and bikinis (an ever-practical wardrobe combination), the days of the swimsuit competition would be coming to a close.
Instead, pageant organizers say they want to celebrate contestants’ “active and healthy lifestyles” by having them model athletic wear. Of the major news outlets covering this wardrobe change, many are calling it a step in the right direction.
But this whole thing raises a question: Does dropping the swimsuit competition really make a difference?
Whether these women are donning bikinis or yoga pants, what we’re left with is still a beauty pageant. And as the title indicates, it involves judging women based on their physical beauty—on attributes that can be measured and compared as they walk around on stage.
Let’s be clear: This still objectifies women.
It also aids a too-narrow definition of beauty. As the ladies line up side-by-side, they may have obvious physical differences, such as hair color, height and race, but everything else about their aesthetic is rather similar. They are all heavily made up, their hair is perfectly styled and their bodies are slim with nary a tattoo, scar or trace of cellulite.
Wouldn’t a more accurate celebration of “active and healthy lifestyles” be timing the ladies in a 50-yard dash or something of that nature? Allowing them to actually sweat? To throw their hair up in messy ponytails and forego the makeup?
A shift that drastic would be unlikely, and part of the reason lies in the popularity of beauty competitions. It lies in the natural human instinct to want to recognize and rate physical beauty. We’ve been doing this for centuries.
Just ask two prominent entrepreneurs from two very different eras: P.T. Barnum and Mark Zuckerberg.
Before Barnum started Barnum and Bailey Circuses, he owned a museum in New York City in the late 1800s where he held the first female beauty competition. Women from all over the U.S. mailed in photos of themselves, which were judged and a winner was chosen.
The format became so popular that local newspapers started to adopt it and city leaders began to brag when the girl from their hometown was voted most beautiful. By 1921, the competition evolved into a live performance on a stage in Atlantic City, and the Miss America pageant was born. The pageant grew in popularity as the decades went by, and in 1954, the first televised broadcast garnered 27 million viewers.
Fast forward to 2003, when a young Harvard student named Zuckerberg did something similar. Before creating Facebook, Zuckerberg invented a website called Facemash that randomly paired up photos of two Harvard students at a time and asked viewers to choose which photo was the hottest. The day he launched the site, over 450 people visited and voted over 22,000 times. That’s an average of 48 votes per person.
But what would it look like to stop all the superficiality and define beauty in a deeper way?
The latest Dove campaign may give us a few clues. It features a collection of women choosing to defy cultural stereotypes by expressing themselves however they feel inspired: older ladies embracing their gray hair instead of covering it up with dye, successful business women adding streaks of pink and blue to theirs, while proving they can still be professional.
Granted, this campaign for “real beauty” is still rooted in physical attributes, but it does help break up the homogeneity. It celebrates uniqueness and individuality, which is important because it brings us one step closer to the way God might define beauty and the way He created us to be.
If there’s one thing we can note just by examining creation—from sunsets and mountains, to species of birds, to the different ethnicities all around the world—it’s that God loves variety. He celebrates it and revels in it: No two sunsets are quite the same, just as no two people are.
Yet, we have to focus to see that. It’s human nature to want to categorize things in ways that can often be superficial. Eliminating the swimsuit competition isn’t going to change that.
But broadening our definition of beauty can, and there is so much freedom in embracing this fact; in embracing the unique ways he created us each to be, which ranges from our physical appearance to our interests, talents and character.
That is where our true beauty lies. Not in comparing ourselves with one another, not in creating some homogeneous, cultural aesthetic that both men and women feel pressured to conform to. True beauty is ever evolving. It resists boundaries and definition. The possibilities are endless.
Christy Krumm Richard is a freelance writer and a firm believer in the power of story. She empowers others to tell their own as a writing coach, and is author of the book SHOT: A Couple, a Country, and the Stubborn Quest for Hope.