Beauty pageants. The phrase invokes a surreal image. Say Miss Universe and people think impossibly toned bodies, flawless makeup and blinding smiles.
Brains and courage aren’t generally the first characteristics most people would think to attribute to the contestants.
“Despite the fact that most of these women are smart, accomplished individuals with diverse talents and expertise, no one expects those elements to outshine the dress, the hair or the bikini body,” Sheila Moeschen wrote recently in the Huffington Post. “In a sense, these contestants are already set up to fail due to the narrow political and representational parameters of the pageant and the public's insatiable thirst for vapid exhibition.”
Moeschen also points out that when contestants, like Miss Utah Marissa Powell, do fumble, it’s what we expect to happen because society has come to see pageants as some sort of sideshow.
But those who compete say pageants are about more than beauty; they’re about learning the value of hard work and focus. They emphasize philanthropy and offer young people a chance to win scholarships for college.
Participants all have their own reasons for entering, but here are six young women combating pageant stereotypes. Sure they’re pretty, but they’re also smart, articulate and strong. They are not afraid to break the traditional pageant mold.
1. Marina Montes
Pageants aren't exactly a hotbed of diversity, but Miss Long Island 2011 is all about promoting cultural awareness and inclusion. She's proud of her Cuban and Puerto Rican heritage and told Fusion's own Ted Hesson several years ago during his past life as online editor of Long Island Wins that she believes immigrants in the country for the right reasons - to raise a family, work or escape persecution - should be granted a path to citizenship. Montes is smart. She attended law school and has won scholarship money at pageants.
2. Theresa Vail
Miss Kansas 2013 has tattoos and is an expert markswoman. She's a member of the National Guard and a former victim of bullying. She also majored in Chemistry and Chinese. In other words, she's not the typical contestant and she's proud of it.
"When I'm in my uniform, nobody expects me to be Miss Kansas — until they see the sash and crown and I tell them I'm Miss Kansas," she told ABC News. "And they really are shocked, and then they're shocked to find me on the archery range. … I love it, it opens the eyes of people to the type of women that do compete in pageants."
3. Alleya Slagter
The West Michigan beauty queen may not have any big pageant wins under her belt, but she's breaking all kinds of gender stereotypes. The ballerina is also the first female football player on her high school's team.
"I’m hoping that they can just do what they want to do because they will succeed if they really believe that they can do it," the wide receiver told a Fox affiliate.
And to all those people who think girls shouldn't play football?
"I guess we'll just have to prove it," she said.
4. Kaitlyn Wozniak
Instead of basking in the attention, Miss District of Columbia 2012 has used it as a way to open a dialogue about eating disorders and mental health. The women's health advocate has lobbied lawmakers on Capitol Hill to do more to address eating disorders.
"[A]s Miss DC, I use my title as a platform to share my personal story and spread awareness about eating disorders, to promote positive body image and healthy self-esteem in women and girls of all ages," the nutrition fitness advocate told Beutiful Magazine earlier this year. "These things all remind me of why I stay strong and healthy. I would never feel comfortable preaching this message if I didn't practice it myself."
5. Helen Troncoso
Ms. New York 2012 is Dr. Troncoso. The fitness advocate has a doctorate in physical therapy and serves as CEO and founder of Reinventing You, LLC. She's passionate about raising cervical cancer awareness and the Latina has written about how health disparities impact Latinos, which helped earn her a space on Latina Magazine's "Top 10 Health & Fitness Bloggers" list.
6. Nancy Redd
Miss Virginia 2003 has an honors degree in Women's Studies from Harvard University. The HuffPost Live host wrote in the New York Times, "Being affiliated with the Miss America brand gave me an incredible opportunity to offer youth a different perspective on life from a persona that they admired and respected."
If pageants are here to stay — and it seems that they are — we can only hope that more women like this will enter and that eventually, viewers will look at the whole package, not just the body in the bikini.
WE WANT TO KNOW: Do you think pageants are a good thing or a bad thing?
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.