Beauty redefined? Miss Teen USA says goodbye to swimsuits in heels

Yoga pants may infiltrate the longstanding beauty contest. Miss Teen USA competition set to emphasize activewear over swimwear.

Todd Wawrychuk/Miss Universe L.P., LLLP/AP/File
Five finalists for Miss Teen USA in Pasadena, Calif. in 2007. This week the pageant dropped its controversial swimsuit competition.

Swimwear will no longer be part of the competition at the Miss Teen USA beauty pageant.

Organizers announced that they would drop the long-controversial swimsuit part of the competition in favor of an athletic leisurewear segment. They are the second major American pageant to do so – Miss World dropped the category, which classically involves contestants doing a stage walk in bikinis and heels, two years ago.

"This decision reflects an important cultural shift we're all celebrating that empowers women who lead active, purposeful lives and encourage those in their communities to do the same," wrote Miss Universe president Paula Shugart in a memo, reports USA Today. Miss Teen USA competition is owned by the Miss Universe Organization. "Our hope is that this decision will help all of Miss Teen USA's fans recognize these young women for the strong, inspiring individuals they are."

The decision is a break with the organization's beauty pageant lineage: The Miss Universe website traces its pageant's roots to a "local 'bathing beauty' " competition in Long Beach, Calif. The history of beauty pageants in the United States is closely linked to beach resorts – a forerunner of the modern pageants was held in 1880 Rehoboth Beach, Del., and in the early 20th century, oceanside Atlantic City's Miss America pageant became entertainment for the newly vacationing working class.

But the decision may be one sign that the pageant is aiming to evolve its concept of beauty alongside society's.

An evolution of the pageant has already been happening: in recent decades pageants have tried transitioning away from beauty competitions to be considered scholarship competitions. Miss America has strongly emphasized this aspect of its competition for both women and teens, while a "Pageant Center" website says "scholarship pageants are one of the most effective ways for teens and young women to afford a college education."

Miss Universe puts less emphasis on the idea of scholarship, but bill their crowned women as "confidently beautiful," saying that with that confidence comes the "power to make real change."

And women in the pageants uphold this standard.

Former Miss Venezuela Eva Ekvall, who passed away in 2011, became an advocate for health and questioning breast augmentation in her home country. Other contestants, like Miss USA 2015, Olivia Jordan lobbies on Capitol Hill for ending childhood prostitution in the US, USA Today reports.

Recent contestants are also challenging stereotypes about who makes a beauty pageant contestant: In the Miss America pageant, Miss Missouri Erin O'Flaherty will compete as the competition's first openly gay contestant this year, and the 2016 Miss USA Deshauna Barber of the District of Columbia is an Army officer.

While the pageant has been evolving, some critics have rebuffed the efforts to modernize and change the focus of the beauty pageant, saying the changes are superficial.

"Although pageant officials and contestants emphasize scholarships, talents and platform issues and repackage the swimsuit competition as the 'lifestyle and fitness' category, their rhetoric rings hollow," Blain Roberts, a historian, wrote in 2013 in a New York Times opinion piece. Ms. Roberts feels that the modern pageants continues to "sexualize [women's] bodies and encourage conformity to 'ludicrous' beauty standards." 

Former Miss Virginia Nancy Redd, of the Miss America competition, supports the swimwear to athletic wear change as a new emphasis on strength and fitness over appearance. But she also points to the fact that the switch may have some economic motivations.

"Teens are spending .1 percent of their life in a bathing suit and 50 percent in athleisure. The pageant is following the trend of who can sponsor them," she told USA Today.

However, Miss Teen USA contestants seem to agree that athletic wear is more in tune with their lives.

"I have been an athlete my entire life. As a member of a softball team and a competitive dance team, I spend a lot of time in athletic wear," says Katherine Haik, the reigning Miss Teen USA, reports USA Today.

"This new direction for Miss Teen USA is a great way to celebrate the active lives that so many young women lead and set a strong example for our peers."

While Miss Teen USA will no longer have the swimsuit portion, Miss USA and Miss Universe, for adult women, will continue to include that competition. The Miss Universe Organization, formerly owned by Donald Trump, was sold to WME-IMG talent agency in September, and runs all three competitions.

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