The XX Factor

No More Swimsuits in Miss Teen USA. Are Sports Bras That Much More Empowering Than Bikinis?

No need to cry, bikinis might be out but athletic-wear is in. 

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

On Wednesday, the Miss Universe Organization announced that Miss Teen USA will soon be swimsuit-free. The controversial portion of the pageant is now being replaced by an athletic-wear competition. Since the announcement, reports have lauded the shift, but I’m not convinced that an athletic-wear competition is that much better than a swimwear competition.

According to Paula Shugart, the president of the Miss Universe Organization, “This decision reflects an important cultural shift we’re all celebrating that empowers women who lead active, purposeful lives and encourage those in their communities to do the same. Our hope is that this decision will help all of Miss Teen USA’s fans recognize these young women for the strong, inspiring individuals they are.”

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The swimsuit competition was creepy and overtly sexualized, but is an athletic-wear competition going to be that much better? Shugart mentions that this change will help Miss Teen USA “evolve in ways that celebrate women’s strength, confidence, and beauty for years to come,” but couldn’t a swimwear competition also be said to do that? Swimming is an incredibly challenging sport—the strength displayed by women competing in the Olympic trials is impressive.  Swimmers like Katie Ledecky or Natalie Coughlin are strong, inspiring women.

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No, the problem with the swimwear competition was the fact that it was a swimwear competition. The contestants were judged on how they looked in their bikinis, not how smoothly they swam or how perfect their stroke was. The athletic-wear competition—while marginally better because the clothes will be slightly less skimpy (although some yoga pants are, well, skintight)—is still a competition based on how someone looks in their outfit rather than a measure of their strength and endurance.

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Before its elimination, critics of the swimwear competition pointed out that it pushed particular body standards, but at least it wasn’t pretending to be something other than a beauty contest. Girls going out for a work-out swim—you’ll never convince me that you can do real speed work in a bikini—didn’t have to directly compare their suited bodies with the Miss Teen USA bodies. But with this new competition, whatever yoga pants and tops the contestants come out in will likely be items that someone going for a real workout could wear. Now that general athletic-wear will be something that we can judge women on, it will only further complicate the feelings of insecurity that many women have as they put on their yoga pants.  

So, Miss Teen USA might be moving in the right direction, but they sure are going slowly. When they decide to add in some real athletic competition, give me a call. Perhaps then I’ll consider tuning in.

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