Underneath the crown: breaking beauty pageant stereotypes, empowering women

Sasha Sloan won the Miss Davis County crown in October. After receiving it, she celebrated with her family and young niece.  Sloan pours many hours a week into her service platform, an organization called Girls Empowered. Sasha goes into schools and teaches young women about confidence, sexual assault, empowerment and eating disorders. (Sasha Sloan)

A young woman’s year full of training and boots-on-the-ground service will be capped with a crown June 16 at the annual Miss Utah Pageant. Every year each city sends its title holder to compete in the pageant, a week-long process where the girls surrender their phones and go head-to-head in a different event each night. The winner will go on to compete in Miss America Sept. 9, and the rest of the girls will head home.

However, according to Miss Timpanogos Jesse Craig, no one goes home empty-handed. Breaking beauty pageant stereotypes, empowering other women and leading movements are the sorts of things that leaders continue to do forever, with or without the crown.

Craig graduated with honors from the University of Utah in 2018. Her mom won Miss Utah in 1991 and trained other girls for most of Craig’s childhood.

Despite growing up in the pageant world, Craig said she didn’t decide to compete until she turned 19.

Craig was crowned Miss Timpanogos on Aug. 5, 2017.

Craig compared the year leading up to the pageant to preparing for a marathon. She had to exert consistent, daily effort on going to the gym, listening to current events, honing her skills on the violin and working on her service platform.

To be crowned, girls must impress the judges intellectually in a private interview, perform a talent, answer an onstage question — generally about politics or current events — develop a healthy lifestyle and, most importantly according to Craig, create a year-long service platform.

“The pageant is just one night, and then the rest of the year you are preparing for it,” she said. “It’s mostly community service, and that’s why I love it. If it were just a competition one night at one part of the year, that would have no substance or depth for me.”

Craig’s platform focuses on inspiring other young adults to get involved in community service.

The little things like tying blankets, meeting people and playing with kids are what gives the pageant meaning, she said.

The most important things Craig said she has gained through her time as Miss Timpanogos are the relationships — real sisterhood in the organization — and how it’s not girl versus girl but building women up and not tearing them down.

“At the end of the day, this is an organization, not a competition. It is about empowering women and doing that through engaging in service,” Craig said. “It is where women can inspire women and create actual change in their communities. It means the world to me, and I am going to be a part of it until I’m dead.”

Ansley Funes was crowned Miss Utah County around the same time Craig was crowned.

Like the other title holders, Funes received a scholarship for her efforts, something which has enabled her to study pre-nursing at BYU.  

The Miss America Organization provides millions of dollars annually to hundreds of young women, and, according to their website, they are the nation’s largest provider of scholarship assistance for young women.

The scholarship money is what Funes said drew her to the organization, but the culture and service aspect is why she stayed.

Funes described the women who compete in the pageant as accomplished and hardworking. Ultimately, they are all similar in that way, she said. They are all girls at the same level, working hard and trying to move on to the next stage.

“I like to think of it as a competition with myself,” Funes said, adding how she doesn’t want to be her mom, and she doesn’t want to be her friends. She wants to be herself.

Funes travels to different schools across the state to host assemblies and provide resources to teach kids the importance of education.

Sloan’s platform tackles issues pertaining particularly to young girls. (Sasha Sloan)

Sasha Sloan decided she wanted to be Miss Davis County once she understood the scope of what a Miss America can do.

“Miss America has a six-figure income and goes on a speaking tour where she’s speaking in a different place every night for a year. It’s a real legit job. It’s all about service — she’s sponsored by the Children’s Miracle Network,” Sloan said.

She competed for the first time in 2016 and didn’t win, but she received one of the first attendant roles.

Sloan described her experience as agonizing but also incredibly useful. She came back the next year in 2017 with a much different attitude.

While receiving training for the pageant, Sloan said she was told she was trying way too hard to be poised, smart and beautiful. Her trainers said she needed to be more authentic. They told her the judges want to know who Sasha Sloan is, not a carbon copy of what she thinks a perfect Miss America should be.

“A huge part of preparing for Miss Utah has been self-discovery and figuring out who I am, what I stand for and what I believe,” Sloan said. “At Miss America, you don’t get to pretend to be someone else. You have to be yourself.”

Sloan responded by developing a feminist service platform she said she feels passionate about, and she was crowned Miss Davis County in October 2017.

Her platform, called Girls Empowered, tackles everything from sexual assault to eating disorders.

According to Sloan, the words “beauty pageant” automatically stir up different stereotypes people have slapped her with. Many people don’t understand what competitors do. People see images online of a beautiful, thin woman walking across a stage in a bikini, and they think that is all she is, Sloan said.

“It’s not fair for people outside of the system who’ve never researched or experienced the Miss America Organization to say it is bad because of sexism and objectification,” Sloan said. “What the Miss America Organization promotes is you can be smart, strong, hardworking and also beautiful. And you can still care about putting yourself on and getting dressed up. You can be all those things.”

The lifestyle and fitness section — more commonly known as the swimsuit portion — was repealed the beginning of June 2018.

The 2018 pageant will be the last where women will walk across the stage in their swimsuits for the Miss America Organization.

Sloan referred to the section as the most controversial, and she said she understands why because that portion is based on rating a woman on her appearance.

That being said, Sloan said there are a lot of misconceptions about this part of the pageant.

“It’s not asking these girls to weigh 100 pounds and be five-foot-ten and be a supermodel. It is asking, can you commit to living a healthy lifestyle, ” she said. “They are not looking at the girls in a sexualized way to see if they are conventionally attractive. They are really just measuring physical fitness.”

Personally, Sloan said she refuses to ever diet for the Miss America Organization. She’s not starving herself, and she doesn’t count calories. Instead, she makes an effort to live a healthier lifestyle.

According to Sloan, another misconception is some people automatically assume the girls are dumb or mean because they are pretty.

“It is just not true,” she said. “And if you continue to believe that, have a conversation with one.”

The entire thing takes an absurd amount of confidence and courage, Sloan said.

“It is absolutely a feminist empowerment organization,” she said. “Miss America teaches leadership more than anything. It puts a little crown on your head and gives you a sash and asks, ‘OK, what are you going to make happen?'”

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