The organization’s leaders have said for more than 20 years they had thought about altering the swimsuit competition. Until recently, though, they continued to defend it, asserting that the competition is about poise in uncomfortable situations and fitness, not thinness. In last year’s edition of the instruction manual for state-level judges, the organization noted that many view the swimsuit portion as exploitative. “It is the Miss America Organization’s belief that those who feel that way really don’t understand the competition itself,” it said. “Regardless of what we may each believe about the role of the Miss America Organization’s titleholders, the American public has an expectation that she will be beautiful and physically fit.”
Yet some former contestants have spoken out against the swimsuit competition, saying it led to serious physical and mental problems. Kirsten Haglund, who was Miss America in 2008, wrote on Facebook on Tuesday that the swimsuit portion “perpetuated the objectification of women more than it empowered them.”
The directors of the Miss America state contests, who were told of the changes two days ago, offered a range of reactions to the announcement, with some welcoming it and others expressing dismay. On Twitter, the Miss Georgia pageant reassured fans that its contest next week will still include swimsuits.
“It’s discouraging to hear, I was definitely a proponent of it,” said Chaz Ellis, the interim executive director of the Miss South Carolina Scholarship Organization, adding that he supported the national group despite the changes. “It’s about physical fitness, it’s about a healthy lifestyle.”
Not everyone in the pageant world, however, agreed that the swimsuit portion was entirely about judging fitness. “I don’t know if that’s completely honest or accurate,” said Leah Summers, the executive director of the Miss West Virginia Scholarship Organization, who won that state’s title in 1991.
Ms. Summers said she anticipated “pretty dramatic changes” from the national organization after the appointment of a new chairwoman and new female board members. She said the new leaders are trying to keep Miss America relevant.