Speaks Miss Connecticut 2002
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"Debunking the 'Beauty Pageant' Persona - There she is, Miss America. Your ideal."

Presented to the AAUW Storrs-Willimantic  on March 5, 2003

Contents 

1. There she is 7. Facilitate change
2. My first step 8. Swimsuit
3. Scholarship programs 9. Relevant?
4. The word IDEAL 10. Progressed
5. Reasons for entering 11. Debunked
6. Ideal Miss America 12. When asked

"There she is, Miss America. Your ideal."

How many times have I been questioned about what that means to me? What the word ideal means to me and if I think I am it. What does being Miss America, or in my case, Miss Connecticut mean to me and a host of other questions relating to the relevancy of Miss America and other pageants and their titleholders. Today I am here to try and debunk the beauty pageant persona. I feel that it is only necessary to inform you that in my research I found some very convincing supporting details....so for those of you who are here with a skeptics view, I just might change your minds about what you think you know. 

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My first step in the debunking process...

is to explain the difference in pageants and their missions. For the sake of time, I will limit my discussion of pageants to programs for teen-agers and up. There are the traditional beauty pageants, like the well known Miss Teen-USA, Miss USA, and Miss Universe and the lesser known, to those outside of the pageant industry, like America’s Cover Miss and Cover Boy USA and Miss Southern Charm that focus on the actual physical beauty of face and figure of the individual. These pageants make no claim to look for otherwise and look for the most beautiful among contestants. Typically these pageants don’t include talent or platform requirements, but may include an interview designed to assess the contestants personality and likeability. These pageants tend to launch women into entertainment careers and don’t require the contestants to be pursuing higher education therefore giving cash and prizes as opposed to scholarships and speaking opportunities. However, where the emphasis may be placed on physical beauty, the contestants that enter these particular pageants, are using these programs as their vehicle to achieve their dreams by creating contacts, gaining exposure, and honing their performance skills. 

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Conversely, there are scholarship programs...

such as the Miss America Scholarship Program, America’s Junior Miss, Miss National Teen-Ager, and Miss Teen America, which all support and require the pursuit of higher education. These programs among others, include talent, interview, physical fitness, and evening wear as well as requiring a platform issue that the contestant will champion for an entire year if selected as the winner. Not only are these pageants looking for a woman who can articulate her ideas effectively, but a woman who can display a commitment to herself, her talent, and her community. Where these programs promote scholarship and service, these programs propel women into careers in law, medicine, education, communication, and performing arts and encourage women to hone their speaking and presentation skills, as well as their ability to motivate their peers and communities. 

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The word IDEAL

With that brief introduction to the world of pageantry, I am back to the word ideal. What does the word ideal mean to me and do I think I am it. According to Webster’s dictionary, ideal is defined as an honorable or worthy aim or principle. If I had to define the word ideal I would start by saying ideal is at the height of aspirations. I would then continue to say that ideal means a goal for which to shoot for. As with any goal or aspiration, you have to prepare to achieve that ideal with the hope and belief in capture of the gold but the reality that silver may be in your future. Some ask if I think that Miss America is too high an ideal to aspire to. Is the ideal of Miss America and pageant contestants in general, too stringent? Too restrictive? I would have to understand first of all what people think the ideal of pageant contestants is. So I asked around. Now this isn’t some scientific study that I conducted. There was no stratified sampling, or likert scales to determine the quantifiable results of this survey. Nope just me asking people who both knew I was Miss Connecticut and some who didn’t, what they thought of pageant contestants. 

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Sure of her reasons for entering

I first asked Rebecca, a pastors wife and retail assistant manager what she thought of when she thought of pageant contestants. She thought that pageant participation was okay as long as a woman was sure of her reasons for entering. She thought it was a good way to gain confidence in front of people in terms of speaking and performing. When asked if she thought pageant contestants were fake and phony, she likened performing on stage to what she does for her job. "In general I am not a perky person every time I greet someone or every time I answer the phone," Rebecca said, "But if I want to work here and please customers, I must be up all the time. I think it is like that for pageant girls too. If they want to make an impression on the judges and win the title, they have to perform to the standards expected of them."  On the other hand, when I asked Jim a retired police officer and husband, father of two what he thought of pageant contestants, he commented on their lack of commitment to their platforms. "They all say they want world peace," Jim said, "But they don’t ever do anything to help achieve it." After he was done saying his piece, I introduced myself as Miss Connecticut and told him that although my platform was not world peace, and that I didn’t know any titleholder whose platform was, that I have shown true dedication to my platform by helping to create and change policy for mentoring programs, been a keynote on various youth topics, and have been commended, rewarded, and honored outside of the pageant industry for my work with youth. He quickly added that I was the exception to the rule and changed the conversation. But is that the myth that people hold on to? That we as contestants have these outstanding, idealistic platforms of world peace and love for puppies everywhere, but yet do nothing to achieve long lasting sustainable results and achievement for these issues. I guess so, because unlike Rebecca and a few others, most people had their own ideas of what a pageant contestant was supposed to be like. 

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The ideal of Miss America

So I have to ask what is this ideal that everyone thinks is so high and unattainable. The ideal of Miss America has been compared to everything from the media’s model ideals of Kate Moss and Linda Evangelista, to the music industry’s ideal of Brittany Spears. Is it that people think that to be Miss America you must be the thinnest, most beautiful blond haired, blue eye woman to ever walk the face of the earth? Or that you have to be at least 5’8 (without heels) and able to leap cosmetic counters in a single bound? Well to me, the ideal of Miss America is a woman who is intelligent and pursuing higher education. She is a woman who is committed to a platform, not just in word, but more so in action. And above all she is a woman who seeks empowerment for herself and her sisters in search of an independent future filled with service to others. She is talented, refined, sophisticated, educated, enterprising, charismatic, articulate, confident, and fearless in her pursuit of her goals. Whew, she’s a busy woman....oh yeah that’s me. 

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Facilitate change through grassroots efforts

The MAO is a national platform to facilitate change through grassroots efforts that include supporting different causes, starting social programs and improving existing ones and lobbying for policy and legislative changes. Being the largest provider of women’s scholarships in the world, providing over $40 million annually on the local, state, and national level, the MAO’s mission states that for decades it has empowered American women to achieve their personal and professional goals, while providing a forum for them to express their opinions, talents, and intelligence. It supports the idea of lifelong education by providing scholarships that can be used on undergraduate through advanced and professional degrees, as well as scholarships for specific areas of scholastic interest to women whether they win, place or show on all levels of competition. Sound familiar? According to the mission statement of the AAUW, The American Association of University Women is a national organization that promotes education and equity for all women and girls. Our commitment to these issues is reflected in our public policy efforts, programs, and diversity initiatives. I see the goals, aspirations and ideals of the AAUW, in the same light that I view the MAO. Although the vehicles to achieve may be different, the desired end result is the same. And that is to be a woman who does not sit idly by as life happens around her. The end result is to be that catalyst for change. Who wouldn’t want to aspire to that ideal? What woman wouldn’t want that persona? 

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Swimsuit

Aside from the service aspect of pageants, I believe one of the largest misconceptions of pageant contestants, stems from the continued practice of the swimsuit competition. Having started as a swimsuit and bathing beauty competition in 1921, the Miss America Program won’t ever deny it’s roots. However, as we try to teach our youth, despite where you come from, you can always move upward and onward. During the 1940's, the Miss America Organization created the single most important innovation of its time - a scholarship program. 1945 was a year in which only 76,000 women graduated from college, but yet the Miss America Organization was well on its’ way to becoming the largest provider of women’s scholarships in the world. Still in 1950, the MAO was making strides when Miss America 1951, Yolande Betbeze refused to pose in a swimsuit, which infuriated Catalina Swimwear, a major sponsor. Lenora Slaughter and the Board of Directors stood behind Yolande's decision, and Catalina Swimwear withdrew their support of The Miss America Pageant and began plans to start "Miss Universe" in 1952. since that day, Miss America or state or local representatives, have not been officially photographed in swimsuits. This has lead to the importance of the swimsuit competition being whittled to a mere 10% of the contestants final score and talent and interview comprising 80% of the total score with interview and on stage interview counting for 50%. 

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is Miss America ... relevant?

So is Miss America and her pageant counterparts, still relevant in today’s society? Well, where I can’t speak for Miss USA, Miss Beauties of America, or Miss Plus Size America, I can speak for Miss America contestants and my experience. Being 22, I have witnessed many of my friends go through what is affectionately known as the quarter life crisis. This includes difficulty adjusting to life after college as a twenty something in the real world dealing with careers, or lack thereof, relationships, finances, and living situations that often find us at home again under a parents watchful eye. Along with these issues, twenty something are dealing with what to do in social situations including business dinners and job interviews. In the book, Quarter life Crisis, by Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner, one story contributor talked of her decision crisis of whether to order coca cola at a business dinner and how to sit in her first job interview. Although this is not the extent of what contestants in the MAO learn, simple social skills and life preparation is a benefit of the many business lunches and dinners attended as well as participation in one of the most grueling and intense interviews one could have. 

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Progressed with the times

Inasmuch, the Miss America program has progressed with the times. In 1947, only two years after scholarship was offered and Americans were more concerned with bringing our troops home than women going to college, Barbara Jo Walker, Miss America 1947 pleased the American public with the statement, "I’m only interested in one contract, --the marriage contract." This comment was acceptable during a time when a Gallup poll showed that only 18% of the American public approved of a woman working if her husband could adequately support her. More recently, we have been graced by such titleholders as Miss America 1992, Carolyn Sapp who addressed her the domestic violence of her past and used her year to advocate for education, but also created awareness for victims of domestic violence. Miss America 1993, Leanza Cornett became the first to champion AIDS and was quoted as saying, "I compare Miss America to being a politician on the campaign trail." Miss America. More recently, the viewing public has wanted a woman with career ambitions as evidenced by the changes in the views toward women as politicians, and working wives. According to a Gallup poll, the expectations for an ideal woman included one who was career-oriented and more politically active than they were formerly. The question of relevance comes only when skeptics can’t advance their scope of thinking to embrace the changes pageantry, and the Miss America organization specifically has made with the changes of society. 50 years ago, Lucille Ball on I Love Lucy couldn’t utter the word pregnant, but in today’s society we use words like "knocked up" to describe a woman with child on network television. Just as the media has had to accommodate the changes in society and weather the storm that they weren’t keeping up, or going to fast, Miss America too has changed her image and will continue to represent the ever-changing American ideal. This years Miss America is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate, Truman scholar, classical opera singer, Miss America interview winner, school violence survivor, and a future graduate of Harvard law school. She has committed years to the issue of abstinence and youth violence prevention and is an aspiring politician. I think we have come a long way from young women only being interested in their Mrs. degree and looking toward their PhD’s....not only as an organization, Miss America, but as a nation. 

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I hope I have debunked...

 whatever persona you had of me...of my MAO sisters and even those who compete in typical beauty pageants. As a youth speaker, I often tell my students to find their own path. My path included being part of this organization. It has provided me with a platform for my voice and ideas as well as scholarship. I am not tall and thin...nor am I model gorgeous. But I do have talent, a great interview and a well developed platform. Miss America was the vehicle for me and for them, I will always be grateful. for others who aspire to be actresses and entertainers, Miss USA provides them with the glamour and industry connections to advance their careers. That is their path, and for the opportunities created through the Miss Universe corporation, those who benefit always be grateful since actresses like Halle Berry credits her Miss Ohio-USA roots as being a launching pad for her present success. Celebration of a person and their talents, gifts, and aspirations is something that everyone needs, wants, and seeks. The Miss Belleza Latina pageant celebrates the beauty and talents of Latina women as Mr. and Ms. Black American Achievement sees the beauty of African-American women and men. Ms. Plus America and Miss Petite Universal honor women based on a size not so often recognized in the fashion magazines or runways and Ms. Wheelchair America is only for women with a disability. Mrs. U.S. Beauties recognizes the achievement of marriage and includes the husbands in the pageant experience. And there is even a pageant for Navy and Marine Corps wives, active duty and retired women called Ms. Semper Fi. There is a vehicle for everyone. There is a path for everyone. As I tell my students, your path may not be the same length, may not have the same stumbling blocks, you may not even have decided on a path, while your counterparts have been on theirs for years. Your path may include higher education at a 4-year college or university, where others may be looking toward trade school. I tell them whatever it is you want out of life, choose your path accordingly. My path included the MAO where I could exemplify the four points of the crown. Style, Success, Scholarship and Service. I tell them, that they may think that my path is not one of hard work and dedication, but rather rewards for being attractive and a good tap dancer. But I see the MAO as having helped me to form my identity, cultivate more meaning and purpose to my life, and giving me a clear cut path to do so. 

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So when I am asked to debunk the beauty pageant...

  persona, you must understand that the idea I have of the women in these programs is of strong, educated, determined, and committed women. Therefore leaving me with nothing to debunk. And to answer the question of do I think I am it....by it I mean the ideal. Well if we are considering the ideal the woman who is intelligent and pursuing higher education. A woman who is committed to a platform, not just in word, but more so in action. And above all a woman who seeks empowerment for herself and her sisters in search of an independent future filled with service to others. She is talented, refined, sophisticated, educated, enterprising, charismatic, articulate, confident, and fearless in her pursuit of her goals....then yes I am the ideal. All packaged up in 5’4, medium brown package, with average weight and proportions. Not the 5’8 (without heels), fair skinned package, with less than normal weight and proportion package some skeptics would hope I would say we all came in. No the ideal package comes in all heights, colors, shapes and weights. The ideal woman can be 5’0 or 6’1. The only one criteria that is required for all women who desire to be the ideal, is that she be true to herself, her dreams, and pursuit of them. From that standpoint, Miss America fits the bill.

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Tanisha Brito
Miss Connecticut 2002