Being a Feminist and Being a Pageant Winner are Not Mutually Exclusive

21 Aug

Miss Teen USA 2014 K. Lee Graham
by Miss Teen U.S.A 2014 K. Lee Graham

This weekend, I will leave my current job as Miss Teen USA to attend the University of South Carolina Honors College and study international business and marketing. The pageant itself may still be weathering the controversy stemming from the presidential campaign but I am confident that the focus of the Miss Universe Organization will remain firmly centered where it has been for more than 60 years: on giving young women a voice and empowering them to become advocates for positive change.

Beauty queens are frequently associated with certain labels, both positive and negative, and unfortunately feminist is not usually one of them. I’m Miss Teen USA. In some people’s eyes I am narcissistic, superficial, pretentious, apathetic, an anti-feminist… a pageant girl. Critics find all of that in my job title — labels, assumptions, judgment, but with no experience or interaction to support their claims. They wonder how could I ever be a feminist?

A feminist is defined as one who advocates social, political and economic rights of women equal to those of men. They’re forward thinking and motivated to not just talk about change, but to initiate it. And that’s exactly what Miss Universe titleholders do. I don’t think that embracing femininity, like I do during a pageant, undermines my belief in these concepts.

The word beautiful also does not mean the same thing today as it did years ago. Today our society embraces character-driven beauty and confidence. Modern ideas of beauty and the characteristics of the modern feminist are the same. Both celebrate a woman’s strength, self-reliance, independence, drive and response to adversity.

By recognizing the beauty of a woman as dictated by her poise and values, we recognize that she is just as capable of success as anyone else, and deserving of equal opportunities to pursue that success in any given field. And by instilling in girls the desire to develop these character-driven values of beauty, we develop an irrevocable sense of self-worth that transforms them into our future leaders, philanthropists, businesswomen, artists and role models. A recognition of confidence-driven beauty elicits the change feminism aims to achieve because it reveals the value of women.

But how can beauty pageants, traditionally thought to glorify only a woman’s physical form be used to promote a message of inner beauty? I believe that pageants, and specifically the ones that are a part of the Miss Universe Organization, are feminist entities. Pageants give young women the platform to have a voice, presence and opportunity to pursue their personal goals. And just as society’s perception of beauty has evolved, the Miss Universe Organization also has evolved to recognize the beauty of an independent, driven, proactive and socially conscious woman – a woman that, by owning these qualities, should be considered a feminist.

As Miss Teen USA, I represent and advocate for independence and self-reliance in women. Working with the Miss Universe Organization and the powerful women they employ has inspired me to become a powerful woman myself. It has influenced my professional goals, encouraging me to study marketing, communications and business when I attend university in the fall. The president of our organization is a woman, as are 85 percent of its employees. In addition to volunteering with incredible organizations and community groups, I started my own social campaign and blog, Live Beautifully, that has enabled me to speak to hundreds of young women about my struggle with self-worth and how I overcame it by basing my value on my character rather than my appearance.

Our motto at the Miss Universe Organization is “Confidently Beautiful,” and our entire mission is to empower women by giving them opportunities to lead, inspire and learn. My goal as a titleholder is to make everyone that I meet recognize that they are beautiful, valuable and can conquer any challenge that comes their way. As Miss Teen USA, I have a message and a voice. I will not shy away from using both to elicit changes in the culture around me. I want to impact the world in a positive way, and I don’t want to be hindered because I am a woman. I am Miss Teen USA. I am a feminist.

The 2015 MISS TEEN USA® Pageant will stream LIVE from Atlantis, Paradise Island Resort on Saturday, August 22nd at 8 p.m. ET on Reigning Miss Teen USA K. Lee Graham will crown her successor at the conclusion of the pageant. The event will feature contestants from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Contestants will compete in three categories: swimsuit, evening gown and interview.


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