* Beauty contest launched Sophia Loren on road to stardom
* Female RAI boss wanted pageant dropped, board member says
* Italian media filled with images of skimpily clad women
* Female house speaker calls decision "modern and civil choice"
By Catherine Hornby
ROME, July 17 (Reuters) - It may have set Sophia Loren on the road to Hollywood stardom, but the Italian state broadcaster thinks the Miss Italia beauty contest is showing its age, and is dropping its coverage after 25 years.
Predictably in a country where skimpily clad women are a common sight on mainstream television channels, especially those owned by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's Mediaset empire, the decision sparked a vigorous debate.
Male RAI board member Antonio Verro told Italian Radio 24 that RAI's - female - president Anna Maria Tarantola had wanted the show dropped because it set a "negative example". But Verro disagreed and said he hoped RAI could at least air the pageant in a reduced format.
Each year thousands of young women compete to make the final of the contest, which has helped to launch the career of many actresses and TV presenters since it began in 1939. Loren competed in 1950, but had to be content with the consolation title "Miss Elegance".
To critics, the spectacle of numbered contestants parading in front of a jury belongs firmly in that bygone age, for the way that it reduces women to their appearance, preferably one enhanced by dieting or cosmetic surgery.
They say it is just another part of an Italian media landscape where cameras unashamedly zoom in on women's breasts and legs, most especially on Mediaset's channels.
Film director Roberta Torre told the daily L'Unita that the show presented women as "pork ready to be sliced" and pressured them to conform to one uniform ideal of beauty.
Laura Boldrini, speaker of Italy's lower house, praised RAI's "modern and civil choice", and said Italian television had little space for women expressing an opinion.
"The rest are mute, and sometimes undressed," she told a conference on violence against women in Milan this week, arguing that the focus on female appearance encouraged men to view them as objects.
Boldrini was, however, widely criticised for her comments.
Pageant organiser Patrizia Mirigliani said beauty contests were held all over the world, and that she had changed the format to encourage a more modern representation of women.
Actress Lucia Bose, 82, who won Miss Italia in 1947, told L'Unita that the contest was "a piece of Italian history" and that many of the legendary actresses of Italian cinema owed their fame to the pageant. (Editing by Kevin Liffey)