I remember watching Mary Ann Mobley crowned Miss America in 1959 when I was 12 years old. Although I suspect I watched the Miss America Pageant more than once, that’s the pageant I remember. Twelve years old must have been the year when I became aware of the importance of being pretty and “sweet.” The importance of having a good figure and looking perfect in a bathing suit while remaining asexual. I became aware that people judged me by how I looked. And here she was, Miss America, walking down the runway at the end of the program while Bert Parks assured us she was “our ideal.”
Of course, at 12 years old I was anything but Miss America material. I was in a state of transition though. I was still playing sports with the boys in the housing project where I lived and saw no reason not to compete and win, but there were certain boys that I’d known most of my young life that were “different” now, there was a “feeling” about them. That was probably around the time I became aware of how I looked and acted and began searching for clues about how I “should” be looking and acting. My friends and I began walking around with books balanced on our heads so we could walk like Miss America.
In addition to the Miss America Pageant, there were other clues. Magazine and TV commercials told me what I “should” look like and how to overcome my 12 year old “flaws.” So for the first time I became aware of the bathroom scale and what I weighed. Hair and eyelash curlers, mascara, lip gloss and blush became a part of my vocabulary. I took another look at how I interacted with the boys I knew and tried some of the techniques in Seventeen Magazine. Of course, mom and dad could tell me I was perfect just the way I was until they were blue in the face but deep down inside I knew they didn’t understand. And so it began.
I guess I see the Miss America Pageant as I see the Olympics. Are the women and athletes the best this country has to offer, of course not. The number one requirement for both competitions is a good financial base. I suspect for most Olympic sports there’s a young athlete living in America with no financial support that could beat the pants off the guy or gal standing on the Olympic podium.
For the Miss America Pageant there are gowns, hairstylists, personal trainers, competition fees and heaven knows what other expenses to be covered before a young woman walks on the stage in Atlantic City. I suspect there just might be another young woman sitting on her front porch somewhere in the US with a more beautiful face, and a perfect figure that would outshine any primped and pampered “official” Miss America contestant.
The criteria for selecting Miss America have changed over the years. The educational scholarships awarded have increased. While doing a little research for this blog, I came across a video of a Miss America contestant in the late 1950s who was asked this final question: “How would you get a boy on a first date to begin a conversation?” Her response: “Well, most boys play sports so I would ask him what sports he played. If he didn’t play a sport I would ask him what his hobbies were. If he didn’t have any hobbies I guess I’d just be quiet for the rest of the night.”
The new Miss America selected last night, 23 year old Mallory Hagan, was asked if armed guards should be in our schools. Her response, “We should not fight violence with violence;” a good answer to a question that would have been inconceivable 50 years ago. Who knew questions asked at Miss America competitions could reveal so much about the evolution of our society and the evolution of women’s role in dealing with the serious issues we are facing.
The new Miss America’s focus is preventing child sexual abuse; if one child is spared that trauma because of her celebrity then that’s a good thing. Yet, the Miss America Pageant is still a beauty competition where contestants smile their perfect smiles as they walk their well-choreographed walk across the stage in their skimpy little bathing suits showing off their perfectly sculptured little bodies telling all little girls watching that this is how the ideal American woman should look. That is not a good thing.