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There She Is, Miss America, Fully Clothed

Miss Louisiana Laryssa Bonacquisti reacts after advancing to the evening gown round of the Miss America 2018 pageant, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017, in Atlantic City, N.J. (Noah K. Murray/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Miss Louisiana Laryssa Bonacquisti reacts after advancing to the evening gown round of the Miss America 2018 pageant, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017, in Atlantic City, N.J. (Noah K. Murray/AP)

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Messalina Morley looks fit, whether decked out in a gown, shorts and bare-shouldered blouse, or a swimsuit. At the risk of being heteronormative/sexist/politically incorrect, I’d say she’s an attractive woman.

And last year, she had to defend the proposition that she wasn’t too big to be crowned Miss New Jersey USA. For most of her clothes, the 20-year-old wears sizes 8 to 10, which makes her “plus-sized” in a pageant world where 6 or smaller is more typical. (She didn’t win.)

That, in a nutshell, or swimsuit if you prefer, is why we should applaud the Miss America Organization deep-sixing its fabled bathing attire competition. When beauty pageants’ definition of “beauty” is so untethered from reality,  you have to ask what they’re looking for. The answer, as Gretchen Carlson, chair of Miss America’s trustees, put it, is an objectification of women for an unnecessary (and for some, unattainable) standard, parading them in bikinis and heels and grading them like frat boys at a college dining hall.

That’s anachronistic in 2018.

The pageant’s decision doesn’t abolish beauty or our ability to appreciate it. The trait will always confer advantages, not all of them fair (lookers earn more). Still, I wasn’t surprised that male talk radio hosts reacted to the decision as a cultural Pearl Harbor, the enemy strafing our God-given right to leer.

But I did a double-take when women splintered over the pageant’s call, with some former winners defending the swimsuit segment as emphasizing health and fitness, not looks.

They’re kidding themselves. The competition is all about beauty, period, as male advocates like Piers Morgan acknowledge. He wrote that competitors make it to Atlantic City “because they’re smoking hot.”

As for what women see when gazing at the wafer-thin silhouettes that are pageantry’s gold standard of beauty, it’s apparently not fitness but something more noxious: That standard may help induce eating disorders.

If you really wanted to measure fitness, as a journalist covering the swimsuit debate told WBUR’s On Point, judges ogling half-naked women for 20 seconds each is hardly the scientific method in action.

Some would like to scrap beauty pageants altogether as relics of a sexist, prehistoric past. Miss America’s underwhelming TV viewership certainly suggests it has aged into irrelevance. I haven’t watched the damn thing in years, retaining childhood memories of iconic MC Bert Parks, prancing to Wings’ "Let 'Em In" with intended or unintended campiness; either way, he was cringe-inducing.

(I also recall the brief reign of his successor, Ron Ely, who had played TV’s Tarzan and is the only man who could defend the swimsuit contest, on the grounds that he’d displayed himself in even skimpier attire.)

But participants — those who run, watch and compete in pageants — exemplify the freedom of association de Tocqueville admired in America (albeit it on a national scale unimaginable to the Frenchman). And as Miss America is one of the country’s biggest scholarship sources ($2 million last year), we should be content to leave its fate up to the marketplace.

But Carlson, a former Miss America whose most famously exposed body part was her backbone, when she forced the ouster of Fox News chairman Roger Ailes for sexual harassment, now leads a mostly female board at the Miss America Organization. The new sensibility flexed itself in the board’s unanimous decision to put away the bikinis for untelevised beach trips.

It’s a good call. And who knows? Maybe the controversy will goose the ratings this September, when instead of marching in beachwear, the would-be Miss Americas will chat with judges about their accomplishments and goals.

They’ll still look fit.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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