Beauty Pageants Send Mixed Messages

Being a beauty queen isn't easy.

Miss America, for example, isn't allowed to get married. She's allowed to date, but evidence of an actual sex life could ruin her career. And until recently, she wasn't permitted to promote sexual abstinence.

Following the recent controversies that dethroned both Miss North Carolina and Miss Universe, it has become evident that contradictory rules dictate the romantic lives of beauty contestants.

Some say these restrictions are sexist and out of date, while others defend them as necessary to protect the dignity of pageants -- and the impressionable young people who watch them.

"Beauty pageants are about projecting a certain ideal of womanhood," said Karla Mantilla, member of feminist newsjournal Off Our Backs. "Contestants are expected to be chaste and at the same time exude sexuality in bathing suits. It's crazy."

But groups like the National Physicians Center for Family say the competitions have a responsibility to uphold standards of decency.

"We as an organization believe anyone put forth as a role model to adolescents has an obligation to portray the healthiest lifestyle possible -- and people in the public eye are role models," said Diana Lightfoot, president of the National Physicians Center for Family Resources.

Mantilla said it's wrong, for example, that ex-Miss North Carolina Rebekah Revels, 24, was allegedly forced to resign her crown after her ex-boyfriend threatened to reveal photos he took of her while she was topless.

But Lightfoot supports Revels' termination.

"If the photos were made public it would definitely put a black mark on the pageant," she said. "If they say it's no big deal -- that everybody lives like this -- they are giving adolescents the wrong message about healthy lifestyles."

Revels is currently in the midst of a legal battle with the Miss America organization; interim Miss America CEO George Bauer could not be reached for comment.

On the flip side, the pageant tried to stop the new Miss America, 22-year-old Erika Harold, from promoting sexual abstinence. Family groups like Lightfoot's organization called that effort "outrageous."

"It is clear that delaying sexual involvement, preferably until marriage, is the healthiest lifestyle for adolescents," reads a statement issued by the NPC in support of Harold's campaign.

Dr. William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, also supported Harold.

"She is a hero to all Americans -- that she would stand up to the politically correct police and condom-maniacs at the Miss America pageant," he said.

The pageant says it was worried a dialogue on abstinence would interfere with Harold's anti-youth violence and bullying platform.

In light of the Revels scandal, the pageant's take on abstinence -- which was eventually reversed -- is hypocritical, according to Mantilla.

"Considering the way they reacted to the nude photos, you'd think they'd want Miss America to promote chastity," she said. "But they want women to walk the line constantly between virgin and whore."

Mantilla also has issues with the no-marriage rule common in pageants. According to several newspaper reports, ex-Miss Universe Oxana Federova was stripped of her title last month partly due to concerns that she might be married to her boyfriend and pregnant.

A Miss Universe representative, Esther Swan, said Federova was replaced for refusing to fulfill the obligations of her title, which include a rigorous travel schedule.

But she confirmed that either marriage or pregnancy would have been grounds for termination.

"I think that any woman who has a tough and strenuous job knows that maintaining a household is very difficult," Swan said. "To have a husband and especially kids -- this job keeps them on the road."

But despite the love-life limitations placed on modern-day beauty queens, many applaud pageants for their efforts to present a clean, wholesome image.

"Pageant officials must look at it from the perspective of the public," said Donohue. "Miss America is a role model."

And for young women especially, added Lightfoot.

"Like sports stars for boys, young girls look up to beauty contestants."