There are a lot of things I had to reconcile in my righteous feminist heart when I watched the Miss America 2017 pageant. Though beloved by many and certainly a celebration of sequins and rhinestones (the best kind of celebration, let's be honest), I have a hard time watching certain portions of the show without cringing. Swimsuit competition, I'm looking at you.
Usually, when I find it difficult to harmonize my feminist politics with an event or piece of work I'm initially uncomfortable with, I try to look at the women involved — in this case, the contestants. These 52 women have all worked incredibly hard to get to the competitive stage that they're at, and there's nothing more feminist than supporting the successes of other women, regardless of how well I understand them.
That's why I was so disheartened to hear Miss South Carolina, Rachel Wyatt's, comments on how women should dress, her words playing as the soundtrack to her walk down the runway during the evening gown competition.
"Something that we've lost sight of as a culture is how important it is to be modest," Wyatt said. "And I think Miss America is a role model for so many young girls, and they need to know that you don't have to wear revealing clothing or be sexy to be beautiful, you just need to be you."
The latter sentiment, that young girls should just be themselves, is admirable — but what comes before it sounds like the opposite of embracing individuality. It reinforces the archaic idea that if a young woman dresses provocatively, she's got something to prove. Her comments imply that women who dress in revealing clothing don't really know why they're doing it, reducing them to nothing but eager-to-please stereotypes who have no agency in the clothing choices they make.
The truth is, plenty of women dress in revealing clothing, some for no reason other than the fact that they like it. No matter what your motivations are, there's absolutely nothing wrong with wearing whatever the hell you want — and if modesty doesn't factor into the equation, that's just fine.
There are a lot of reasons why women should stop shaming other women for wearing revealing clothing, but what sticks out about Miss South Carolina's comments in this particular context is that she's actively participating in a competition that's often criticized for being vapid and empty — something that certain critics (read: sexists) argue only a vain, self-obsessed woman would participate in.
While the model for competition might leave a lot to be desired, I know that the stereotypes about the women involved aren't true, and would never make assumptions about the character of a woman based on what she chooses to do or how she chooses to present herself. Unfortunately, Wyatt's comments imply that she doesn't feel the same, and that just doesn't sit well with me.
After looking through the reactions to her words on Twitter, I wasn't surprised to see that many people felt the same, but for a different reason. Others took note of her comments and reacted to them negatively, but there was something about their words that didn't feel right, either.
The hypocrisy of making comments about modesty while wearing a revealing dress isn't lost on me, but it's also not the point: Miss South Carolina can and should wear whatever makes her happy, and no one should judge her for it. Her judging others for the same doesn't make it OK — if anything, that mindset just reinforces the same bad ideas we should be pushing back against.
Even though I don't agree with what she said and we might have different ideas about feminism, I'm still happy for Miss South Carolina. She competed on a national stage and won first runner up in the competition. It's possible that over time, she'll find reasons to change her mind about the importance of modesty. Either way, all I can do is support her, and every woman who makes the choice to do, wear, and live exactly what and how she wants.