It’s been a couple months now since the controversy surrounding Carrie Prejean first blew up. Since then Prejean abdicated her Miss California throne and has been touring the Christian speaking circuit supporting traditional marriage and Christian values. I just watched a video of her appearance at Liberty University, and in it she is considerably more composed and articulate than she has typically been portrayed. You can check it out for yourself here.
Although Prejean’s interview was well-done and uplifting, I couldn’t help but get hung up on something. Over and over again the interviewers commended her unwillingness to compromise and her boldness to stand for Christ. Prejean herself challenged the students at Liberty to do the same. Yet every time she and Liberty’s chancellor discussed her strength under pressure and the importance of personal holiness in a worldly culture, one image kept flashing into my mind: The swimsuit competition.
I don’t know what Liberty’s dress code is, but I would be willing to bet they frown on women donning string bikinis, let alone parading around in one before millions of viewers on television. In fact, most church youth groups won’t even let their girls wear a two-piece bathing suit to camp.
But before jumping to any conclusions, I decided to do a little research. I found that Prejean did wear a skimpy bikini in the contest, but she was not the first professing Christian to do so. Last week the latest Miss America appeared on the 700 Club with evangelical Pat Robertson, and she talked about her faith in Christ and and the central role it played in her life. When I googled her name, a picture of her in a tiny black, barely there bikini popped up.
I tried finding photos of contestants wearing one-piece bathing suits in these competitions, but they were few and far between. In the process of searching I actually discovered that it was in the mid-90’s when the Miss America Pageant began encouraging participants to wear two-pieces instead of one. The organization highlighted the skimpier and less inhibited bathing suits in its promotions in order to boost ratings.
While I am not morally opposed to two-piece bathing suits (I own a few myself) I am bothered by 2 things about the nature of these competitions:
1. The Display Factor–these women aren’t just wearing the suits because they’re comfortable or to get a good tan, but to show off their nearly naked bodies to a watching audience. Displaying one’s body is the sole purpose of the swimwear.
2. The Face Factor–While there is some emphasis on personality, intelligence, and philanthropy, you don’t exactly see a lot of chubby girls up there. Try as they might to convince us otherwise, we all know that at the end of the day, a woman will not become Miss America on the basis of a great personality if she’s got a little junk in her trunk. That said, the pageant compares women on some characteristics that hold little value in God’s economy. In a culture of womanhood that is already so competitive, should we really be encouraging women to willingly subject themselves to it?
But what really concerns me more than anything else is the way Christian media outlets seem to eat this stuff up. In addition to Liberty’s broadcast, Prejean appeared on Focus on the Family and presented an award at the Dove Awards. Is that really wise? While some of these women do profess Christ in public and that is a good thing, does being pretty, Christian and famous automatically qualify someone as a role model for young Christian women? Even the young lady on the 700 Club admitted that she rarely goes to church because of her busy schedule. As a member of the Body of Christ, that is a significant problem, yet Pat Robertson nodded along with a sympathetic look that conveyed, “I totally understand.”
It may not be clear from my tone, but I do feel torn on this issue. After all, we need Christians EVERYWHERE–we need believers in the workplace, the government, Hollywood, etc. so that we can be salt and light to the world around us. But that doesn’t mean women should become strippers for the sake of reaching other strippers. The Miss America Pageant is not nearly that extreme, but it is a point worth considering. Is it possible for a Christian woman to participate in a competition that compares her with others on the basis of their looks, shed their modesty as they stand before millions in a tiny bikini, and still be uncompromisingly faithful to God?
I’m not going to give an answer to that question, but I do know this–conservative evangelical institutions that are loud about modesty and personal holiness might pick their spokespeople wisely. Fame and visibility are the kind of qualifiers that will later come back to bite you.