Apr 1, 2006
An exploration of the controversial Miss America Scholarship Program from the perpective of a contestant. A first-person essay/editorial published in The Columbia Spectator on 2/9/01

Rehearsing for the Miss New York Preliminaries is thrilling, glamorous and hard work. I know because I compete in it.

The Miss America Program empowers women. So why do some people still disapprove of it?

Miss New York scholarship winner Jessica Lynch, Miss New York City contestant Noelle Ashley, Miss New York City scholarship winner Alice Bugman and Miss New York scholarship winner Andrea Miller (left to right)

Last year Miss America awarded nearly $32 million in scholarships to help educate bright young women. For this reason alone, it is much more than a starry-eyed girl’s fantasy role – it is a feminist’s dream.

The judges focus on contestants’ accomplishments in and out of the classroom. All women involved are not only students but also leaders in their communities.

Contestants are required to choose the issue most important to them and demonstrate dedication to it. For example, Harvard graduate Laura Lawless adopted a platform of mental illness. Other platforms were the prevention of eating disorders, heart disease, smoking and sexual assault.

Each woman promotes one charitable cause, and the winner uses her title to make a difference through volunteer work, speeches and fundraisers. Her “reign” can be equated to a “year of service.”

In other words, Miss America is no bimbo. She is well-spoken, well-informed, and works actively to improve society. In addition, the interview stresses career ambition. Former Miss Americas are doctors, lawyers, businesswomen, teachers, and journalists (Diane Sawyer was a scholarship pageant winner), showing that the women succeed beyond their looks. Therefore, the “ditz” stereotype is unjustified.

Performing a scene on stage in 2002; New York City

Contestants work hard to prepare their minds and bodies. Rehearsals require about six hours total. On our own, we practice talents of singing, dancing, monologues and gymnastics. We sing songs in cabs, on the subway, and walking down the street so it comes like second nature. We read The New York Times to be proficient in current events. Then we hit the gym, hope for the best and look forward to performance night.

The categories of evening wear and swimsuit spark controversy, but judges don’t rate one’s physical attributes. Instead, they evaluate the woman’s onstage answers to two impromptu questions and her poise while she sports a one- or two-piece bathing suit. Is this degrading? It isn’t, because the point is to encourage contestants to be comfortable with their bodies and to lead healthy lifestyles.

The swimsuit category does not promote anorexia or bulimia, nor does it prevent larger women from competing. It simply stresses the importance of regular exercise and nutrition. As exemplified by such platform issues as heart disease, extra weight puts one’s health at risk. The public also was polled: “Should swimsuit be abolished?” The majority voted “No.”

Character is another area that raises critics’ eyebrows. Popular stereotypes typecast Miss America as “Mary Sunshine” or the always smiling “girl next door.” This is not necessarily negative, but at the same time, it is not wholly accurate. Miss America deals with serious topics, visits schoolchildren to discuss education, and does not take being a role model lightly.

The idea of a fake blonde with a nose job and breast implants is quite off-base. In fact, contestants are diverse and winners include African-Americans and Asian-Americans. See for yourself when this year’s Miss America is chosen on September 22.
It’s not an old-fashioned beauty pageant but instead an opportunity for academic advancement, with a $35,000 scholarship for each winner.

But the rewards of the Miss America Program far exceed monetary value. The atmosphere is inspiring and lifelong friends are made. These are people who understand the true meaning behind the crown: character, education and overall excellence.

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