Imagine parading in front of 8 million people in a swimsuit. In heels, even.

Daunting? That’s an understatement. But that’s what the top 15 Miss America contestants will do Sept. 11 in front of a packed Boardwalk Hall and a national television audience.

Swimsuits have been an integral part of the Miss America competition from the start. But in 2016, are they a necessary part?

This summer, the Miss Teen USA Organization announced it would say goodbye to the swimsuit portion of its competition, favoring athleisure instead for its contestants, who are 14 to 19 years old. And athletic wear always has been a part of the Miss America’s Outstanding Teen competition for contestants between 13 and 17.

“The swimsuit question often comes up,” said Josh Randle, chief operating officer of the Miss America Organization. “It may have been an intrinsic part of our history in Miss America, but if you look at our teen competition, from the onset we’ve only included athletic wear in that competition, and it’s certainly more age-appropriate there.”

The Miss America competition has had a different relationship with swimwear because it began as a swimsuit pageant. With beach as backdrop, the first Miss America, Margaret Gorman, received a gold mermaid statue to hold onto throughout her reign in 1921.

The swimsuit portion of the competition remains, but this year it is only worth 10 percent of the final score.

“For the Miss America Organization, it is an intrinsic part of our history, but it’s not the defining factor in selecting Miss America,” Randle said. “Really what we’re looking for is a well-rounded person. The best of the group who’s got an outstanding talent, heart for community service, someone who can relate to young women, someone who can relate to kids. Someone who can relate to every generation in terms of trying to get their message out there.”

So what’s it really like to walk the Miss America stage baring so much skin?

According to Lindsey Giannini, Miss New Jersey 2016, the swimsuit strut can give contestants confidence.

“I found it extremely empowering to be on stage in swim, being unapologetically me,” she said. “I worked hard to feel confident in my own skin, and it helped with my own personal body image. I focused on living a balanced lifestyle. I felt great out there, and it made me feel great inside.”

For Miss New Hampshire Caroline Carter, the key to keeping confident is working to be healthy through diet and exercise.

“If you want to feel great, then stop comparing yourself to others, and if you make a mistake, own up to it and work to fix it,” Carter said.

“As a Type 1 diabetic, it is hard to work out as much as I would like to for my swimsuit competition. But I am proud to say I have lost 15 pounds since my state pageant, and I am so excited to be on that stage in Boardwalk Hall! I know I am not going to be one of the skinniest girls there, but I have come full circle from not loving my body to feeling amazing in my one piece Irene West swimsuit,” she said.

The newly crowned Brenna Weick, Miss New Jersey 2017, will hit the stage in her swimwear for the first time at Boardwalk Hall. She, too, said she was surprised to find the swimwear portion brought her confidence.

“I had been struggling with body image issues for a few years when I competed in my first Miss New Jersey local pageant,” Weick said. “For me, preparing to compete in swimsuit means challenging myself in the gym and fueling my body with the nutrients it needs like lots of protein, complex carbs for energy and plenty of fruits and vegetables.”

Weick said she keeps in mind what she represents to girls looking up to her as she competes.

“I don’t want little girls to see me in the swimsuit competition and think, ‘I want to look like her.’ I want them to look at me and think, ‘I want to be as confident as her,’ or ‘I want to love my body as much as she loves hers,’ or ‘I want to be strong, like her,’” she said. “Fitness is not about the number on a scale or the size of your clothes. It’s about setting goals for yourself. My goal in competing in lifestyle and fitness in swimwear is to be stronger than I was the day before and happy with the body I was given.”

Contact: 609-272-7209

Twitter @ACPressSchweder

Features reporter, Flavor magazine editor

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