In 2007, Miss Teen South Carolina, Caitlin Upton, went viral for her response to a question about why a fifth of Americans could not locate the U.S. on a world map. Under the blinding spotlight, 18-year-old Caitlin babbled nervously about “the Iraq” and how “people out there in our nation don’t have maps.” Her gaffe received 80 million views and was severely scrutinized for its unfortunate adherence to stereotypes about attractive women, particularly pageant queens.
This year, Emily Sioma of Michigan posed a bold challenge to that assumption, introducing herself with a line that could not have been further from Upton’s response.
“From a state with 84 percent of the U.S. fresh water, but none for its residents to drink,” she said, “I’m Miss Michigan, Emily Sioma.”
Sioma used her platform to highlight an important issue facing the residents of her state – the Flint water crisis. The 24-year-old University of Michigan graduate has spoken to interviewers about the importance of activism and the impact of the scholarship money offered by the Miss America Organization to women pursuing higher education. She wore a Black Lives Matter t-shirt to rehearsals and has been unapologetic about expressing her opinions. Her outlook certainly represents progress for an institution that has long been criticized for its emphasis on judging women solely based on their adherence to unrealistic beauty standards.
This year, the revamped Miss America Organization seems genuine about promoting inclusivity and evaluating women more holistically. It is now headed by former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson, who eliminated the swimsuit competition. “We will no longer judge our candidates on their outward physical appearance,” she said.
Now, the pageant aims to recognize women for their social impact and achievements. While this is a laudable goal, physical judgment most certainly still plays a role. The lineup of smiling faces in this year’s Miss America may belong to a broader range of ethnicities and cultural backgrounds, but they are still unified by their sparkling white teeth, long, thick hair and slender frames. Social impact may ultimately win you the pageant, but it is not what gets you in the door in the first place.
Pageants might seem like an extreme example of the physical scrutiny to which women are subjected, but the workplace is just as critical. A survey of 500 hiring professionals conducted last year found that of all the women they interviewed, the most likely candidate to be selected was a young, thin, Caucasian brunette. Additionally, only 15 percent of these managers said they would hire an overweight woman and 20 percent went so far as to describe such a candidate as “lazy.”
While we have made significant strides in terms of how we judge women, appearance remains one of the first and most salient parameters. And until institutions can truly say they have eliminated that factor, it is better to be frank about what our biases are and work actively to combat them than to allege that they do not exist in the first place.