I Went To The Miss America Pageant & Had A Full-On Existential Crisis

Let's just get this out of the way right now: I was not raised to like the Miss America competition. My mother, like a lot of her second-wave feminist peers who came of age in the '60s and '70s, bore the scars of feeling like she had to live up to the example set by Miss America and other then-prized paragons of femininity. Even in her 40s, I could tell that, on some level, my mother felt like a failure for not being as conventionally beautiful, as thin, as sweet, and as accommodating as the Miss America ideal of her youth. She was determined that the same thing wouldn't happen to me. So we never watched the show as a family, never took bets on who would win or goofed on the contestants' 20-second answers to shockingly complex political questions. When commercials for the pageant came on, we turned the channel.

So before I set off for Atlantic City, New Jersey, to attend the Miss America 2017 competition and write about it, everything I knew about the competition came from pop culture and my collegiate women's studies classes, which covered the 1968 feminist protest of the competition, where activists held signs that said "All Women Are Beautiful" and threw bras and copies of Playboy into a "Freedom Trash Can." Until I walked into Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall to witness the competition, I had never actually watched a Miss America pageant in my life.

Apparently, I'm not the only one. Miss America's ratings have declined since the mid-'80s — Sunday night's competition had 6.23 million viewers, compared to the 20-plus million viewers the pageant had at its peak through the late '70s — but more than that, the idea that Miss America represents everything a woman should aspire to be seems to have faded among millennial women.

This conclusion is supported by some thoroughly unscientific research I undertook in the week leading up to my trip, when I asked several of my 20-something friends about their take on the competition. Several told me that they thought of the pageant as outdated, irrelevant or "almost quaint"; one told me that, as a kid who didn't feel conventionally attractive, she had loved the glamour of it, and the adult transformation fantasy it seemed to promise. But everyone agreed that they hadn't watched the pageant in a long time, and that Miss America wasn't an ideal they felt they had to live up to. As one fellow reporter I met at the pageant told me, Miss America was "way down the list" of things that made her feel self-conscious about her body, or herself, these days.

It all made me wonder: If Miss America no longer exerts a pull of intense fascination and anxiety, aspiration and anger, on the average young American woman, what role does Miss America now play in our culture? And could the fact that both the show and the pageant winner no longer loom as large in the public consciousness actually be a net positive for the idea of Miss America itself and the women who compete in it? The drive to find an answer — and my drive to buy one of those tank tops with the fringe on the bottom — led me to Atlantic City.

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Atlantic City, the traditional home of the Miss America competition (except for a handful of years when the show was broadcast from Las Vegas), might be one of the most symbolically American areas in the country. It's a place where nature, commerce, and America’s urge to eat a fried Oreos intersect; a place where a gorgeous butterfly will swoop out of a sand dune, across a talking electronic billboard of Gordon Ramsay, and into a souvenir shop.

That last part wasn't a metaphor; that's literally what I saw the second I stepped out of my hotel onto the beach boardwalk that comprises the area's tourist thoroughfare. A pedicab driver called out to me, "Enjoy the show tonight!" I looked down and realized that my get-up of black business-casual dress and black heels made my agenda for the evening obvious; everyone else on the boardwalk was dressed far more sensibly for the heat in flip-flops and beach cover-ups. (No one told me to dress up; it just felt like if I was going to potentially be on TV, I should put on something that needs to be dry-cleaned ).

I picked out another woman in heels in the crowd, and followed her down the boardwalk, toward an area where I spotted more and more women decked out in heels and tastefully celebratory dresses (think: something you might wear to your extremely successful friend's office holiday party). We were in front of Convention Hall. It was still several hours before the pageant would begin, but attendees were already clustered out front.

Most noticeable in the crowd were the regional pageant winners, mostly from teen competitions throughout the country, who wore their sashes and carried their tiaras in clear plastic cases. The young women gathered in groups that usually included a few moms, mugging for the camera in photos by the Miss America statue, holding huge signs bearing the face of whichever contestant they were rooting for (after some casual chatting, I learned that these were generally the competitors from their home state). They had come to Atlantic City to be seat-fillers — people who filled in any gaps so the arena would appear completely full on TV.

Everyone was so excited, and having so much fun, it was easy to get swept up in it — and I felt like a jerk for still being preoccupied with the things about Miss America that bothered me. Like any long-running American institution, Miss America has a lot of complex cultural baggage. Started in 1921 as a full-on beauty contest where the winner was crowned the “Golden Mermaid” and given $100, it ran until 1928, when a combination of the Great Depression and a concern that its contestants were glorifying “loose morals” kept the pageant dark until 1933. In the decade following its revival, it broadened beyond a simple beauty pageant, switching out its prizes of fur coats and film opportunities for college scholarships, and adding a talent competition.

The early decades of the pageant have an especially checkered history regarding issues of race — the contest was informally segregated in its early years, then formally segregated after its 1933 revival, with official rules requiring that “contestants must be of good health and of the white race” until 1950. In 1968, the Miss Black America pageant was held in Atlantic City at the same time as the Miss America pageant as a form of protest, as the competition had still never had a black contestant, despite the fact that formal racial ban was no longer in effect. (Cheryl Browne, Miss Iowa 1970, became the first African-American contestant, and Vanessa Williams became the first African-American Miss America in 1984.)

But the negative associations that many of us carry about Miss America may have obscured some of the competition's more positive elements. I, like a lot of non-watchers, had raised my eyebrow about the idea of it primarily being a scholarship organization  — how many scholarships require that applicants strap on a bathing suit in public, after all? — but, as they note on their website, Miss America genuinely is "the nation's largest provider of scholarship assistance for young women."

However, as a 2014 segment on John Oliver's Last Week Tonight announced, not all of the then-publicized $45 million in scholarships made available by the competition were actually used by competitors — after obtaining tax records from the Miss America Organization, Last Week's researchers found that the $45 million figure was reached by counting all potential scholarships, including multiple scholarships offered to the same contestant (who could choose only one) and scholarships that went completely unclaimed; as Amanda Hess at Slate noted of the segment, "Miss Alabama, for example, claimed to provide nearly $2.6 million in scholarship money to just one college, Troy University, in 2012; Troy told Oliver that because no Miss Alabama contestants accepted a scholarship at the university that year, the actual sum paid out to women was $0.

In 2015, the Miss America Organization announced a review of its scholarship program, later issuing a statement that read:

In 2014, the Miss America Organization and its 52 state organizations awarded nearly $6 million in combined cash and in-kind tuition waiver scholarships to women across the country. ... In previous years, the organization maintained that it made available $45 million in scholarships annually. ... While accurate, this figure did not convey the actual acceptance and utilization of scholarships, especially in the form of in-kind tuition waivers.

Those scholarship numbers certainly invite valid questioning; but in my professional life, the connection between Miss America and the scholarships it provides was made by Dr. Jennifer Caudle, Family Physician and Assistant Professor at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine, and frequent Bustle health expert. Caudle competed in the pageant in 1999 as Miss Iowa and served this year as a preliminary judge; she told Bustle, of her brief pageant career (she only competed in four, including Miss America): "I did it for the scholarships, and it was really an amazing, life-changing experience. And it actually provided scholarship money for me when I went to med school, years after I competed, I was still able to use scholarship money from the Miss America organization."

You are, of course, free to call me biased — I know and adore Dr. Caudle. But she's also a real person, whom I have met in my own extremely unglamorous life, who was able to pursue a life that she dreamed of — a life that may have otherwise been beyond her reach — because of the Miss America Organization. Similarly, Miss America 2003, Erika Harold, told Cosmopolitan, "I know that if I hadn't won, I would be deeply in debt from law school."

In fact, the elements of the competition that get less press — aka the parts that don't involve fancy dresses or generous application of butt glue — were, to me, the most intriguing parts. The contestant's platform, which may be discussed quickly or not at all during the aired competition, are actually a huge part of the contestant's daily life. As Miss America 1998 Kate Shindle wrote in her memoir, Becoming Miss America:

Since 1989, every contestant has been required to develop a specific and focused community service initiative in order to enter the pageant, even at the local level. By the time they reach the national competition, the work they have done— individually and especially collectively—is astounding. They lobby Congress, collaborate on legislation, raise funds, receive awards, speak to students of all ages.

Before the event, I spoke to Miss America 1965, Vonda Van Dyke Scoates, about how the competition had changed. She told Bustle, "The thing I wish we'd had was the platform, because I think it's wonderful to be able to talk about something that is your passion. We used to get questions all the way across the board, and we could have steered something towards a platform, and I wish that had happened for us."  

Still pondering Scoates' comment, I walked to my seat in the cavernous arena — which was full of buoyant energy from the fans in the stands and also a number of signs reminding us that the venue would soon host the nu metal act Disturbed — thinking about how the way the culture interprets Miss America and what she represents might have more to do with what the culture believes about women than anything about the actual women involved.

I was seated behind a large contingent of teen pageant winners from all over the country, which seemed to me to be the best seat in the house. Even with the stands filled with the contestants' friends and family, no one seemed more excited to be there than these young women. They cheered rowdily, they stood up frequently to get a better look (which blocked my view, but hey, who's counting), they discussed the results in tight, private clutches. Their crowns were liberated from their plastic holders and now planted firmly on their heads; every time the stage lights swept across our area, the rhinestones cast disco-ball beams across my body.

In their excitement, about the pageant and each other, they seemed to undermine every stereotype about pageant competitors as superficial women engaged in power struggles, as people not here to make friends. They were definitely here to make friends — which, as Dr. Caudle told me, Miss America contestants are, too. She said that contestants from her year are members of a dedicated Facebook group, and when I asked her what had changed and stayed the same since her time, she said, "The thing that's stayed the same is how amazing the women are."

Though I am sure the contestants are amazing women, there is another connective thread between them — they're all conventionally beautiful. Miss America is about beauty. It's about a lot of other things, too; but the beauty bit is no secret — host Chris Harrison referred to the beauty of the contestants more than once . You’re probably never going to get a chance to show the judges your sharp take on contemporary politics or your impressive bassoon cover of “Firework” if you don't have a straight-size body, a symmetrical face, a traditionally feminine presentation... in short, if you don't look like Miss America. Though Miss America competitors have become an increasingly diverse group over the last several decades — the once-segregated competition now includes competitors from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, former military service members, non-able-bodied women, and, with this year’s Miss Michigan, Erin O’Flaherty, out queer women — there is no record of any contestants who identify as plus-sized competing in the pageant.

I didn't know how to make sense of my feelings about this. I couldn't disregard the fact that the pageant didn't represent true physical diversity; but to dismiss the hard work that the contestants put into it, and the life-changing things they got out of it, felt as regressive, cruel, and, well, as sexist as critics often accuse the pageant of being.

When the 15 primary contestants were selected in the pageant's first televised section, one girl in the row ahead of me excitedly whispered, "You guys, we are looking at the next Miss America RIGHT NOW!" She got me more excited for the competition than the actual hosts did.

Which was still not that excited. As I watched my first-ever Miss America pageant, I was surprised by how emotionally uninvolved I felt — I didn't feel the righteous indignation I had anticipated I would when everyone came out in their swimsuits, and I didn't feel too swept away by anyone's talent presentation (in fairness to me, they were only 90 seconds long each, and viewers at home had a much better look at the dancing and baton-twirling than I did from my spot at the back of the arena floor). I felt shocked at how complex the interview questions were, and impressed that the contestants were able to assemble even a single semi-coherent answer in just 20 seconds.

But I didn't feel outraged by the idea of women being judged or swept away in the excitement of the competition. And when they finally announced that Miss Arkansas, Savvy Shields, would be Miss America 2017, and began playing the show's signature theme song  (which includes the lyrics "There she is / your ideal"), I stood up to crane my neck and get a brief look at Shields as she took a celebratory stroll across a long stage that ran into the front of the audience, then grabbed my purse and left while the song was still playing.

To me, ironically, the main event that you can see on TV, with each contestant getting only a few dedicated moments of solo stage time, seems to tell you little about the women involved, or the culture they inhabit, or the real things they get out of the experience. My day talking to the former competitors and hopeful future competitors made me feel like I understood why Miss America, with all its flaws, was still so meaningful to them; but up there, to me, the competition passed in a blur of sparkles and soundbites.

As we all poured out onto the boardwalk, I wondered if I was standing in a spot where those protesters had stood almost 50 years ago. I felt thankful that I lived in a different era than them, a time when Miss America isn't held up as the feminine ideal that women feel pressured to emulate. I appreciated the style and spark of the impeccably made-up, tiara-ed women who flooded out past me, discussing after-parties or where they had parked, but I didn't wish I was any of them. This was, I hoped, the future of Miss America — a world where she exists to be celebrated by the people who love and identify with her, rather than casting a shadow over mainstream culture to the point where her very existence feels like an oppressive force to women who want to be something else. Miss America is now not the ideal of American womanhood; she's simply one more way to be a woman. And with that, I bought one of those tank tops with the fringe on the bottom, and headed back to my room.

Images: Gabrielle Moss

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