Clothes Don’t Make the Man – Yet Another Opinion on Miss America Eliminating the Swimsuit Portion of the Competition


News of the Miss America Organization nixing the Swimsuit portion of the competition was brought to my attention by my older, White male colleague (and occasional best friend) Steve. Before more details emerged, Steve and I whiteboarded ideas of what they could possibly fill that air time with:

1.)  Changing a Tire in an Evening Gown (Timed)
2.)  American Ninja Warrior
3.)  Sumo Wrestling
4.)  Oil Changing in an Evening Gown (Timed)
5.)  Improv Comedy Games

Before we dive too deeply into our pitch to ABC Broadcasting and Miss America, I’d like to take a step back and explain, though I support Miss America for making a decision that may be exciting for some women, why I am sad to see Swimsuit go.

I’m relatively new to the pageant world, and even better, a late-comer. Walking across that stage the first time in a two piece, push-up white bikini knowing my traditional, conservative, Indian Christian parents were in the audience made me uncomfortable. Because they probably disapproved. They disapprove of most things. But that is exactly why I needed to do it. You can tell from the photos how I went from feeling insecure that first time to owning the stage. I just had to rip off the Band-Aid...or the sarong, really. I am one of the only female cousins in my extended family group here in the States and abroad. When I visit India, in the boisterous, populous bustle, I am reminded that my attire is abhorrent as uncles and aunties gawk at my shorts and tank top. Men are able to wear whatever they see fit whenever they see fit. As a woman, I have always been told to dress modestly. To cover up. And if God forbid, I want to be comfortable, I should feel ashamed.

It happens in those quiet moments too, when I visit my family, walk in the door, and the first thing my mom, shocked, asks in Malayalam is: “God, what are you wearing?” She means well, I’m sure, but I’m a grown woman. She knows I’m not going to change. Unconstructive comments like this would have cut me once upon a time, but not anymore. Not since Swimsuit.

I love feeling confident in a two-piece bikini and gallivanting across that stage time and again because, as a local pageant director once told my fellow contestants and me: “If you can walk across a stage in a bikini and heels, you can do anything.” I also enjoy people commenting on my social media about how they are inspired by my discipline and dedication to working towards the body I have always wanted in my twenties. And I feel humbled by the impact I have when they tell me they want to do the same.

The Swimsuit portion of pageants is confusing in the era of #MeToo. The #MeToo age has raised questions about feminism. For example: "How can women allow themselves to be objectified this way - by prancing around on stage in a bikini and heels? They should feel ashamed." These people sound like my traditional, conservative, Indian Christian parents. As former Miss WA USA, devoted Christian, and influencer Allyson Rowe once said: “Swimsuits are inanimate. They cannot objectify you. People objectify you.” People are the problem. Women can wear whatever they want, and it will never justify inappropriate verbal or physical behavior towards them from others. It doesn’t matter what she’s wearing - those who disrespect women are never absolved of the responsibility of treating their fellow human beings well. After all, “the clothes don’t make the man.” So why should they make the woman? People also forget that feminism is about choice. There are many pageants where athleisure is worn instead of swimsuits. Women choose to enter any specific pageant knowing they will push themselves to be confident in whatever they are wearing. It is not wrong to want to feel or look modest if that is what she wants. Just as it is not wrong to want to feel or look sexy if that is what she wants.

I do this so that my relatives can look at me, horrified, because, in their opinion, I am wearing next-to-nothing, and then maybe they’ll let my younger cousins and nieces wear jeans or shorts because at least they’re not going to be as provocative as their American cousin. I swing far this way on the pendulum because I get an opportunity to celebrate the body God blessed me with while also breaking down barriers for women who look like me. So I will continue to walk across that stage as a reminder to everyone, Indian or otherwise, that I get to choose what I wear, and more importantly, how I wear it. Confidently. Because that is what matters. And that it is my empowered choice.

Photo Credits:
Keith Kruger (February, Before)
Jerry Lois Photography (November, After)