Ethics Hero: Miss America Contestant Theresa Vail

theresa-vailMiss Kansas, also known as Theresa Vail, would be a standout in current 2014 Miss America pageant just based on her unusual set of experiences and talents: the 22-year-old student at Kansas State is a member of the Kansas Army National Guard’s Medical Detachment, a serious bowhunter, a former motorcycle racer, an  M16 marksman, a boxer, an auto mechanic, and an opera singer.* What is ethically of interest, however, is that she wore a bathing suit that  revealed her two tattoos.

This just isn’t done in beauty pageants, not that many contestants are the tatooing sort. Tatoos have traditionally been regarded as ruining a contestant’s “perfection,” and aesthetically, I have to agree: a beautiful woman is still beautiful with something scribbled on her side, but it is hardy an enhancement. But Vial, in announcing her decision on her blog, made a compelling ethical argument for letting her tats show:

“What a hypocrite I would be if I covered the ink. With my platform, how could I tell other women to be fearless and be true to themselves if I can’t do the same?…But I am who I am, tattoos and all.”

That is as good a definition of integrity as you will find. Brava.  Where integrity lies, you can usually find honesty, trustworthiness and courage as well.

Not that Vail’s tattoos are anything to be ashamed of. One tattoo is Reinhold Neibuhr’s “Serenity Prayer” made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous. It is 26 words, long for a tattoo, and is visible on Vail’s  right side:

She says…

  “I was growing up amidst the bullying and neglect, I found myself asking God on a daily basis to give me peace in knowing I cannot change certain things about myself, but also asking Him to give me the strength to change things that I had the power to. Praying to Him for these characteristics got me through my adolescent years, high school and boot camp. When I was 20 years old, I knew I wanted to always be reminded of my past and its connection to this prayer. Thus, I chose to have it tattooed onto my body. I have no regrets.”

On her left shoulder is the military medical insignia:

“Though much smaller than the prayer, the significance is just as great. Since I was a child, God placed a strong passion for service into my heart. Service to my Country, and service to people through medicine. In the middle of this symbol is the letter ‘D’ to represent my dad, whose influence was paramount in choosing this career path.”

It is not difficult to imagine Vail losing the iconic Miss America title and the monetary prize that comes with in because of her decision, but integrity always carries a cost. Beauty contests, even those not sponsored by Donald Trump, tend to be fatuous and vaguely embarrassing affairs, but at least in this case, a contestant is standing for something, one of the most important, and rare, ethical values of all. I’ll be rooting for her. She is one beauty pageant contestant who has demonstrated that she possesses beauty inside and out.

* CORRECTION: The original version of the post said that Ms. Vail was a “trained” opera singer. I heard her performance in the talent competition last night. She is an opera singer, in the literal sense that she did sing an aria from an opera. She is definitely not trained. In fact, she should never sing opera again, until she is. Her singing had to be a large factor in her failing to win the contest, because it was pretty bad.


Pointer: The Blaze

Facts and graphic:

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22 thoughts on “Ethics Hero: Miss America Contestant Theresa Vail

  1. Bleh, tattoos are ugly and tattoos written out in script tend to be even uglier. I call bs on her and her stupid “body art.”

    “What a hypocrite I would be if I covered the ink. With my platform, how could I tell other women to be fearless and be true to themselves if I can’t do the same?…But I am who I am, tattoos and all.”

    I’ll believe that when I also see her with her roots grown out, and no makeup on. She is participating in a beauty pageant. She obviously feels that the tattoos enhance the “rebellious beauty” image slot that she has carefully groomed for herself, which is fine, but I don’t think it comes from some deeply ethical place.

    • She alterered her image to what she enjoys/likes/feels via a tattoo. Why would her changing hair color or adding makeup or other products make her a hypocrite? I don’t get that argument. If she enjoys being a blond and enjoys wearing makeup, then good for her.

      Besides, you can google her and find images without makeup. There is not much difference. She is still a stunning beauty and seems to have a personallity that is even more so.

  2. I just find the argument about her tattoos more than a little trite. She (or anyone else) could say the same about hair color, or make up, or implants. The tattoos are a choice after all, and she can then also choose the contexts in which she chooses to display them in. The tattoos aren’t a damaged limb or scar, though she co-opts the language as if they were. I get that she is supposed to be the “untraditional” beauty queen, and showing her tattoos falls in line with that carefully groomed image, but I don’t see how it’s any more (or less) ethical than the other beauty’s queen’s carefully groomed image of whatever she’s supposed to represent. I’m actually rather surprised that Jack would fall for such blatant self-promotion from someone who is clearly in it to win it, but such is the power of youthful beauty I suppose.

    • Tatoos are identical to scars in every way. It’s a challenge to the judges, but hardly a ploy—you can always throw beauty contestantnames into a hat and defend whoever get picked as the “deserving winner.”

      There is no way looking like someone scribbled on her with laundry marker and you didn’t bother to bathe can make a beauty contest competitor anything but less attractive, and less likely to win. I’m giving Miss Kansas the benefit of the doubt that she’s not an idiot and believes otherwise—admittedly a leap of faith when we’re talking about beauty queens or people who tattoo long passages on their sides.

    • She is just saying the tattoos are part of who she is, and covering them up would be hiding a part of her personality which the audience has a right to know about. If she, or beauty pageants in general, are supposed to encourage women to be themselves and be proud, active role models, then it would be hypocritical and dishonest of her to hide them in order to win.

      • Having brown hair is part of who she is, and she has no problem covering up that with blonde dye.

        I just find the whole thing disingenuous. Under normal circumstances, an ugly tattoo like she has would be a huge detriment, and rightly so. You make ugly aesthetical choices with your body, your choice, but I don’t need to applaud it. If she shaved off one eyebrow, or dyed her hair purple, or grew out all her body hair, it would be just as ridiculous. But since she is supposed to the gun-toting, animal-killing, car-fixin’ manly man’s ideal for a beauty queen, we are nominating her for ethics hero? I realize her tattoo may be too big and too dark to be patched with the normal ways that they do things, and she is probably trying to make the best out of a bad situation with her preemptive press release attempting to spin it line with the rest of her image that she is presenting to the judges, so I admire her craftiness, but I don’t see it as an ethical choice so much as one made necessary by her own bad decisions.

        • no…dying her hair is part of who she is, it’s her personality. Her hair color is just that…the color of hair she happened to be born with. If she decided, for instance, to not dye her hair for the pageant because she thought it would increase her chance of winning, that would be similar to covering up her tattoo, as she would be hiding a real part of who she is in order to seem more desirable to the judges.

          You don’t need to applaud anything, and she wasn’t asking you to, she was just trying to give her audience a genuine presentation of who she is. She is a hero, not because of the image she portrayed, but because she was willing to do something which could have a potentially negative impact on her goal in order to show who she genuinely is, instead of what the pageant genuinely wants her to be.

    • The tattoos aren’t a damaged limb or scar, though she co-opts the language as if they were.
      That is what I thought, too.

      • You’ll have to explain how you distinguish a tattoo and a scar. Both are often surgically removed. Most constitute an outward marring of the skin. Many primitive tribes use scarring to make tattoos. Scarring is sometimes the result of intentional acts (such as surgery or the removal of tattoos.Both are considered unsightly—to certain Christians, scars are more attractive.

        It’s a distinction without a difference. They are both externally created skin imperfections that communicate something.

        • I guess the notion of a scar (or damaged/missing limb) in modern day America is that it was something that happened to you by accident, illness, that you had no choice in the matter, or had to choose between a bunch of bad choices.

          Vail, on the other hand, made an aesthetic choice to disfigure herself, and wants us to applaud it. I think I would feel much the same to someone who deliberately scarred themselves for no reason, or who removed a hand. Your body, do what you want, but I don’t think it’s really all that wise. She is trying to spin it as the tattoo being “fearless” rather than ugly and stupid, but so do most teens who get tattoos. I don’t see how what she is doing can be characterized as heroic, unless you want to characterize the mere act of entering a beauty pageant with a giant, ugly tattoo as heroic. Which is something, I suppose. Next up we can also laud the small-busted babe who enters the wet T-shirt contest as a hero too. At least she probably didn’t choose to give herself that handicap.

  3. “the 22-year-old student at Kansas State is a member of the Kansas Army National Guard’s Medical Detachment, a serious bowhunter, a former motorcycle racer, an M16 marksman, a boxer, an auto mechanic, and a trained opera singer.”

    And I’m the fucking King of Siam. Done any blogs about the ethics of resume enhancement lately Jack?

    • Have one in the hopper, actually. I don’t doubt those credentials, though. She is a soldier. She sings as her talent. The bow-hunting is verified. Boxing is a fitness thing. She apparently was injured cycling, and if you cycle, you probably learn how to make the machine run. With this girl, you doubt the riflery?

        • Well, archery isn’t a performing talent, so you can’t blame the pageant for that call. Unfortunately, singing is her talent, either. It reminded me of the Seinfeld episode. She was a perfect candidate for one of those “interpretive readings,” or a popular song. Opera is not for beginners.

  4. Personally, I can’t see why any woman would want to blemish her body with tattoos for any reason. That said, it’s likewise true that this young lady is one of that new breed of female patriot who can not only cook, but go out and kill WHAT they cook. That… plus an impressive physique! She’s a bit different from the usual hothouse roses that parade across the stage in these events.

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