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In ‘Secrets of Miss America,’ the bikini battle rages on

It has been five years since the Miss America pageant did away with the swimsuit competition, but after Monday’s episode of Secrets of Miss America, it’s clear that the debate still rages among former Miss America winners and beyond.

Last week’s premiere episode of the new A&E series broke down the 2017 email leak that ultimately upended the pageant and caused CEO Sam Haskell to resign. This week’s episode explored what happened in the aftermath of that upheaval, which included the organization bringing in former FOX News anchor and Miss America 1989, Gretchen Carlson, to chair the board of trustees.

Carlson had previously sued Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes in 2016 claiming sexual harassment and won a $20 million settlement in one of the first high-profile cases of the #MeTooMovement. And one of Carlson’s main orders of business for Miss America when she arrived in 2018 was to do away with the swimsuit competition, which was the original basis for the pageant when it began in 1921 as a way to keep tourists in Atlantic City after Labor Day.

The decision was announced in June of 2018 with Carlson telling Good Morning, America, “We will no longer judge our candidates on their outward physical appearance,” and calling the movement Miss America 2.0, using #byebyebikini. And what still remains five years after that decision is a very divided line among former winners.

One of the big arguments made by some past winners for getting rid of the swimsuit competition is the unrealistic body standards they feel it sets, leading to contestants doing dangerous things to their bodies to try and give themselves an edge or to even just maintain it. On Tuesday’s show, Miss America 2013 Mallory Hagan went into further detail about what she witnessed while competing.

“I saw laxatives, I saw caffeine pills, diet pills, things that probably shouldn’t be sold on a market. I saw prescription drug abuse, you name it,” Hagan said. “I’ve not had water for 24 hours ahead of a swimsuit competition so that I would dehydrate myself to the point of, you could see my muscles, and I’m not the only one.”

Also speaking on the show was Kirsten Haglund, Miss America 2008, who has struggled with anorexia in her past and saw the negative impact the contestants were having on young women — the very people they were supposed to be serving as role models. She said she knew getting rid of the swimsuit “would eventually, in the end, save lives.”

“It’s a horrible, horrible dark cycle of, like, self-abuse,” Haglund said of eating disorders. “I’ve sunk down into that hole really fast, because at first it’s intoxicating, but then it becomes deadly. But you can’t get out.”

However, other past winners see the swimsuit competition as a vital part of the pageant’s history and fabric. Ericka Dunlap, Miss America 2004, said that it “removed the elegance of Miss America.” And Betty Maxwell, Miss America 2016, called the whole idea “ridiculous.”

“I’ve never felt more empowered than walking on the Miss America stage in my swimsuit,” Maxwell said. “You’re just like, ‘boom,’ you just know you look so good and you’re so confident. Something about wearing a bikini in high heels is like, just, it feels really good. You just know you look awesome like, ‘I am woman, look at me.’ That’s female, right there.”

Miss America 2010, Caressa Cameron, also had thoughts on the matter when she spoke with Yahoo’s Taryn Ryder ahead of the show’s premiere:

“I’m pro-swimsuit competition. Only because, you know, you don’t wanna go to Burger King and they say we don’t serve burgers, like, girl, what! For me, I think what was the most important is reimagining how we could potentially judge that phase of the competition, as opposed to let’s just crown the rail-thin girl and let’s judge one body with another body. I think we should be judging the girls based on their body type today. People of color, their body’s going to be different than a white girl’s body. That’s just reality. But then also, what you do for physical fitness — a swimmer is like a softball player, they are gonna be a lot more bottom-heavy than a ballerina. So we shouldn’t be thinking that the girl who is the softball player is large… I think we could have reimagined the competition without completely taking it out.”

Carlson’s tenure only lasted about a year, but for now the swimsuit competition remains sidelined. And while no talks of bringing it back have officially surfaced, VP of Marketing and Development for the organization, Brent Adams, isn’t shutting the door on anything.

“Miss America will not survive if it doesn’t continually reevaluate and evolve. It’s what we failed to do as an organization 30 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago,” Adams said. “But society evolves, no company stands still, and Miss America is no different. It has got to continually seek to be relevant to young people and to sponsors.”

Cameron — Miss America 2010 — on the other hand, sees a pretty clear path to bringing it back.

“There is a component of physical fitness coming back in, and there is more of an emphasis on what the girl does for her physical fitness component. So I’m hoping that that will then eventually help bridge us back into swimsuit and what we used to be,” she told Yahoo.

And then there’s Haglund, who not only doesn’t see the swimsuit competition coming back, but she thinks the whole organization could even go one more big step further.

“I believe the time and the need for a woman with a crown and a sash is almost over. I think she had a good run, I think it did an amazing thing for many women, myself included. But I don’t think America needs a Miss America anymore,” Haglund said. “That’s gonna make some people mad, but that’s ok.”

Secrets of Miss America airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on A&E.