Urgh. Beauty pageants. That bizarre and outdated part of American culture that baffles almost all of us with its desperate struggle to uphold patriarchal norms against all the struggle for gender equality.
But in Virginia, beauty pageant contestant Camille Schrier is doing her best to challenge pageant stereotypes by celebrating women in science. The 24-year-old biochemist was crowned Miss Virginia after performing a science experiment as part of her pageant routine.
The usual talent section of traditional beauty pageants features a song or magic trick with contestants preparing a stereotypically non-academic talent. But Camille Schrier wanted to subvert the stereotype that women cannot be both beautiful and intelligent. So, she used her biochemistry major to conduct a science experiment on stage as her talent and encourage young girls to pursue scientific careers.
Ms. Schrier wowed the judges with a demonstration of the catalytic decomposition of hydrogen peroxide. Her outfit, a lab coat and safety goggles, also defied the stereotypical ball gowns and swimsuits of traditional US beauty pageants. After mixing a chemical solution into beakers, Schrier’s experiment concluded with an explosive ending as the solution erupted in blue and orange foam: the “Elephant Toothpaste” reaction.
Recently, pageant judges decided to break away from the belittling and stereotypical norms on which they were founded. They took proactive steps to focus the pageants on genuine talent and social impact of the contestants rather than beauty alone. These changes encouraged Ms. Schrier to enter the competition:
“The evolution of the Miss America competition, which reflects greater inclusiveness, and an opportunity to make a difference and win scholarships inspired me to step forward this year and compete.”
She told IFLScience.
“I am more than Miss Virginia. I am Miss Biochemist, Miss Systems Biologist, Miss Future PharmD looking toward a pharmaceutical industry career.”
Indeed, contestants in Miss America 2.0 spend more time highlighting their achievements and goals for the future rather than parading around in skimpy bikinis in a patronizing display of a very narrow, very white- and underweight-normative display of western beauty ideals. Dress codes have also moved away from traditional ball gowns, allowing contestants to wear something they feel better expresses their identity.
The changes follow hot on the heels of criticism that Miss America is not inclusive of women with different body shapes, disabled women and women of color. Well, it’s about time! It’s 2019 people, not the 1950s…
“We are no longer a pageant. Miss America will represent a new generation of female leaders focused on scholarship, social impact, talent, and empowerment.”
Said Gretchen Carlson, Chair of the Board of Trustees.
“We’re experiencing a cultural revolution in our country with women finding the courage to stand up and have their voices heard on many issues. Miss America is proud to evolve as an organization and join this empowerment movement.”
Popular Netflix feature length film Dumplin’ tackles the exclusivity of American beauty pageants and their toxic obsession with thinness in particular. Dumplin’ stars Danielle Macdonald as the Dolly Parton-loving, plus-size, body-conscious teenage daughter of Jennifer Aniston’s overbearing ex-beauty pageant queen. Macdonald’s character, Willowdean, decides to enter the town’s beauty pageant to point out how narrow the pageant’s definition of beauty is, and how outdated the tradition is. As Willowdean infiltrates the cliques at the heart of the pageant, she journeys the long and complex road to genuine body positivity and self-acceptance.
But the film raises another question: what message are we sending to our daughters and young women by upholding these very image-obsessed values for women? If we continue to judge our young women by something as shallow as beauty, we can so easily miss out on opportunities to encourage them to pursue their talents for other more important things, like Biochemistry!
Camille Schrier, who has dual Bachelor of Science degrees from Virginia Tech in Biochemistry and Systems Biology, is passionate about encouraging young women to pursue an education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) subjects. STEM subjects are still hugely dominated by men with 81% of engineering degrees earned in the US going to men, despite boys and girls performing equal in math and science.
Ms. Schrier hopes that her performance and other activist-inspired work will help to change these statistics and make for a more gender equal scientific world. We certainly hope that her performance inspired a new generation of young women to take up the challenge of cutting-edge scientific research!