“There she is, Miss America. There she is, your ideal,” are the first words of the original Miss America Theme Song written in 1954. And although the song is no longer part of the pageant, one thing still stands true; Miss America is seen as a representative of the American ideal of beauty.
The pageant began when nine East Coast newspapers decided to hold a “popularity contest” in which readers submitted their photos. The winner of each city’s contest was sent to the Fall Frolic in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where they would be judged 50 percent on audience applause and 50 percent on judges’ decisions.
After this, the girls were also entered in the Bather’s Revue, a separate contest revolving around swimwear. Margaret Gorman won the Inner-City Beauties contest and also become known as “The most beautiful bathing girl in America.” Pageant leaders didn’t decide to title her Miss America until the 1922 contest, making Gorman the only winner to receive her crown at the end of her reign.
With time, interview and talent portions were added into the judging of the contest, but swimwear still remains an integral part of the competition.
The Evolution of Miss America Since 1921
According to the corporate website, “Miss America represents the highest ideals. She is a real combination of beauty, grace, and intelligence, artistic and refined. She is a type which the American girl might well emulate.” While many of the characteristics of the pageant contestants are indeed admirable and worth aspiring to, the body types of the winners are increasingly less representative of the typical American woman and often typify an unhealthy ideal.
The strong focus on beauty and body, combined with the high publicity of the contest, can be difficult for women who don’t consider themselves fitting of this perfect image. If you or someone you know is struggling with body image, Psychguides.com can help. Call 1-888-997-3147 to speak with someone who can offer guidance and support, including treatment options.
The Ideal Body Image and BMI
Body Mass Index (BMI) is the numerical representation of a person’s height to weight ratio. It does not take into consideration body fat percentage. A simple measurement that can be used to determine a person’s healthy weight range, the CDC lists a normal BMI score as being between 18.5 and 24.9, meaning people within this range are a healthy weight for their height.
In the early generations, the BMI scores for Miss America winners hovered within the middle of the healthy weight range but soon began their descent toward the low, unhealthy range. Using historical data on both the pageant winners and the average American woman, we were able to estimate that the only decades during which Miss America fell into the same range as the average U.S. woman were the 1940s and 1950s. In the decades since, the pageant winners have become markedly thinner, while the average woman’s BMI has been increasing. Now more than ever, the ideal image of beauty portrayed by the contest inaccurately represents average American women.
During our research, we found that the 1970s Miss America Pageant seemed to have less media coverage overall. As a result, pictures of the women outside of their official press photos were difficult to come by. This could be contributed to a number of factors in society during this time. With the rise of the feminist movement in the late ’60s, the pageant received some heat from women’s rights groups. The 1968 pageant was picketed by opposers, which could have contributed to less media coverage into the ’70s. The rise of equal opportunity and women’s liberations during this time could also have had some effect on the contest.
Risks of Unhealthy Body Image
The women who compete in Miss America, as well as other pageants, dedicate a lot of time and effort to maintaining their physique and health. Still, nearly a third of Miss America winners are considered to be underweight*, making their figures almost unattainable for the average American woman. While the underweight frames of Miss America contestants don’t necessarily represent disordered eating and exercise habits within that group, they can perpetuate an unrealistic expectation for the average female’s body.
Research has shown that during puberty, adolescents, especially females, experience higher levels of body dissatisfaction which can be attributed to the many physical and chemical body changes during this time. Studies have also shown a correlation between ideal body images highlighted in television and the media. This makes teens, and even adults, more susceptible to be influenced by media portrayals of the ideal body. In addition, people with negative body images are also at higher risk of developing eating disorders, suffering from depression, and becoming obsessed with weight loss.
Treatment for Eating Disorders
Eating disorders, like any illness, can have significant health impacts if left untreated. Your doctor can help by connecting you with professionals who can provide the necessary treatment. This may include dietitians, psychiatrists, and other medical specialists. You may receive treatment for both the physical and mental symptoms resulting from the eating disorder. In some cases, medications for treating depression can assist, as they help treat anxiety and depression, which are both potential causes for disorders such as bulimia nervosa. You may also be prescribed medication for any physical health problems resulting from the disorder.
Effective treatment will address both the body and the mind. Not only is it important to achieve and maintain a normal, healthy weight, individuals must find satisfaction with their own body image – something that is unique to every individual.
The media can have a strong influence on how we feel about our bodies and how we look, which can lead to unnecessary pressures to achieve an impossible ideal. If you or someone you know is struggling with body image, unhealthy weight changes, or eating disorders, help is available. Call to speak with a treatment support team member about effective treatment program options at 1-888-997-3147.
*For the years that data were available, 30.7% of contestants had a BMI index below 18.5.
We compiled pictures of Miss America winners since 1921. Not every year had pictures available for us to use in this project.
The average height and weight of winners was sporadically available up until 2002. Using the height and weights that were available, we were able to calculate BMIs for each winner. The information on the average woman for each set of years was available through the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
You are free to use any of the assets found on the page. If you decide to do so, we ask that you link back to the original source, which allows readers to learn more about the additional research as well as the methodology used for this project.