The Miss Universe competition has always been one which heralds itself on promoting a breed of strong, smart and independent women. But in a world where the relevance of “beauty pageants” continues to dwindle, have organizers turned to a more salacious means of obtaining viewers?

Earlier this year, the Miss USA pageant, which operates under the umbrella of the Miss Universe Organization, drew intense criticism for racy official photos, which featured the 51 hopefuls with smudged eyeliner, lingerie and come-hither expressions . And now, Miss Universe is following suit, with an official photo shoot by photographer Fadil Berisha in Las Vegas, where several of the contestants posed topless and in body paint.

So is featuring naked women is the only thing that can make this 58-year-old event news-worthy in 2010?

“It's alarming that this has been turned into a playboy-esque masquerade,” said Angie Meyer, who has worked closely with the Miss USA contestants and the organization in past years. “When you bring nudity into the equation, the pageant no longer becomes about the entire package of brains and beauty. Rather, the focus shifts to body image. The notion that ‘beauty’ embodies absolute physical perfection is a frightening slippery slope, and quite dangerous for young women around the world to adhere to.”

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By asking these women to pose topless in their photos, Meyer argues, the Trump organization (which, along with NBC, co-owns the Miss Universe Organization) is segregating their candidates into two categories - the women willing to pose topless, and the ones who won’t.

“By implementing topless photos as part of the pageant process, they're putting applicants in an extremely compromising position,” she said.

But a representative from the Miss Universe Organization told Pop Tarts that the women were in no way forced to pose topless and could opt for a more conservative shoot if they preferred.  Moreover, the rep argued that nudity was not an issue for many of the countries represented by the pageant.

SLIDESHOW: Controversial Miss USA Lingerie Photo Shoot.

"The contestants who compete at Miss Universe are diverse as they represent more than 82 countries around the globe. Many of their cultures embrace nudity,” the rep said in a statement. “These photos are a form of artistic expression for each contestant and we respect their desire to pose topless, or not. We feel the images captured are fashionable and cutting edge!"

LaToya Woods, a Miss Universe contestant from Trinidad & Tobago, said she felt particularly “liberated” during the shoot with Berisha in which she wore “pasties’ to cover her nipples.

“They exaggerated the curves of my body; it was in no way derogatory. It was an artistic expression. It expressed liberty, freedom, sexuality. That is what Miss Universe is all about,” she told Pop Tarts.

On the other hand, Sarodj Bertin, a lawyer from Haiti, did not feel comfortable taking her top off even for the sake of “art.”

“Most of the girls are fashion models and some were topless, everyone posed as they felt comfortable. I wouldn’t go topless – but I had flowers painted on my legs. I love nature so that made me feel part of it all,” she said.

Miss USA, Muslim-American Rima Fakih, told Access Hollywood that while she did indeed pose topless, the shots were only of her nude back.

"For me, I like to do the back,” she said. “I didn't want to do the front for many reasons, and one of them being in respect, I'm Arab, I'm Muslim, and I didn't want to disappoint many people."

Still, pageant officials said the broadcast will be family-friendly, and therefore was not expected to be banned in more conservative countries, where nudity could be in conflict with cultural values.

- Deidre Behar contributed to this report.