Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Crowning glory...

This weekend, we tuned in to watch the annual Miss America pageant, televised live as it has been for decades. As we sat down, my seven year old daughter, a girly-girl who loves dress up clothes, Disney movies, singing at the top of her lungs, and playing with her makeup kit, who also happens to be the kid who, earlier that day, finished a kid's triathlon like a boss.....asked "what's Miss America?".

My reaction:

This might come as a surprise to many of my older friends.  You see, I was a child beauty queen. Honey-boo-boo, I was not, but I began competing in pageants at the age of 8, and went all the way to the Miss Louisiana pageant in the Miss America system.  11 years....the most formative of my life....spent navigating the tricky waters of high stakes pageantry. I have many friends whom I dearly love, admire and support who still are very involved in that world.  

As a young girl, it was nothing but fun, from what I remember. Sparkly crowns, numbers magic-marker-ed on paper doilies and prancing around onstage at some random, rural high school....or, if it was a big deal, the stage at the local college in the big city of Shreveport.  I won a lot of trophies. I rode in parades, tossing candy to people on the street with my name on a cardboard sign, taped to the car door. 

As I got a bit older, in middle school, I began entering larger pageants with higher stakes, at one point being crowned "Little Miss Louisiana" and touring the state as such.  That was a really wonderful experience and memory, and while I remember the slightly nasty competitive edge that was building in me, it was still mostly a positive experience, despite that fact that I was mercilessly bullied by middle school peers when my school posted my "title" on the marquee.

As I progressed to adolescence and the state title preliminaries, the game changed. For one thing, the cost rose incredibly. All of the sudden, the "wardrobe" budget was out of control. You just had to travel to Arkansas to meet the man who would provide you the gown.  (and the earrings, and the shoes, and...and...and....) You just had to pay big bucks for a little old lady to sew you a custom swim suit.  After you had done all this and won your title and were basking in the glow of the spotlights with the crown barely settled on your head, your 5'7'', 117 pound self was told that to compete at the state pageant, the first thing you needed to do was lose 15 pounds. Yes. During the "post-win" conference, where you meet with your "handlers"....right after the pageant. 

That's jacked up, people.   And my mother and I knew it. 

I think that was the turning point for me.  I won that preliminary pageant, and went to college 6 weeks later.  I went to college and started figuring out who I was, and who I wanted to be, and "pageant queen" didn't make the short list. Now, I will be the first to admit that some of the skills and talents I acquired through pageantry did indeed help me become who I wanted to be.  The interview skills helped snag a full ride college scholarship.  The voice lessons were absolutely the best investment my parents could have made, as I still sing for the public and for pleasure and my voice and my ability to use it properly brings me great joy.  My stage skills translated to a 20-year-and-counting run in community theatre that has been an absolute building block of my person, and has provided me with lifelong friends and experiences that I would not trade for any amount of money or fame. I'm not exactly sure where I would have acquired these skills had it not been for pageants.  However, looking back, I do wonder about "the chicken or the egg" nature of that rationale.  Was I successful in pageants because I innately had those talents and skills, or was it pageantry that developed them? Are winners born or created? (Yep, that one's for you, Mom)  I have a dear friend with a similar story and journey through pageantry who translated her skills into a successful career as a news anchor, and yet another who is still a talented musician to this day.  I am not dismissing the positives that those years brought into my life, and the possibility that others could have reaped similar benefits. 

I do, however, question the legitimacy of the entire idea of beauty pageants in a very changing world. 

I wonder how a pageant contestant can compete in "physical fitness" in swimsuit, claiming that it's a healthy lifestyle she is promoting, when she is using makeup to enhance her abs and wearing a tiny bikini glued to her butt on TV?  If we want to recognize physical fitness, why doesn't Miss America hold a 10k run during preliminary competitions?  Why the bikini?  Why not bike shorts and a tank, and aerobics?  You see, the "physical fitness" argument rings hollow to me.  Let's be honest. What people really like are pretty girls with perky boobs in bikinis.  They like them prancing around on stage in lots of makeup, on television.  They don't like them hidden under a baggy T shirt and sweating.  Women like showing off hot bodies in small bathing suits, and if you don't believe me, hang out at a beach or water park for an hour.  I have no issue with women choosing to do that.  My issue is having a woman do that as a prerequisite to being selected as a spokesperson for critical issues such as domestic violence, diabetes awareness,  child abuse, and the list goes on. The pageant industry, particularly the Miss America system, has tried to walk a very bizarre tightrope, trying to find a beautiful, strong, passionate woman who is well, spoken, smart and talented, who can be a champion for a cause and make a difference, with one caveat: she also has to look amazing in a bikini and high heels, have no cellulite, and not have her ass jiggle when she walks.  

Wait. Whaaa?

See. It just doesn't make sense.

I wish the pageant industry would just stop trying to change the world. If you want to participate in a throwback from decades ago when women and their bodies were viewed in a much different way than they are now, then just do....that.  Don't try to make her into a Nobel peace prize winner and an ambassador for the rest of us while you are at it, because the fact that she was given the opportunity to become this ambassador wearing a bikini and rhinestones kind of takes away the legitimacy of the entire thing. 

My daughter will not compete in pageants.  Correction.  My daughter will not compete in pageants at my suggestion.  About a year ago, she got a flyer in the mail for some pageant where the big national winners won a trip to Disneyworld.  There were photos of fancy dresses and crowns and all the trappings.  I let her look at the flyer. I asked what she thought about it.  This was more or less the conversation we had:

K: Well, what do you think about that?
E:  These are pretty dresses!
K:  Yep. Very pretty.
E:  You can win a trip to Disney!
K:  Yep. A few people will.  That's true. 
E:  Not everyone will?
K:  No. Not even close.
E:  Could we go to Disneyworld without me having to be in a pageant?
K:  Sure thing.

End of discussion.

You see, I truly believe that I can provide opportunities for my daughter to gain the positive skills and talents I learned through pageantry without submitting her to the dangers of focusing on her appearance and her body, or more specifically, her appearance and her body as they compare to other people's appearance and body.  You see, we can't change that. God gives us those things.  Sure, we can lift weights and eat no carbs and do cardio and make the most of what God gives us, and we should, to an extent.  But I have matured to believe that the amount of time it takes to fashion a body and lifestyle that can compete in pageants at that level is at the expense of developing things that are far more important.  Our body is the vessel. It is the wrapper. It contains what counts, it is not what counts. It contains what we should be judged upon, it is not what we should be judged upon. 

We, as women, have struggled long and hard to be viewed in a light that pageants, in my opinion, simply cannot, by their very nature, promote. We aim, as a modern society, to recognize inherent beauty in a person and value ideas and talents that make an impact on our society.  As the mother of a daughter, and of a son who will one day be a man, I fight photoshopped images, sexist music videos, tween clothing with suggestive, sexualized themes and gender-related stereotypes. These things are important to me.  I  cringe in a tiny way when someone comments on how pretty my daughter is.  I usually respond, "and she is just as sweet and smart as she is beautiful".  We are not there yet in changing the way people think about, speak about and relate to our entire gender. I can no longer make pageantry fit with the way I view myself and my daughter in this world. 

But who knows....maybe the pageant system can survive with its seemingly incongruous focus issues. Miss America this year was crowned to a shriek of horror and gasps of incredulous shock felt round the internet. Why? She is amazingly smart.  By all reports, she is a very well educated and successful human as far as that goes...heading for a doctorate and poised to change the world.  She's fit and pretty.  Maybe not traditionally pageant pretty...but she is attractive in a real sort of way.  Kind of like the woman you see at a restaurant and say, "she looks very well put together."  No, the shock was because her talent consisted of tapping a red plastic cup in rhythm to a very simple song she sang while sitting cross-legged and barefoot on the stage.  A plastic cup.  Yeah.

I keep wondering---Maybe that appealed to the judges because she did not seem to take herself very seriously.  She seemed to think, "Ah, what the hell.  This will be fun."  That's the kind of girl I can get behind: the kind who likely drank a big red solo cup full of beer at a barbecue and started banging it on the ground in front of her law school buddies and said, "Hey, what do you guys think?  I should totally do this for my talent at this pageant I'm entering."  

And guess what? People with balls like that....they DO change the world.