The Miss Teen USA competition announced on Wednesday that its young contestants will no longer have to wear swimsuits, as organizers issued a frank statement tacitly acknowledging that the tradition is seen as exploitative – and mentioned a word rarely promoted around the pageant circuit: feminism.
The annual American beauty contest for 15- to 19-year-olds, to be held next in Las Vegas on 30 July, will substitute “athletic wear” for the controversial swimwear round at this year’s event.
In an apparent U-turn within the pageant world, which has long garnered bitter criticism for objectifying girls and women, it was announced that the Miss Teen USA event is making an “important cultural shift”.
Miss Teen USA is part of the Miss Universe organization that also runs the Miss USA adult pageant. The organization was owned by Republican presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump until he sold it last year, soon after buying out partner NBC when the media company fell out with him over his early tirade against Mexicans during the initial phase of the presidential race.
A Miss Universe statement on Wednesday announced that the Miss Teen USA contest “just got a modern update”.
It pointed out that the “swimsuit portion” had always been a “staple” of such competitions.
Then it added: “But in a society that increasingly prioritizes feminism and equality, watching women parade across a stage in bikinis can feel outdated.”
Miss Universe defended its pageant organizers, saying they had long intended the swimsuit part of the contest to be about showing off athleticism.
“But Miss Teen USA’s transition to athletic wear reads as less exploitative and more focused on the importance of physical fitness,” the statement continued.
Miss Universe president Paula Shugart added in a separate statement about the decision, which was revealed in USA Today, that the shift is meant to celebrate women’s strength, confidence and beauty in different, “more constructive” ways.
“This decision reflects an important cultural shift we’re all celebrating that empowers women who lead active, purposeful lives … and … will help all of Miss Teen USA’s fans recognize these young women for the strong, inspiring individuals they are,” she said.
The organization did not define what it meant by athletic wear. A picture accompanying the statement announcing the decision showed a picture of a woman from the back standing in triumph in a mountainous countryside, wearing sneakers, leggings and a sporty bra top.
Commenters in the USA Today article mentioned “active wear” and the word “athleisure”, the trend of crossover fashion between sport and casual wear.
A request for comment from the Miss Universe and Miss Teen USA organization was not returned.
But on Wednesday, Miss USA host Julianne Hough hinted that there could now also be a review of the use of swimsuits in the adult competition, depending on how the Miss Teen USA swimsuit ban is received.
Reaction on social media about the Miss Teen USA shift ranged from comments that the only “modern decision” would be to discontinue pageants altogether to sneers and anger, including conservative controversy-magnet Milo Yiannopoulos’s snide, anti-Islamic tweet that the contest was going “sharia compliant”, which prompted a flood of other sarcastic comments.