Skip to main contentSkip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.

Miss America: How beauty standards have changed the pageant

  • 0

Women have come a long way since the first Miss America competition was held nearly a century ago.

And what started as a resort city’s beauty contest has evolved, too.

“When the Miss America competition began, there was more of a focus on beauty,” said Josh Randle, chief operating officer of the Miss America Organization. “Today’s contestants are judged on their ability to better themselves and their communities by dedicating their service to others and living a healthy and happy lifestyle.”

Not only has beauty taken a back seat over the years, pageant fans also have seen diversity on many levels — from women of different ethnic backgrounds winning the crown to competitors flaunting their more unique features, such as the rib-covering tattoo of Miss Kansas 2013.

“The Miss America competition has witnessed many changes in its 95-year history, and, in many ways, that history parallels the evolution of our nation,” Randle said.

‘Face and form’

The Miss America competition started in 1921, when eight women vying for the top title qualified in the following categories, depending on their work backgrounds: Professional beauties, civic beauties and inter-city beauties.

The first official Miss America, Margaret Gorman, was eventually named “The Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America.”

It would be more than a dozen years before a talent portion was added, and interviews with judges weren’t required until 1936, known as the “personality” category in its early years.

The competition started as an economic booster for Atlantic City, where girls were already wearing bathing suits on the beach, but quickly became synonymous with the women inside the suits.

Yolande Betbeze, crowned Miss America 1951, commented in an Atlantic City Press photo caption that, “American taste was changing and that the public now insists on talent along with its beauty.”

The way the pageant was judged emphasized talent and public speaking more and more. Women pursuing their educations started competing, and Jean Bartel became the first college student to win the Miss America title in 1943. It was after her crowning that the Miss America Organization started offering scholarships.

Interviews and talent demanded higher scores than just beauty; a change from the first few years of the pageant, when women were judged according to a 100-point criteria on “face and form.”

Former chairman, CEO and executive producer Leonard Horn laid out some guidelines for the Miss America Organization when he took over in the late 1980s. One of the ground rules he wanted in place was to create “an improved judging format that increases the weight of personal interviews while de-emphasizing the swimsuit competition,” according to a passage in Ann-Marie Bivan’s book, “Miss America: In Pursuit of the Crown.”

Pageant diversity

Diversity also played into the physical changes among the women who could, and would, participate in the competition.

Some pageant history buffs might recognize “rule No. 7” in Miss America’s history, a requirement formalized in the 1930s for pageant contestants to “be of good health and of the white race.”

There was Miss Princess America, a Native American woman who added to the entertainment of the pageant but wasn’t formally a contestant. Mifaunwy Shunatona, Miss Oklahoma in 1941, became the first Native American contestant in the pageant.

In 1948, the pageant included its first Latina and Asian contestants, Miss Puerto Rico Irma Nydia Vasquez and Miss Hawaii Yun Tau Zane.

Before 1970, black communities had set up their own pageants, including the 1968 Miss Black America competition held in Atlantic City the same day as Miss America that year. Soon after, Cheryl Browne was the first black woman to win a state title as Miss Iowa 1970.

Miss America had its first black national titleholder in 1984; first with Vanessa Williams, from New York, and then with Miss New Jersey Suzette Charles, who took the crown after Williams resigned.

Miss New York Nina Davuluri became the first Indian American to win the competition when she was crowned Miss America 2014, drawing harsh criticism on social media. Davuluri took the opportunity to promote her platform on ethnic diversity and cultural awareness.

One of this year’s contestants, Miss Kentucky Clark Janell Davis, is black and the youngest competitor at 18 years old. She said Miss America has a responsibility to represent all cultures and backgrounds in the country.

“I don’t think Miss America is a pageant girl,” Davis said.

“I think that her role in our country is to be a symbol of the melting pot that the United States is.”

Contact: 609-272-7256

Twitter @ACPress_Tracey

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

The best local coverage, unlimited

Sign up for a digital subscription to The Press of Atlantic City now and take advantage of a great offer.


Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


Breaking News