Heidi Stevens: Barrier-breaking pageant wins are cause for celebration, not manufactured panic

Heidi Stevens, Tribune News Service on

Published in Lifestyles

Bailey Anne Kennedy and Sara Milliken both have much to celebrate this month, having been crowned winners of the respective pageants they prepped and primed and yearned for.

But first they have to defend their victories against a nascent crowd of gatekeepers who are suddenly very invested in preserving the integrity of beauty pageants.

And by integrity, I mean homogeny.

Kennedy, 31, was just crowned Miss Maryland USA, qualifying her for the Miss USA competition in August and, if she wins that, the Miss Universe pageant in September. She’s the first transgender woman and first Asian American woman to win Miss Maryland.

If she wins in August, she’ll be the first transgender woman and the oldest woman to be crowned Miss USA — though both Portugal and The Netherlands have crowned trans women to compete for Miss Universe and a trans woman from Nevada, Kataluna Enriquez, competed in the Miss USA pageant in 2021.

Not everyone is thrilled about these firsts. More on that in a minute.

Also this month, Sara Milliken, 23, was named Miss Alabama at the National American Miss pageant, a competition “based on the foundational principle of fostering positive self-image by enhancing natural beauty within” according to its website.

“Braces, glasses, skin problems, varying heights, weights and appearances, are all a part of creating the special and unique individual that you are and that we want to celebrate,” the National American Miss site reads.

Milliken is a plus-sized model, and her victory was met with the predictable, whiney cruelty that poisons the discourse whenever a woman is celebrated in spite of a body type that doesn’t match conventional ideals.

Both the Miss Maryland USA Organization and Milliken released statements defending themselves after their victories became talking points for some of the folks who peddle outrage for a living.

“One of the biggest brain-washing efforts, one of the biggest psyop campaigns of all, is the campaign to convince us that morbid obesity is healthy and beautiful,” right-wing podcaster Matt Walsh said, citing body-positive ad campaigns from Dove, Gillette and Victoria’s Secret.

“Amid this intense bombardment of pro-obesity propaganda,” Walsh continued, “what just happened at the National American Miss pageant manages to stand out.”


Then he connected the outrage dots.

“There is some cause for relief here because as far as we can tell Sara Milliken is an actual woman,” he said. “That’s a point in her favor because you can’t take that for granted these days. That’s how low the bar is these days with these pageants.”

Expanding our definitions of beauty, extending our spotlight and our accolades beyond typical conventions, inviting pageant audiences to appreciate and applaud a more inclusive collection of humans—none of this is lowering the bar.

It’s opening the door—to more people feeling comfortable in their own skin and bodies. To more people pushing back against the toxic messages that tell so many girls and women, especially, that their bodies take up too much space. To all of us who are watching institutions and traditions change and evolve in our lifetimes to receive those changes and evolutions as gifts. Because they nudge us toward growth and new understanding and empathy and humanity, which are the only way forward.

But forward is scary. Forward is uncharted. Backward is, for the outrage peddlers, safer. Backward means they don’t have to share power. Or space. Or spotlights.

None of this is about protecting beauty pageants. Just like the hand-wringing over trans athletes isn’t about protecting women’s sports, which would be much better served by our advocacy for fair wages and decent training facilities for female athletes, or protection from abusive coaches and team doctors, or full-throated enforcement of Title IX law. Just like the hand-wringing about “pro-obesity propaganda” isn’t about public health, which would be much better served by our advocacy for clean air, soil and water, the elimination of food deserts, equal access to affordable health care.

“Every person has the right to live authentically and pursue every opportunity, and we believe Bailey Anne embodies these values,” the Miss Maryland statement reads.

“I knew there would be critics,” Milliken posted in her own statement on Instagram. “I knew there would be hatred. That doesn’t make it right but it is something I’ve mentally prepared myself for 8 years now. … The easy thing would be to give up. I could hide my face. Stop posting on social media. Make no appearances. Stay low key until Nationals. I could even give in and give up my title.

“But instead I say WATCH ME,” she continued. “Watch me serve my community. Watch me give my all into preparing for nationals. Watch me find the shy girl in the room and learn her name. Watch me continue to pour positivity into social media. Watch me crush every goal I set. Watch me chase this dream. Watch me show every single hater why a plus size woman can and should be a titleholder.”

Lowering the bar? Nah. Re-setting it? Sure. Closer to where it belongs, where we make room for more of us to feel safe, loved, supported, celebrated. Where our better angels live.

©2024 Tribune News Service. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.



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