Opinion: Miss Kansas challenges stereotypes in pageant

Elaina Sauber

Elaina Sauber

Elaina Sauber is a senior English major and a columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. She can be reached at [email protected].

If someone asked me last week to say the first thing that came to mind when I heard the words “Miss America,” I would’ve drawn a blank. It’s not that I’ve ever had anything against the pageant — I just didn’t know much about what Miss America actually does once she wins her title. The title of Miss America, begun in 1921, is given to a woman between the ages of 17-24 who acts as both a role model and spokesperson to the public, “using her title to educate millions of Americans on an issue of importance to herself and society at large.”

First and foremost, however, Miss America is a scholarship program for young women pursuing higher education, and part of that scholarship eligibility is assessed on the basis of how contestants perform at the Miss America pageant. The only problem is, when you’re watching 50 beautiful women clad in swimsuits and high heels, they begin to all look the same — until this year.

Miss Kansas, Theresa Vail, is the first Miss America contestant to show visible tattoos in the pageant—one of them being the Serenity Prayer down the her right side and the other of the U.S Army Dental Corp. insignia on her shoulder. Both tattoos were noticeable for the swimsuit portion of the competition. Vail is also a sergeant in the National Guard and only the second woman in the armed forces to ever compete in the pageant. Vail wrote on her blog regarding her decision to show her tattoos: “My whole platform is empowering women to overcome stereotypes and break barriers … what a hypocrite I would be if I covered my ink. How can I tell other women to be fearless and true to themselves if I can’t do the same? I am who I am, tattoos and all.”

The stereotypes Vail mentions overcoming are symbolized by her own platform issue she chose: Empowering Young Women Through Male-Dominated Outdoor Activities. Vail didn’t win any of the talent or swimsuit preliminary competitions, but her presence reminds us that it’s time to challenge the idea that Miss America represents a perfect, obedient woman, to a woman who leads with strength earned through experiences — maybe even mistakes.

She is described on her personal blog as “Miss Outdoor Girl,” a senior at Kansas State University double-majoring in chemistry and Chinese who “hopes for a career with the FBI before settling down as a dentist for the Army.” Vail also served in the Kansas Army National Guard for five years, graduating with Distinguished Honors as a mechanic, a dental technician “and expert marksman with the M16 A2 rifle.”

After not winning preliminary awards, Vail tweeted Sunday: “Win or not tonight, I have accomplished what I set out to do. I have empowered women. I have opened eyes.” Whether it’s for maintaining her integrity by showing her tattoos or her remarkable physical and mental capabilities, she has helped break down barriers for women who aspire to be leaders by showing them an inner strength. With or without the crown, Miss Kansas has successfully rattled the standards of gender roles in America, and that’s better than any title.