Cancelled Miss America Swimsuit Competition Will Change Pageant Psychology

This beauty competition is about to change for the better.

The Miss America pageant is slipping on something a little more comfortable. Competition officials announced Tuesday that the pageant will judge contestant’s ideas, not their bodies, and it has an updated dress code to reflect that. The widely acclaimed decision is supported by psychology research that confirms the seemingly obvious: We perceive women negatively when they wear less clothing.

Gretchen Carlson, chair of the Miss America board of trustees, appeared on Good Morning America on Tuesday to announce that there will be no more swimsuit competitions, and evening gown has been redefined as clothing that makes the contestants feel comfortable. Oh, and it’s not called a pageant anymore. It’s officially the Miss America competition.

“It’s going to be what comes out of their mouth that we’re interested in, when they talk about their social impact initiatives,” Carlson, the 1989 Miss America champion and former Fox & Friends host who successfully sued Roger Ailes for sexual harassment, said.

In addition to axing the swimsuit competition, the Miss America pageant has also redefined what it considers 'Evening Dress'.

Flickr / Disney | ABC Television Group

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, a study published in January in the journal Cortex showed that both men and women respond with less empathy to women showing more skin, compared to women who are fully clothed. Empathy, in the study, is defined as “a social emotion triggered by the perception or imagination of someone else’s emotional state.”

Using an fMRI scanner, the scientists compared the reactions of 41 Italian participants as they observed actors playing a ball-tossing game in which some actors were routinely excluded. Some of those actors were women in revealing clothing, and others were women in modest clothing, and as the participants watched, the fMRI scanner revealed whether parts of their brains associated with empathy were active. Sure enough, the observers were shown to have less empathy for women in skimpier clothing, suggesting they were less able to recognize and feel what emotions those women were experiencing.

Past Miss America swimsuit competitors all wore two-part bikinis and high heels while they strutted down a runway in front of a panel of judges. They turned, they posed, and they smiled. The results of the study suggest that judges and viewers alike would feel less empathetic toward the bikini-clad women; objectified individuals, the authors write, “are judged to be less human, competent, and moral.”

The authors argue that studying how empathy changes toward people depending on how they’re perceived is important because previous research has shown a linkbetween perpetrators of gender-based violence and their lack of empathy for their victim. Furthermore, there is also an established relationship between the sexual objectification of women and a lack of empathy for those same women. Sexual objectification, they write, is linked to gender-based violence, which affects women disproportionately. That means the new Miss America competition — minus swimsuits — is better for building a society that’s safe for women.

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