The words “beauty pageant” and “feminism” rarely go hand in hand. Sure, it’s easy for millennials to praise the Kim Kardashians of the world for owning their bodies and sharing nearly naked selfies on Instagram. But for some reason, it feels trickier to understand the psyche of a woman who signs up for a contest in which she's paraded around on a stage, judged for how well she wears a swimsuit as the whole world watches.
While they're often criticized for being inherently sexist, pageants don’t seem to be disappearing anytime soon—even in the age of the #MeToo and Time's Up movements. But the organizations that put them on are taking baby steps in updating some of the pageant world's seemingly archaic inner workings.
Take the Miss USA competition, which airs tonight at 8 p.m. ET on Fox. For the first time ever, the organization has established an all-female selection committee comprised of entrepreneurs, business leaders, and industry experts (a former Miss USA and cosmetics company CEO among them). The group will work together to determine the competition’s winner, and according to one of the committee members, Today Show contributor and TV personality Lilliana Vazquez, the pivot to an all-female judging panel is a much-needed change. “If I’m being dead honest, to me, there’s something really wrong with a guy judging a woman,” she tells InStyle. “It just never sat right with me. I think if we’re going to do pageants in a modern way and make them relevant with the momentum we have behind feminism right now, this is the only way for something like this to exist. It’s the only way that we can reflect the feelings that we all have as women about where we’re going and what we’re doing.”
For Vazquez, being part of the first female selection committee is a way to “effect change in an organization that is ready to change,” she says, explaining that the entire judging system has been restructured in the process. “In the past, there were celebrity judges for the telecast who hadn’t been involved during the preliminaries. The fundamental problem there was that these people were judging women without ever having met them. They would judge them exactly the way that women at home were judging: with no context or personal connection to the contestants or the organization.”
The new selection committee is taking “more of a 360-degree approach” to the judging system, allowing those who ultimately crown the winner to be part of the process from the beginning. Arriving in Shreveport, Louisiana, almost a week ago, the committee members have spent time getting to know the contestants one-on-one. The added face-time has allowed for an “authentic approach to discovering who they are as young women,” as well as conversations about what works—and what doesn’t work—in the pageant world. “We’ve been discussing whether or not the word ‘contestant’ should even be part of the Miss USA verbiage,” says Vazquez. “I, for one, think they should be called delegates. ‘Contestants’ makes it sound like this is something you just win, like The Price is Right. I believe that having conversations about the way we shape these women and how we speak about them is a huge part of the change we want to see.”
Unsurprisingly, the swimwear competition has also been a topic of debate amongst the selection committee. “We sat at dinner the other night and talked about the fact that, for Miss Teen USA, the category was changed from swimwear to activewear,” says Vazquez. “I thought, thank God they did that. They’re teenagers; they should be in activewear, not swimsuits. And then, of course, there’s the question of how do we really feel about the swimwear competition for Miss USA? For me, personally, it’s up for discussion. I think that physical fitness is important, and so is showing that you care about a healthy and active lifestyle. But is the best way to show it through swimwear? I don’t know.”
After asking the women who will be on stage tonight, swimsuits and all, how they feel about it, Vazquez discovered that the general consensus is still positive toward the “beauty” element of the beauty pageant. “After having conversations with a lot of the contestants here, many of them do feel that the swimwear competition is [essential],” she says. “I do think that having the choice to compete in a bikini or a one-piece is important, though, and that’s a choice they’ve been given.” Vazquez believes that choice is key, and that goes well beyond the world of pageantry. “For me, feminism is ultimately a freedom of choice,” she says. “I get to choose what I want to do, how I want to do it, when I want to do it, and why I want to do it. For some women, it’s not beauty pageants—it’s advocacy in their community and activism and being an amazing role model. But for other women, it’s that and being in a beauty pageant. Supporting that choice is the ultimate show of feminism, because while it might not be your jam, it is somebody else’s. And I’m going to support that all the way.”
Vazquez also supports the fact that women can choose how they want to present themselves to the world, and she’ll gladly challenge anyone who perceives beauty and intellect to be inversely correlated. “I hate that notion that you can’t be pretty and smart,” she says. “Luckily, I think we’ve moved into a space right now where the whole world finally recognizes that ‘beautiful’ and ‘intelligent’ aren’t mutually exclusive. We can be both.”
Of course, beauty is subjective—and an all-female selection committee is bound to take that into account when it comes to narrowing down this year’s Miss USA finalists. “I do think women, for lack of a better word, judge each other in a way that’s fundamentally different [than how men judge women],” says Vazquez. “For one thing, we’re so biologically different. I know how hard it is to work towards something that is a fitness goal, whereas a man might not. I have a better understanding of what it takes to be in this kind of shape and the struggles of the journey to get there. So many women in this competition talked about having past issues with dieting and food and struggling with anorexia, and the first thing I asked in their interview was, ‘How do you feel about being in a swimsuit in front of the United States now?’ Because I can’t imagine that is going to help you. And they all said something along the lines of, ‘This is a celebration of where I am now, and getting up there in a swimsuit is something that I could never have done when I was riddled with self-doubt. Now I’m confident and strong enough to stand up there and say that this is what I’ve earned through a lot of emotional and physical work.”
In addition to open conversations about body image, Vazquez hopes to bring more diversity to the competition. “I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, which was basically pageant land,” she says. “As a little Mexican and Puerto Rican girl, I remember watching pageants with my cousins and it always struck me that no one up there on stage looked like me. That stung a little bit. So when this opportunity came to me, I wanted to do it not just because it’s an all-female panel, but also because it’s important to me that diversity is represented in the telecast. There’s such a diverse group of women amongst the 51 contestants, and often they never make it through to the top 15. This was a chance for me to put somebody up there so that some little girl watching in Fort Worth can say, ‘Wow, that woman looks like me—she’s dark skinned, she’s from Mexico, her parents are immigrants, and she didn’t speak English until she was 5. Those stories didn’t exist for me as a little girl, and now, thankfully, they do. And it’s my job as a member of this inaugural committee to make sure that these stories get told—far beyond the pageant, as well.”
While the selection committee’s ultimate goal is “to redefine what it means to be Miss USA,” Vazquez remains realistic—and she isn’t trying to turn the event into something its not. “Listen, at the end of the day, it’s a beauty pageant,” she says. “You do have to present well, you have to be confident, and you have to take pride in your appearance. But it goes far beyond that—it’s also giving a woman an opportunity to have a platform besides what she’s currently doing now. For a modern Miss USA, I think that Miss USA isn’t going to be the best job title of her career; it’s going to be a job title that was a massive stepping stone to a bigger career in business, politics, journalism, or public service that allows them to speak on behalf of their state and the United States.”
At the end of the day, Vazquez hopes to change the pageant world far beyond Miss USA. “We want more well-rounded, inclusive, and diverse pageants that take a more modern approach to the entire system,” she says. “I think you’re going to see that change happen in time, and I think the contestants in these pageants also have a job here in using their voices to demand and effect change. We can do it as a selection committee and the organization can obviously play a big part in that, but the women who compete in these pageants also have to make it a priority.”