Miss America broadens the horizons of "beautiful"

Beauty pageants are often considered superfluous, if not damaging. And many are. Miss America, however, stands out as a pageant that looks at women and their talents holistically while raising awareness about important issues. Every year, Miss America moves forward to better represent women. In the Miss America competition this month, several Miss America candidates had disabilities. Miss Michigan K.T. Maviglia has moderate hearing loss and donned her hearing aid during the competition. Miss Kentucky Ramsey Carpenter––who won the talent competition––is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and used the disease as her service platform. Miss Idaho Sierra Sandison made history by wearing her insulin pump during the swimsuit competition.

Relative to most beauty pageants, Miss America is a shining example of what a pageant ought to be: the women competing must be in college or college graduates, have a public platform for community service and there is a rigorous interview process. The women are not judged exclusively on their looks, but rather their entire being.

The fact that Miss America showed some of the most accomplished young women—many of whom are disabled—is a huge step towards changing public perspective on disability. Especially in the case of visible disabilities, people are often treated poorly if not completely ignored. It is only one step, but Miss America took a radical step in showing these women, their talents and their personality alongside their disability.

But even if Miss America is moving forward relative to the mainstream media, the United States overall is still far behind. The pageant has only had nine women of color who have been crowned miss America. When Nina Davuluri became the first Indian woman to win Miss America last year, her victory proved controversial.

While Davuluri’s victory received a largely positive response, there was some xenophobic backlash from prejudiced viewers. The backlash was racist and rooted in the absurd idea that to be American is to be white. In a small way, Miss America is challenging these notions of what it means to be American and to represent America.

Miss America candidates often base their service platforms upon important issues. Miss Arkansas’s platform was Defying Disabilities and she finished in the top three. This year's winner, Miss New York Kira Kazanstev, will go on a national speaking tour about domestic violence.

Even though the pageant is slowly working toward better representation of women, it is important to note that most contestants are still overwhelmingly thin, white, straight and able-bodied. One can only hope this will improve with time. Kylan Arianna Wenzel competed for Miss California as the first ever transgender contestant in any Miss Universe Organization pageant.

The current representation of women in Miss America is an incredible first step toward further diversifying beauty pageants, including their own. With increasing diversity across the board, we should look forward to seeing an expansion of what America considers to be beautiful.