Should Miss America contestants be partially judged on appearance? Former Miss Illinois feels ‘torn’

For Marisa Buchheit, former Miss Illinois, the swimsuit section felt empowering.
(Donald Kravitz/Getty Images)
Chicago Tribune

The Miss America competition announced Tuesday that it would not only not judge women by their bikini bodies but not by beauty in general.

Gretchen Carlson, a former Miss America now chair of the Miss America Organization, said on “Good Morning America,” that the program is no longer a pageant. It will be focused on “whatever comes out of their mouth.”

“We are no longer a pageant. We are a competition,” she said. “We will no longer judge our candidates on their outward physical appearance. That’s huge.”

Renee Engeln, a psychology professor at Northwestern University and author of “Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession With Appearance Hurts Girls and Women,” said she was skeptical that eliminating bikinis would remove a judgment on appearance.


“Any competition that’s still causing women to spend thousands of dollars on clothing, hair and makeup is a pageant,” she said. “There is no similar system for men to compete for scholarships to universities and colleges, and anytime you see that kind of gender disparity, it’s worth asking more about it.”

Carlson said the changes will make the competition more inclusive. “We’ve heard from a lot of young women who say, ‘We’d love to be part of your program, but we don’t want to be out there in high heels and a swimsuit.’ So guess what? You don’t have to do that anymore.”

Former Miss Illinois Marisa Buchheit said she was “torn” about the announcement. The program began as a swimsuit competition in 1921, and although that was nearly a century ago, she said she was sad to see a severing from the swimwear tradition.

For her, the swimsuit section felt empowering. She had struggled with health and fitness, and had begun weightlifting and running.

“I grew and developed so much in that area, by the time I hit the Miss America stage, I was so proud of my accomplishments,” she said. “I felt truly empowered being up there in my swimsuit.”

That said, she acknowledged that much has changed in the contest’s history and that it was good to move forward and reflect modern culture and trends.

“We should be open to change,” Buchheit said. “Our culture has changed so much since 1921.” Back then, she added, “it was almost like a cattle call. They just had to stand up there and look good. I’m glad we’ve come a long ways from that. For that reason, I’m OK with that swimsuit element going away.”


But people tune in for the swimsuit competition. And that’s not a bad thing, she said, because it also means high ratings for a show that gives out scholarships. She said she received about $40,000 in scholarships throughout her years competing, which helped her pay off student loans after graduating from the Cleveland Institute of Music. Buchheit is a soprano who is performing with the Southern Illinois Music Festival this week.

Buchheit talked to other title holders Tuesday who were concerned that another talent show might get higher ratings if it showed more skin.

“When you think of beauty pageants, you think of the swimsuit competition as one of the highlights,” she said. “We think that Miss America might actually lose some of its relevancy as a result of this.”

Organizers could have considered other options, she added, like a one-piece or a lifestyle and fitness competition similar to what the teen competition has, with sportswear, a dance routine and push-ups.


This week, hopefuls to be crowned Miss Illinois for 2018 are competing at the Marion Cultural Civic Center in Marion, Ill. Whoever wins will go on to compete in this fall’s Miss America.

“They’ll have all kinds of changes to get ready for,” Buchheit said.

Twitter @byalisonbowen


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