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Miss Teen USA Swaps Swimsuits for Athletic Wear

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Bikinis and beauty pageants have been inseparable pretty much since the invention of the bikini (or pageants for that matter), but women have been making a splash in places that have nothing to do with swimsuits and heels for years. Finally, one famous competition is trying to change the dated idea that young women should be judged on how they look in a bathing suit. Miss Teen USA just announced they are switching out swimwear for athletic wear for that part of the competition.

"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," Miss Universe president Paula Shugart wrote in a memo. "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."

Younger girls and women are the biggest viewers of the Miss Teen USA pageant and decades of research has shown they are deeply affected by idealized or unrealistic images of the female body (and Body Image Issues Start Way Younger Than We Thought). But today's viewers are a little savvier than previous generations, and according to a study published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, young women are most negatively affected when they see a beautiful body not in a marketing setting (like an in-your-face ad of a model) but in a more subtle way that makes the idealistic beauty standard seem like part of "normal" life. So while a beauty pageant isn't necessarily the norm for the average young woman, these girl-next-door contestants are probably still more relatable than a high-fashion model, which makes girls more likely to see their bodies as realistic. 

Miss Teen USA's decision is a step in the right direction, but it still has a long way to go. Kudos to them for allowing girls to showcase their athleisure game, but unless the girls also get to perform their athletic skill, then they are still getting ranked for what they look like and not for what they can do. In addition, it risks replacing one "ideal" for another. Will young viewers now think they have to have biceps and a tight booty to be beautiful?

Perhaps this decision will have a ripple effect throughout the system, influencing other pageants to rethink their swimsuit competitions. There's no official word yet on whether Miss USA and Miss Universe will follow their little sister's lead, but in the meantime, one person who is thrilled with the change is the current Miss Teen USA, Katherine Haik. "I have been an athlete my entire life," she said to USA Today. "As a member of a softball team and a competitive dance team, I spend a lot of time in athletic wear. This new direction for Miss Teen USA is a great way to celebrate the active lives that so many young women lead and set a strong example for our peers."


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