Last week, the 97-year-old Miss America organization removed the word “pageant” from its name and dropped the swimsuit competition, caving to the opinion that such events demean women. But that’s not how I experienced it.
Backstage at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, the scene before the swimwear segment looked like a Pilates class. The other Miss America finalists were doing sit-ups on the cold ground, holding wall sits, and squeezing in burpees and pushups as a last-ditch effort to accentuate their muscle tone. I was standing in my sponsored, custom-tailored black bikini and high heels, mentally preparing for my 15 seconds in a swimsuit on national TV.
For such a small amount of fabric, our bikinis got a lot of fixing and fussing. I triple-checked to confirm my cups were covering what they needed to. I tugged at my swimsuit bottom to make sure the butt glue — actually an anti-slip spray used on tennis rackets called Firm Grip — was working. To have it applied, finalists lined up, then gave ourselves a wedgie so a gloved and kneeling matronly volunteer could spray Firm Grip on our bare butt cheeks, then place the edges of our swimsuit bottom into perfect position. We had to shuffle off gingerly to wait for the stuff to dry.
Not wanting to just awkwardly stand there, I did some half-hearted leg lifts. I saw one contestant do a weightlifter’s squat, only to realize that she’d dislodged her bikini bottoms. She held her palms to both cheeks to rewarm the adhesive, making it tacky enough to re-stick.
The last-minute exercising combined with the hot stage lights gave us a rosy glow, even though our faces were covered with layers of industrial-strength foundation, concealer and blush. Lady Gaga’s “Applause” erupted from the refrigerator-sized speakers on the stage. The bass made the floor quiver. The booming voice of the emcee echoing each name into Boardwalk Hall, prompting crowds from each state to erupt in cheers, made the scene feel like “The Hunger Games.” One by one, each contestant disappeared from our little CrossFit community.
When it was my turn, I stepped onstage into my carefully choreographed pose: foot popped up and hip pushed out to give my body a flattering S-curve silhouette. I heard the footsteps of the steadicam operator and smiled and made eye contact with his camera. As I walked out toward the audience, I prayed I would not fall. The dancer in me focused my body on the mechanics of the walk: Suck in the tummy, lower the shoulders, straighten the knee, smile at the judges, wink at the camera, place the hands on the waist, now drop them by your sides.
I hadn’t anticipated how much colder it was going to be out on stage in the air-conditioned auditorium. Sharing the same space with the fans and judges suddenly made all the distance disappear. My racing heart seemed to slow down as a calmness gradually came over me. Years of anxiety — of both fearing and wanting this moment — evaporated. The tension in my jaw melted away, replaced by a genuine grin. I felt not just confident, but unstoppable. In an instant, it was over.
Walking out in a bikini before a crowd cheering my name gave me a rush and sense of courage I never thought possible. I know will never again be able to get that feeling.
Miss America had been under pressure for years to end the swimsuit tradition, which is as old as the pageant itself. Beauty pageants are considered sexist today, so Miss America chose to innovate rather than die. I understand why. Like consumer products, cultural rituals are always evolving. To survive, pageants need to behave like businesses and react to a new market of women with different needs.
Still, dropping the swimwear category is a loss to the contest. It delivered a powerful message: that beauty and brains are not mutually exclusive and that you can be a feminist and flaunt your body. Letting contestants don the bikini was inherently feminist because women made that choice for themselves. Future participants will be forced into a new form of sexism, one that emerges out of today’s popular feminist narrative. It may be driven by contemporary ideas, but it disguises the same, familiar barriers and judgments surrounding women’s decisions.
Critics love to lambast pageants for being objectifying and degrading. But ask contestants like me. We’ll tell you we were baring our midriffs because we wanted to.
Crystal Lee was Miss California and 1st Runner Up to Miss America 2014. She co-founded a tech startup, LifeSite, and now hosts “This is SF.”