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The Changing Ideals of Beauty Queens

Think they're all spray tans and silicone? YouBeauty contributor Grace Gold (a semi-finalist in Miss NJ USA 2008) challenges the myth of the beauty pageant bimbo.

| July 11th, 2012
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I’ve always thought that to truly understand any given society’s notion of what it means to be feminine all you’d have to do is look at their reigning pageant queens.

For those who think that pageantry is only about spray-tans, catching wealthy beaus or posing like vacuous, smiling wax figures—you are missing the point. Forget Toddlers & Tiaras and the shellacked, emotionally disturbing images of preteen pageantry. High profile presentations such as Miss America and Miss USA are not only challenging old-school beauty queen stereotypes (nude pantyhose, anyone?), they’re rewarding scholarship, community service and dedication.

Take Miss America for example—the country’s oldest and most historic pageant tradition (not to be confused with Donald Trump’s Miss Universe Organization franchise, which telecasts Miss USA). The Miss America pageant actually began in 1921 as a publicity event with the hopes of keeping tourists and spectators in Atlantic City, NJ beyond the summer season. Some 24-years later the pageant evolved and started rewarding winners with scholarship money that would go towards higher education. Today, the Miss American organization is the greatest supplier of scholarships to women in the world, with over $45 million doled out every year at the local, state and national levels of competition. 

MORE: Miss Universe's Beauty Routine

And while there’s much mockery surrounding every contestant’s “wish for world peace,” the truth is these women often bring much-needed attention to social issues that are often marginalized in both attention and funding.

The current Miss America, Laura Kaeppeler (pictured), is raising support for children of incarcerated parents—a cause that hits close to home for her. “After my dad was incarcerated when I was in high school, I realized it’s not just the perpetrator we punish, but the innocent children who are left behind,” she tells YouBeauty, recounting how she felt shunned in her hometown and bereft of a father figure during her formative years. “My goal is to build support centers for kids in each state. Then after my reign is over, I hope to use my scholarship money for law school so I can become an even more powerful advocate,” she adds.

Meanwhile, Miss USA 2007, Rachel Smith, competed for the crown after a month-long stint volunteering at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa where she says seeing such levels of destitution and poverty made her appreciate the privilege of education. 

“Most people tune into the Miss USA pageant to see women compete in evening gowns and then maybe again the next year to watch the crowning of a new winner. But they don’t see the 364 days in between,” says Smith. “I worked with national and local organizations throughout the year, and the greatest lesson I learned was that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you are, if it’s your goal to make a difference—you will. Some of those small non-profits had just as much, if not more of a profound influence on their communities than the well-funded, more publicized national ones did.”

QUIZ: Gauge Your Own Self Esteem

Yet there still persists a common criticism that competitors are desperate crown-catchers with a lack of real world experience. To that I give you this year’s Miss Maryland USA, who was the first runner-up in last month’s Miss USA pageant in Las Vegas. Nana Meriwether attended Sidwell Friends School (where the Obama daughters, Chelsea Clinton and the Roosevelt and Nixon children were all educated), was a two-time, NCAA All-American volleyball player before she tried out for the 2008 Olympics (but unfortunately didn’t make the team), co-founded the Meriwether Foundation which supports rural medical clinics and AIDS orphanages in five South African countries, and is a pre-med student at the University of Southern California.

So why does someone who is so accomplished compete in the Miss USA pageant?

“Initially my main goal was to spread the word about nonprofit work and my cause,” Meriwether tells YouBeauty. “But along the way I realized I grew more as a person doing pageants than I ever did in sports or academics. You really have to develop, brand and put yourself out there and those skills will help you excel in anything else you set your mind to.”

With women now outpacing men in education and assuming more leadership positions than ever before, it’s those with confidence and intention that are perfectly poised to change the lives of and futures of those around them. And of course…work toward world peace for all.

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