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Miss USA and the privilege of mental health Beautiful young women are given a free pass

Miss Teen USA 2023, UmaSofia Srivastava, and Miss USA 2023, Noelia Voigt. (Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Supermodels Unlimited)

Miss Teen USA 2023, UmaSofia Srivastava, and Miss USA 2023, Noelia Voigt. (Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Supermodels Unlimited)


May 16, 2024   6 mins

“There are no beautiful surfaces without a terrible depth,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, though you’d be forgiven for thinking it was Taylor Swift, or maybe one of the latter-day Instagram poets. The line originally appeared in one of the philosopher’s more obscure notebooks, and obscure it might have remained, if it hadn’t been so perfectly tailored to the age of the aesthetic inspirational quote. What beautiful surfaces did Nietszche have in mind? Who knows; who cares! The line slaps, that’s what matters: it’s practically begging to be stripped of all context and tattooed on a millennial’s ribcage, remixed with a “dark academia” Canva template and posted to Tumblr — or, as was the case last week, acting as the headline for the resignation letter of a teen pageant queen from New Jersey.

“After careful consideration, I’ve decided to resign as I find that my personal values no longer fully align with the direction of the organisation,” reads the Instagram post from UmaSofia Srivastava, the 17-year-old winner of the 2023 Miss Teen USA title. Although Srivastava described her decision as months in the making, many were struck by its suspicious timing — just days after the resignation of the 2023 Miss USA winner Noelia Voigt, who announced that she was stepping back from her duties to focus on her mental health. A coincidence? Maybe, but between the reference to “values” in Srivastava’s post and the ominous tone of Voigt’s (“Never compromise your physical and mental well-being,” she wrote), the general impression was one of impending crisis, and of the pageant queens fleeing an unstable structure on the brink of collapse.

A week after their announcements, the sense of scandal lingers, with interested parties glued to the drama as though it were a glittering spectacle all its own. This is entirely in keeping with the broader role of pageants in American culture, where the notion of depth, terrible or otherwise, beneath the beauty queen’s jewel-encrusted gown and plastered-on smile has been the basis for blackly funny satires (see: Drop Dead Gorgeous, Insatiable), as well as the entire reality show oeuvre represented by Toddlers and Tiaras and its ilk. The pleasure of the pageants themselves is as much about spotting cracks in the contestants’ picture-perfect veneers as admiring their beauty and accomplishments — hence the incredible virality of moments like the 2007 meltdown of the Miss Teen USA contestant from South Carolina, who appeared to short-circuit while trying to answer a question about Americans’ lack of geographical literacy. In a post-feminist world, the entire concept of beauty queens feels like a bizarre relic of a less-enlightened era, and one that should be viewed with suspicion — which might be why it took all of five minutes for a commenter on Voigt’s Instagram post to notice that if you isolate the first letter of the first eleven sentences of her statement, you get the phrase, “I AM SILENCED”.

If it’s unclear just what this hidden message-within-a-message means, it is nevertheless spectacularly effective bait — as is Srivastava’s post with its clever use of the Nietszche quote. If you look closely at this second item, you’ll notice the ghost of a photograph, faded but discernible in the negative space not overlaid by text: a picture of the teen beauty queen weeping and clutching her heart as she’s crowned the pageant queen.

The attention-grabbing nature of these posts, with their implicit suggestion that you may see true horrors lurking beneath the surface if you examine them closely enough, gives permission to the audience to do what they already wanted to do anyway, which is look and theorise and look some more. The whiff of scandal inside the Miss Universe organisation is tailor-made for the era of what the writer Phoebe Maltz Bovy calls “photogenic feminism” — a catchy term to describe the women’s issues “that lend themselves to two readings, one earnestly feminist, the other lowest-common-denominator titillation”.

Whatever may have happened to these women, it seems certain that nobody would be paying this kind of attention to a similar story that did not include images of pageant princesses in bejewelled leotards and high heels. The beautiful woman in sensational and titillating peril is no more urgent a victim than a minimum-wage worker in a hairnet getting groped by her boss, but that first story is the one people want to read.

All of this is only slightly complicated by the possibility that what happened to these women may be nothing much — or at least, nothing they didn’t sign up for. The nature of the pageant circuit is such that, by the time a woman wins a national crown, she’s been sashaying across the stage at regional and county and state competitions for years. It’s virtually impossible that either Voigt or Srivastava failed to realise the nature of the business they were in, or the compromises they would be expected to make, including but not limited to the signing of contracts delineating their duties as Miss USA representatives. Some have attempted to spin these documents as a form of sexist exploitation — “This is an organisation that preaches women’s empowerment,” one former pageant winner said, sardonically — but surely an empowered woman can decide for herself whether the price of admission to any given organisation is one she’s willing to pay. The contracts may be draconian — or maybe they just feel that way to a generation that doesn’t seem to entirely grasp that there’s a difference between courageous whistleblowing and just talking shit about your boss in public — but the women did agree to sign them, for whatever that’s worth.

“It’s virtually impossible that either Voigt or Srivastava failed to realise the nature of the business they were in.”

Indeed, how you interpret the resignations of Voigt and Srivastava probably depends on this last thing: having agreed to abide by a certain set of rules, how obliged should the beauty queens be to fulfil said commitments? The sympathetic take, of course, is that stepping down is a brave and daring sacrifice, one that sends a powerful message. The more cynical one is that they found a way to avail themselves of all the attention and influence and resources afforded to pageant winners while abdicating the attendant responsibilities — and all under the unassailable pretence of self-care.

I genuinely have no idea which of these interpretations hews closer to the truth. But what seems undeniable is that if you are a beautiful and gifted young woman, you can renege on practically anything just as long as you invoke mental health as the reason for doing so. It’s the same phenomenon we’ve seen in recent years in the sporting world, when Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles bowed out of press engagements, competition or both, citing struggles with depression and anxiety — and amid a similarly polarised debate over the difference between care and coddling.

Then, as now, questions arose as to whether we had overcorrected from the days when traumatised young women were dismissed as hysterical or attention-seeking, to the point where we were now instilling in them a complete intolerance for even ordinary and necessary discomfort. Add to this the unprecedented focus amongst young people on mental health, one that some clinicians worry is resulting in the pathologisation of everyday annoyances as crises requiring medical intervention.

It makes it difficult to know, when someone like Voigt suggests that pageant queendom was a danger to her “mental health and well-being”, if she’s truly in crisis or merely availing herself of the one socially acceptable excuse for flaking out — which in turn raises the question of whether every invocation of mental health should be taken at face value. Does it serve young women to treat the spectre of their emotional distress as simply too precious to question? Is there any scenario in which a person in Voigt’s position might still be told that her discomfort is regrettable, but something she’ll have to deal with, for no other reason than that she made a commitment and people are counting on her?

The answer to this question may in fact be “no” — or at the very least, that keeping one’s promises is no longer something we place all that much value on as a society. At one point, I tried to figure out if there had ever been a similar situation in which a man abdicated his responsibilities while citing the same need for self-care. What I came up with is not perfectly analogous to the Miss USA snafu, but nevertheless compelling: an actual prince cutting ties with an actual monarchy in the name of his mental health.

It is true that some people supported Harry in this, most crucially the ones who lauded him as the latest patron saint of American therapy culture. But there was a fair amount of gleeful mockery, too, and this seems instructive: a man may play the mental-health card by way of breaking a promise, but it won’t make him a hero. This sort of strength in fragility, and power in vulnerability, is reserved for women — and particularly for the youngest, prettiest ones. Which makes the trajectory of the abdicated pageant winners ironic, if nothing else: when the weight of her jewelled tiara becomes too much to bear, the best way out for the savvy beauty queen is to play the damsel in distress.


Kat Rosenfield is an UnHerd columnist and co-host of the Feminine Chaos podcast. Her latest novel is You Must Remember This.

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UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
2 days ago

My last two years of teaching I had four senior girls tell me they suffered from anxiety/depression. Three said they might have to leave class suddenly if they were having an anxiety attack. They would also be absent a lot. I stared at them, trying to process what I was hearing. All four of the girls were exceptionally pretty. And sure enough, they did exactly what they said they would do. The fourth girl just sat quietly in her chair. What I noticed was that other three were constantly on their phones, even though they weren’t supposed to be. Their fingers furiously typing. One day, the most melodramatic girl suddenly left the room—she had ominously warned me she would. When I had a break, I went into the hall. She was typing. I told her to get back in class. Tears. Ugly ones. Don’t you understand? My life is falling apart!! I figuratively kicked her rear end back into the classroom. All four of the girls disappeared. Only one of them, the quiet one, did her work from home and passed my class. The other three never answered my emails and failed, which meant they would not graduate. This mental health “crisis” routine is getting old. Those three girls were addicted to the endless drama of life online. That was their problem, and I had little sympathy—except for the quiet one. I sometimes think of those girls. Were they fired from their jobs because they wouldn’t put their phones away? Did they try to pull the mental illness scam? Did they have better luck with men than they did with me?

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 day ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Yikes. I had a girl – a college senior – in my illustration class. She could have been one of the students you cite: weepy, dramatic, attention-seeking, lazy. But I had zero patience for her and told her that professional artists (her ambition, such as it was), couldn’t be flakes. Her mother (!) called me at home and screamed for twenty minutes, but the kid never came back to class, so I gave her an incomplete, and she didn’t graduate.

I couldn’t believe it, but in the following Fall semester, she was back in my class! And she stopped showing up after three weeks, again failing to graduate. No more calls from Mom. By this time, even she must have had enough.

Jim M
Jim M
1 day ago

Why did you listen for 20 minutes?

David Morley
David Morley
1 day ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

That’s not a mental health crisis! That’s natural selection at work!

Last edited 1 day ago by David Morley
William Shaw
William Shaw
1 day ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

So, not so strong and independent after all.

David Morley
David Morley
1 day ago
Reply to  William Shaw

I’m beginning to think that terms like “strong and independent” actually have no meaning for the people who use them, aside from being approved positive markers.

If you were to ask someone who so self describes to demonstrate their strength and independence I think their response would be: “what do you mean?”

Thomas K.
Thomas K.
1 day ago

I am endlessly bitter about this new, bullsh** fixation on ‘mental health’. I’ve lived almost 20 years of constant suffering from severe anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, severe enough that it is quite literally crippling. And in all those years very few people have given a *damn* about my ‘mental well-being’. Now we have pampered clods self-IDing themselves based on tiktok memes, using my illness as a justification for their selfishness, and basking in and soaking up all that unearned sympathy that I never got, and *still* wouldn’t, to be honest.

The more we loudly proclaim to care about the marginalized, the less we seem to *actually* care. I despise modernity.

William Simonds
William Simonds
1 day ago

The comparison with Harry seems to me to be apt. What is galling is not that he “quit” the monarchy, but his addiction to the attention he gets by bashing it. When one lives in a world that is defined by “self”, any threat to the centrality of self in that world is existential. These women, Harry, and quite possibly a whole generation have been failed by a society that abdicated the responsibility to instill any concept of selflessness as a rational and reasonable ideal. Struggle, rather than being a process through which true maturity emerges, has been redefined a threat to maintaining one’s own immaturity. Thus the world cannot be about duty and honor for I would have to dethrone myself for that to be the case. I fear we have truly lost our way when any growth from immaturity to maturity is considered a mental health issue.

Isabel Ward
Isabel Ward
1 day ago

Well written article. Both amusing and informative. “Mental health” is part of health and should neither be ignored as it has been in the past nor singled out for special attention as it is in the present. Similarly, we don’t give up on life if we get a sprained ankle nor should we conflate “things not going our way” with depression.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 day ago
Reply to  Isabel Ward

I think mental health falls within the paradigm of pendulum theory. For a long time, anyone dealing with such issues kept them quiet. Adults paid cash for therapy sessions because the last thing they wanted was a paper trail like that following them. Far better to have cancer or heart disease than bona fide depression. The pendulum has now swung to a similar extreme on the other side of the center point, where people routinely claim PTSD or some such over very minor life events.

Dylan Blackhurst
Dylan Blackhurst
15 hours ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

I swear if I hear one more muppet claim PTSD I will boot my TV across the living room!
Once the lid came off on ‘mental health’ it was always going to end up here.
It’s such an easy thing to claim.
It’s making an employer’s and teacher’s job near impossible.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 day ago

Without being too harsh on a 17-year-old, when exactly did her values epiphany occur? A cynic would say that she and the pageant were aligned when Ms. Srivastava decided to enter, when she went through the process, even after she won, effectively robbing the first runner-up of a moment in the sun.
This mental health “current thing” is getting out of hand, making a mockery of genuine psychological issues. Perhaps both of these ladies are truly suffering from some serious issues, but this is a period in which things like PTSD and rising claims of neurodivergence have cheapened the enterprise. PTSD is being on a battlefield and picking up the body parts of your now-dead comrade, not hyperventilation because JK Rowling said men are not women.
As the article correctly notes, Srivastava knew what the game was and she chose to participate anyway. It is long past time for the adults to stop being scared of the children. That approach has served society poorly, and that’s an understatement.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 day ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

As mentioned in the article, no one gets to be Miss Teen or Miss anything without years of experience and fighting for notoriety in local and regional events. It takes a certain fortitude to make it to the finish line and now that they crossed it, which is the easy part, they falter? I say this is nothing more than a scandal, paid for by the pharmaceutical industry.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 day ago

The unfortunate thing about social media is that it rewards extremely narcissistic behavior. Hopefully some other technology will come to replace it. The sooner this phase of history ends, the better.

Dillon Eliassen
Dillon Eliassen
1 day ago

“Therapy queen
Now we’re sharing the same dream
And our hearts they beat as one
No more love on the run”
-Billy Ocean

David Morley
David Morley
1 day ago

There are no beautiful surfaces without a vacuous lack of depth, Nietzsche updated for the instagram age.

Studio Largo
Studio Largo
1 day ago

Great piece. A welcome antidote to the endless ‘affirmation’ automatically granted to Generation Candyass.

Matt Sylvestre
Matt Sylvestre
1 day ago
Reply to  Studio Largo

Generation Candy Ass indeed! – This is the best crass line I have ever heard! Truly!

Studio Largo
Studio Largo
4 hours ago
Reply to  Matt Sylvestre

Thanks for the kind words.

Sayantani G
Sayantani G
1 day ago

I am confused as to the moral of this story! Resigning Miss Teen USA after competing for it invoking ” mental health”- is it to give up on notions of beauty and femininity that are considered old fashioned; and hence a continued claim to status in Woke Olympics?
Or is it the confused reaction of a confused and spoilt generation?
Not sure.
Kat seems to say a lot without going to the nub of the issue clearly.

M To the Tea
M To the Tea
1 day ago

The topic can be argued in either way, but the prose style of this writing was amazing.

Matt Sylvestre
Matt Sylvestre
1 day ago

Damn – Rosenfield has iron balls – Just what the doctor (or this case therapist) ordered…