Monday, May 27, 2024

Miss USA’s mental health crisis: Why the pageant world needs a wake-up call

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Less than a week after Miss USA 2023 shockingly stepped down, more news is igniting a firestorm in the pageant world and exposing the mental health issues women and girls who participate in the pageant system face.

Both Miss USA, Noelia Voigt, and Miss Teen USA, UmaSofia Srivastava, resigned their titles just days apart, both citing concerns about the organization’s leadership and its impact on their well-being. In an 8-page resignation letter, Voigt detailed a “toxic work environment” with bullying and harassment, further fueling public scrutiny.

Lara Hakamaki, director of corporate development for Michigan Psychological Care, and Miss Congeniality 2023 and 2024 in the Miss Michigan USA pageant, noted that the organization seemingly failed to support Voigt, whose platform was not widely promoted. Hakamaki also said that for those who’ve participated in the Miss USA world, the recent resignations aren’t a total shock.

“Noelia had this light about her. You could feel warmth from her and all of a sudden things started turning, or even in her smile you could see that sometimes it just wasn’t shining as bright. You could tell that she was struggling,” she told Reckon.

Two days later, Srivastava announced her own resignation on Instagram, citing that her personal values no longer aligned with the direction of the organization.  Adding fuel to the fire, Miss Teen USA 2023 Runner Up Stephanie Skinner revealed to PEOPLE that she declined the crown in lieu of the vacant spot.

Days before, Miss USA’s social media director Claudia Michelle also resigned, alleging that both Voigt and Srivastava had been mistreated.

The Miss USA organization has been riddled with controversy – from alledged rigging to sexual harassment – for years, but the recent resignations leave the public speculating about the conditions surrounding pageantry, and their negative impact on confidence and mental health. Last year, research from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Vanderbilt University found that consuming news content about pageants was harmful to the body image of women and adolescent girls, especially when their home state won.

Immense pressure hidden by a glamorous facade

Symphony Dixon, International Ms. USA 2022, used the controversy to highlight the pressures of a high-profile, demanding role, drawing parallels to her own workplace struggles.

“It’s a position that requires exceeding expectations, going above and beyond in your performance, being highly engaged and always ‘on,’” Dixon wrote on LinkedIn on Thursday. “You’re thrusted into social media stardom which often comes at the expense of cyberbullying and the pressure of curating a perfect lifestyle. Experiencing micromanagement and microaggressions on a macro level. It is a glamorous job, but by no means an easy one.”

Dixon told Reckon she felt prompted to write the post because she saw discussion surrounding Miss USA on other social media platforms, and wanted to spark conversation that highlighted the importance of prioritizing your mental health while dealing with a toxic work environment.

“I felt like it struck a chord with me because six months ago, I left my full-time job and I didn’t have anything lined up,” she said.

Dixon began competing in pageants as a preteen, and noted the culture and experience surrounding pageants varies greatly depending on the system you’re in. While she does not recall any mental health resources available while she competed as a teen, she says that discussions of mental health are becoming less stigmatized.

The resignations have also revived discussions about mental health in the pageant community, especially in light of the tragic suicide of Cheslie Kryst, Miss USA 2019, two years ago.

“The conversation about mental health in the pageant community is fairly new. And I think with Cheslie Kryst, that was a true eye opener for a lot of people,” she said.

Kryst’s memoir, “By the Time You Read This: The Space Between Cheslie’s Smile and Mental Illness” released in April, revealed the pressures she felt as a result of her success.

“All of this only added to my long-standing insecurities — the feeling that everyone around me knew more than I did, that everyone else was better at my job, and that I didn’t deserve this title. People would soon find out I was a fraud. I felt like an imposter, but not just in pageants,” she wrote.

So, do the pros of pageants outweigh the potential risks?

The impact of beauty pageants is a complex issue. Dr. Patricia Celan, a pageant titleholder and psychiatrist who has won multiple pageant titles and is the current Dr. Universe 2024, notes that pageantry can empower women to advocate for causes like mental health, and even help some manage existing mental health struggles.

“Unfortunately, there’s also the side where a lot of women in pageantry also have a history of mental health difficulties, so there may be a history of eating disorders or anxiety or depression, and I’ve actually found that pageantry can help with that kind of thing,” Celan said.

Many contestants, like Hakamaki who began competing in 2021 to talk about mental health on Miss USA Michigan’s platform, use pageants as a platform to challenge stereotypes and promote mental wellbeing.

“That’s really where my passion for pageantry happened,” Hakamaki told Reckon. “I could talk on a platform where when you think of pageant girls you think of somebody who is skinny and tall and rich and beautiful and has the perfect life, and then I’m up on stage there saying hey, that’s just for show, everybody struggles.”

However, research paints a nuanced picture. While a 2011 West Virginia University study study found pageant participants had higher self-esteem, it also revealed increased body dissatisfaction.

More recent research from the University of Massachusetts indicates pageants can negatively affect viewers’ body image, with women in states with pageant wins more likely to try to lose weight.

But all pageants are not created equal. The competitors Reckon spoke with all stressed that the quality of the pageant experience depends heavily on the organization’s leadership and culture. Dixon urges potential contestants to thoroughly research different pageant systems to find one that aligns with their values.

Celan highlights the lack of regulation in the pageant industry, allowing for both toxic and supportive environments.

“It’s not like in medicine, where there’s overarching licensing bodies that look to make sure that everything is consistent in how medicine is practiced. There is nobody looking for consistency in how pageantry is practiced, so any company can do whatever they want.” Celan said.

Hakamaki acknowledges the potential for negative impacts but emphasizes the positive experiences she’s had, gaining confidence and support from other women.

“When I first joined, I thought that it was going to be a bunch of catty girls who were out for the crown and would tear you down to get themselves out,” said Hakamaki. “But when you really get into it, you have more confidence than ever before because all of these amazing, beautiful women that you look up to are looking up to you and telling you how amazing you are.”

Ultimately, many who participate in pageants agree with Hakamaki and believe the pros outweigh the cons, citing benefits like increased self-confidence, communication skills, and cultural competency. Dixon credits pageantry for giving her an early advantage in interviewing, while Celan attributes her success as a doctor to the confidence she gained from competing.

While recent controversies highlight issues within specific organizations like Miss USA, the overall message is clear: pageants can offer growth and opportunity, but careful consideration is crucial when choosing where to compete.

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