A letter from Cara Mund to previous Miss Americas leaked recently and spelled out mistreatment from the Miss America Organization, even bullying. My heart broke for her, but I also felt nervous for the response she’d receive internally. No one has ever publicly unmasked manipulation and feelings of being silenced while they were a titleholder…in any pageant system. How many other pageant winners live in intimidation? I want to support Cara because no girl should live in fear. Girls spend years preparing for a dream, so the year of reign shouldn’t be a nightmare.
I reflected on countless conversations I’ve had with other titleholders. They shared similar sentiments in regards to emotional, even psychological distress. All of this has made me wonder why it’s taken until now for someone to be so brave and speak out. Aren’t pageants supposed to empower and embolden women, especially title holders?
A team of women led by Gretchen Carlson replaced the male leadership at the MAO (Miss American Organization), so all should be good in the world of the #MeToo women’s empowerment, right? But maybe men aren’t always the problem. Maybe it’s a power problem, or more specifically a fear problem. Miss America felt a complete makeover was in order in response to #MeToo. But I believe some of the changes, including eliminating evening gown and swimsuit competitions, are taking steps back.
As a former Miss USA and MAO competitor, I find it intriguing that both the pageant system and winner feel intimidated by a growing divisive and shaming environment. Both are changing or shrinking back in order to please others. Why do we care about making sure everyone is happy when everyone doesn’t care about our happiness? When organizations respond to please an outspoken minority, the outcome is counterproductive because it’s based on fear, not empowerment.
As some of our leading pageant systems frantically strive to stay “relevant,” they’ve diluted classic points of interest to appease those who don’t support, watch or even care about pageants or the women who compete. It’s no wonder we end up with titleholders experiencing the tension of expressing their mind, ideas, hopes, goals and voice. In some sense, we’re all guilty of this. We compromise the essence of who we are so more people will like us. But maybe appeasing for ratings or likes isn’t the goal or at least shouldn’t be. It’s better to be respected than to be liked, and people respect those who stand firm in their identity.
Miss America started as a swimsuit competition. That was empowering at the time and opened a new outlet for many girls who didn’t have the family income to be country club debutants. But if Miss America 2.0 is going to force competitors to cover up in the name of highlighting inner qualities like intelligence, why is the current Miss America limited to three talking points that have nothing to do with her other than that she has a degree from an ivy league school? In addition to being a brand ambassador, space should be opened for her conviction as a female to not only be expressed, but also to be respected and considered.
I was referenced as “the forgotten Miss USA” or even mistaken as another name because my year was overshadowed by another. I felt hidden and overlooked. Instead of speaking up, I stayed small to not ruffle feathers. But who benefitted from that? Not me, not the people I was positioned to impact. I was too afraid to stand up for myself and the dream I had desired my whole life. Fear steals and destroys.
Ultimately, I believe empowerment is staying true to your core, whether it be as an organization or as an individual. The moment we compromise who we are in order to keep up with what’s cool, progressive or “relevant” is when our decisions become weakened. Empowerment looks like making decisions out of confidence, not people pleasing. It’s having choices and then stewarding your choice with wisdom and leadership. It’s not whether you use your voice, but how. Hopefully, empowerment won’t need to come through a public letter, but having the bravery if it does. And along the way, never diminish the truth of who you are and what you stand for.