Miss America Swimsuit - changes pageants need to make

With Miss America’s recent announcement eliminating the Swimsuit competition, it reminds us how pageants have changed over time. Pageants have never stood still – there has always been change. Pageants started as a bathing suit competition meant to extend the tourist season in Atlantic City. Then, they became a vehicle for young women to win scholarships. Next, they focused on volunteerism and community leadership skills.

In order to attract contestants, pageants must be relevant for today’s woman. They have to reflect society, offer personal development and provide networking opportunities. And it’s imperative that pageants operate at a high ethical standard. After all, if a pageant claims to be relevant and to empower women, but the pageant is not ethically run, the pageant loses all credibility. And nobody wants that.

So, here are the 3 Changes Pageants Need to make in order to be relevant and empower women.

1. Provide Contestant Scores

In other sports and competitions, this is a no-brainer. So why do many pageants choose not to make contestant scores available?

Most directors will tell you that it’s because contestants, and their moms, can’t handle getting their scores. They’d have you believe that every contestant who competes immediately calls the pageant office or engages in a social media rant to complain about their scores. That’s ridiculous.

At most, 10% of contestants contact a pageant office to complain that their scores don’t accurately reflect their skill level. Which means that it’s not really any different than any other business in any other industry. No matter what business you’re in, approximately 10-20% of customers are not satisfied. Successful business owners don’t adjust their level of service because a few customers complain. And pageants shouldn’t either.

So, what’s the real reason that some pageants don’t provide contestant scores? Because they don’t want to take responsibility for the scores each contestant receives. The staff spend most of the time during the pageant running the competition and don’t invest much time in orienting the judges.

Many pageants spend less than 15 minutes during the judge’s orientation explaining how to score contestants. So, when the competition begins, and the scores start coming in, they’re all over the map. One judge gives a contestant a 7 in gown, and another judge scores that same contestant with a 9. A third judge who knows one of the girls gives the gown contestant a 6 and scores the contestant they know a 10 in gown.

So, directors withhold contestant scores. They roll their eyes, complain about contestants, blame inconsistent scores on the judges, and avoid accepting responsibility for the accuracy and reliability of the scores. It protects the pageant but does nothing for the contestants. It’s not a good situation and it needs to change.

2. Establish Scoring Criteria

I know you’ve heard this phrase before, “Different set of judges, different outcome.” But is that a good thing? If one judging panel scores differently than another judging panel how are contestants supposed to improve on their placement of last year? And if judge #1 scores hard and judge #2 scores easy, how is that good? Pageants are supposed to empower women, not confuse them.

Let’s look at a 1 through 10 scoring system as an example. One judge might use the full range of 1-10 and another might just give 7’s, 8’s, 9’s and 10’s. Another judge might flatly refuse to give a 10, saying that nobody’s perfect. The scores are different based on each judge’s scoring philosophy.

Other competitive events have identified scoring criteria that judges are required to follow. If you do an identified skill, you get an 8. If you demonstrate the skill, but you’re a little wobbly, it’s a 7. And if complete the skill really well, it’s a 9. Demonstrate the skill perfectly and you get a 10.

Scoring criteria can be easily adapted to pageantry. If you can answer questions from your bio, it’s a 7. Then, if you can answer questions from your bio and your platform statement it’s an 8. And if you can answer those questions, plus discuss trends in society, it’s a 9. Finally, if you can answer current events questions too, you get a 10.

Scoring criteria increase understanding of the desired skill and eliminate confusion about what skill level gets what score. And having set scoring criteria can kill two birds with one stone. First, judges scores will be more consistent and more easily audited for unfair judging practices. Second, contestants will receive scores that are not 100% subjective so they are confident they were scored fairly.

3. Ensure Judges are Qualified

Unfortunately, not all pageants select judges based on their qualifications. Sometimes husband and wife couples are asked to judge because they can stay in the same room and that’s one less hotel room the pageant has to pay for. Or Directors may pick judges who live within driving distance so that they don’t have to cover travel expenses. Judging often takes up a whole weekend or week, so directors often sacrifice qualifications for anyone who’s willing to show up.

And often the judges don’t know that much about the pageant. They don’t understand the mission and goals of the pageant or there’s no discussion of specific experience they should be looking for in the next titleholder. Often the staff just hand them their judging packet, explain the score sheets, and ask if there are any questions.

This is irresponsible. The contestants have spent months, sometimes years, preparing for the pageant. They’re probably spending several thousand dollars to compete, but the pageant is more focused on teaching the opening number than they are on selecting qualified judges and making sure they know how to score the contestants.

Of course, there are some well-run pageants that do provide scores, take time to select qualified judges, and audit the scores for judging inconsistently. Those pageants are run by directors who are professional and understand what’s at stake. But, it’s time for the other pageants to grow up and make sure that contestants get the empowering experience that the pageant advertised.

Evening Gown fashions change. Talent presentations that won in the 1950’s don’t win today. And even pageant interview styles change. Pageants have always evolved and in order to survive, they must continue to evolve. But the evolution should not just be to the advantage of the pageant. The most recent changes have been made to reduce social criticism and increase contestant participation. Wouldn’t it be nice if some of the next changes directly benefitted the contestants? Oops…was that my outside voice?


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