Bella English

FYI, beauty pageants don’t empower women

Theresa Vail flaunted her tatoos in the Miss America swimsuit competition.
Theresa Vail flaunted her tatoos in the Miss America swimsuit competition.Edward Lea/Associated Press

If Bert Parks weren’t already dead, it would kill him. The host of the Miss America pageant for nearly 25 years, Parks would no doubt have been aghast at Miss Kansas in the recent pageant.

She’s the one whose tattoos were revealed during the swimsuit competition, in which she wore a red bikini. On her right side, starting at the top edge of her bathing suit bra and ending at the top edge of her bikini, is the Serenity Prayer. You know, the one where God is supposed to grant you serenity, courage, and wisdom. On her left shoulder is a large US Army Dental Corps insignia.


I don’t give a hoot, as my mother would say, whether Theresa Vail has tattoos; that’s her business. But I will add that what may seem profound or clever at 22 won’t be at 82. Or even 42.

What bugs me is what Vail said about her “body art.”

“Why am I choosing to bare my tattoos?” My answer: Um, what choice did you have during the swimsuit competition? Her answer: “My whole platform is empowering women to overcome stereotypes and break barriers. What a hypocrite I would be if I covered my ink.”

Come on, Ms. Vail. If you want to “empower” other women and overcome stereotypes, why are you participating in beauty pageants, which objectify women in humiliating ways, like walking onstage half naked, in high heels, in front of millions of television viewers and a live audience?

The Miss America pageant is the grandmother of them all, responsible for the spate of preschool pageants that begin when tiny girls are done up and dressed up like grownups.

Vail didn’t win — the crown went to Miss New York, Nina Davuluri — but she did make it into the final 10. In fact, she garnered the most votes in an “America’s Choice” online vote.


Vail’s beauty pageants aside, her other credentials are impressive. She’s a sergeant in the Army National Guard and is majoring in Chinese and chemistry at Kansas State University. She’s a hunter, can skin a deer, and boasts a great squirrel stew recipe.

I have my own squirrel pie recipe, which begins: “Take six squirrels. Cut up. If squirrels have been shot up too bad, soak them in alcohol.” I was pretty proud of that one, until I read in the Wall Street Journal about The World Championship Squirrel Cook Off, held recently in Bentonville, Ark.

The entries included squirrel with cashew nuts and spring rolls and Caribbean jerk squirrel and fried plantains. The brothers with the squirrel sausage recipe won. Let me guess: It tastes like chicken.

But I digress.

The bathing suit competition is, according to the Miss America pageant, based on “health, fitness, and confidence.” So why not have them wear yoga pants and a T-shirt instead of bikinis and heels? The fittest women I know wouldn’t be caught dead in a pair of heels. They’re bad for the feet. Unhealthy, you might say.

I have some friends, both men and women, who have tattoos. At Granite City Tattoo in Quincy, owner Danielle Kelly says that she has more women clients than men. The cost of tattoos averages between $75 and $150, and Kelly’s clients range in age from 18 to 80.



“We’ve had a few women who wanted tattoos all their lives, and now that people don’t judge as much, they’re going for it,” says Kelly. “Flowers, names, and we’ve done a couple of memorial ones for older ladies recently. Something with a signature or quote that the person used to say all the time.”

“Sugar skulls,” or skulls with makeup on, are big with both men and women today, she says. And while many of her female clients choose the iconic Red Sox “B” for their tattoo, lots of guys get flowers. “It’s all over the place. It’s whatever they consider art.”

Back to Miss Kansas. Not only is the Miss America pageant an anachronism, but Vail’s tattoos are another example of the lack of privacy, or modesty, today. If she is so committed to the Serenity Prayer — and yes, it is a nice one — why not carry it around in her wallet and read it to people instead of turning her body into a billboard?

Sharlene Hesse-Biber, director of women’s and gender studies at Boston College, is less judgmental.

“The tattoos are strategically placed on her body,” says Hesse-Biber, who lives in Brookline. “They’re only out for a little while, then back in the closet. Then she’ll cover up and can go back to playing a role. One can say she’s very strategic in what she’s doing.”

The Serenity Prayer goes: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”


Let’s hope Theresa Vail has the serenity to accept that she cannot change her oversized tattoo, even when she’s old and it begins to slide down her body.

And may she have the wisdom to know that, while her military and outdoor exploits may be empowering to other women, showing off her tattoos in a beauty contest is not.

Bella English lives in Milton. She can be reached at english@globe.com.