Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Queen of Femininity

Last night I watched the Miss America pageant for the first time in three years. I am probably the only girl in America who did not dream of being Miss America, walking down that runway in Atlantic City, waving to the crowd. Nevertheless, I stunned all my friends and family by competing in, and getting 4th runner up, in a local pageant during college. I remember my mother's reaction when I finally confessed that I had decided to enter the local pageant in my hometown during a semester off from school, a self-imposed break to combat burnout and depression. When you are burned out, depressed, and have gained about 10 pounds, what is a more natural thing to do than enter a beauty pageant?

My mother just looked at me and said, "Are you crazy?" To her, beauty pageants were the domain of superficial, insecure women and girls. I could see my mom thinking "I did NOT raise you to be a grown-up JonBenet Ramsey!" Everyone has their role that they play from childhood, the familiar identity that you slip into despite yourself, and mine was not "the pretty one." That label was reserved for my younger sister, despite the fact that people would mistake us for identical twins when we were out and about. I was, wait for it, the "smart one." I am convinced that my sister got the "pretty one" label because she definitely wasn't the "smart one," so what else could she be? (N.B.- she was also the "crazy one"- crazy in a standup comedian kind of way- and the "creative one") Plus, her eyelashes are longer than mine. So what was the non-pretty one doing, thinking she should enter a beauty pageant? My parents raised me to be studious, to go to good schools, to make something of myself, not to walk across a stage in a swimsuit and high heels. Also, didn't I know that beauty pageants were trashy?

All my life, I have done things that people didn't expect me to do. I am not talking about coming behind to win a competition that no one thought I could, I am talking about taking up activities and pursuing goals that seem incongruous with who people think I am. Not like dealing drugs, but things like going to business school when everyone thought I would go to a liberal arts college and become a lawyer. Sorority rush (but not actually joining one; we all have our limits). A surefire way to get me to not want to do something is to tell me that I need to do it, or worse, that I have to do it. Telling me I can't do something doesn't really have that contrarian effect that spurs the instinct to fight and triumph, but I find that if I am going against the advice of everyone, usually, I am on the right track. (I should have paid attention to this when I decided to get a Ph.D, which everyone except my husband and therapist thought was a terrific idea.)

So competing in the Miss America system was the perfect thing for me to do. I didn't know ANYONE who competed in pageants. Not a SOUL. The germ of the idea was planted when I read about the local competition in my college newspaper. I am sure that they were trying to bring in smart girls from an untapped pool, and it sort of worked. I didn't do anything about it, but started paying attention to Miss America a little more. This was right before Kate Shindle won Miss America, and to me, she is still the ultimate modern Miss America. When Kate Shindle won, I thought, "hey, I could win Miss America too!" Kate was a student at Northwestern at the time, which was another prestigious college, her platform was AIDS prevention, which was pretty avant-guarde for the traditionally-conservative Miss America situation. She supported needle exchange AND she wore a two-piece swimsuit in the first year that they were allowed. All the other conservative girls were saying that they didn't want to wear one, it was too risque, but Kate not only wore a two-piece, she wore a boy-cut two-piece. Kate seems only marginally involved in Miss America now, but she remains my favorite all-time Miss America because she showed me what was possible.

So I entered the local pageant in my hometown. If there is anything I am good at, it is figuring out how to play the game (whatever the game is), and I threw myself into pageant prep. I didn't have the money to spend on real prep, but I borrowed pageant videos from the director- local, state, national, interview tapes, and I watched them over and over and over again. I picked out the rookie mistakes, learned what not to do. I went out, bought a two-piece swimsuit that didn't look TOO bad, neutral colored Nine West high heeled strappy sandals (that I still wear!) and a plain evening dress which I dressed up with a band of rhinestones around the empire waistline. I made a "question map" with every question I could think of from my info sheet (which, in my experience, is where 80% of my questions came from, in some way, shape, or form). I started hitting the gym. I practiced walking around my parents' formal living room, and was delighted when my sister told me that my back looked "hot" from all my weight-lifting at the gym (hopefully that meant people wouldn't notice my ass as much). I took advantage of the free session with the Beauti Control consultant that was available to all the contestants (this was actually very helpful). I brushed up on the one piano piece that I knew that I thought was sufficiently flashy to do okay in talent.

Despite all this prep work, I still had a ways to go. My evening gown shoes ended up being too big when I was wearing pantyhose, and I clomped around on stage. I still needed to lose weight. I didn't know how to walk on stage, or to stand properly (there is a "pageant stance" similar to how you see starlets pose on the red carpet). Still, I did well in interview, and held my own in talent against girls who couldn't sing, and baton twirlers who dropped batons right and left. I ended up with fourth runner up. The winner of that local pageant was Allison Alderson, who had won Miss Tennessee Teen USA and had placed in the top 6 there (if not top 3), and had a sister who was the reigning Miss DC USA (and had placed in the top 10 at Miss Tennessee numerous times). Allison went on to win Miss Tennessee AND Miss Tennessee USA, and is now married to one of the guys from Rascall Flatts. I didn't have a snowball's chance in hell of winning, but in my first pageant, doing an awful lot of things wrong, I ended up getting fourth runner up. Very encouraging!

I decided that if I really wanted to go to Miss America, I needed to take this seriously. I started paying for walking lessons, which are much harder than you think. I naturally walk a little pigeon-toed, and I had to learn to walk with my feet pointing straight, one in front of the other. Suck in your stomach. Tuck in your butt. Stand up as straight as possible. Hold your hands just in the right way, so they look nice rather than awkward. My walking teacher also told me to get a new bathing suit. I got a one-piece this time that has a sheer panel over the stomach. I bought clear heels, which I could wear with swimsuit AND evening gown. I rented a blue spangled evening gown from a place about an hour and a half away.

At my next pageant five months later, I was feeling good. Then I flubbed my talent. One of my problems with talent is that I hate playing the piano in front of other people. Hate it. Ever since I screwed up at a recital in the sixth grade, I have had performance anxiety. Well, I did it again. Had to totally start over. I didn't place. Everyone was shocked- they thought I had it in the bag. Well, these things happen, and I had another pageant the next week. I won. It was great. Some girls compete in dozens of pageants and never even place, or keep placing but never win one. Maybe their talent is bad. Maybe their talent is bad plus their interview is bad. Maybe their interview is good, but their talent is bad and they need to drop a bunch of weight. In the Miss America system, if you have bad talent and bad interview, you will never win. If you have one of the two (and as long as your talent is mediocre and not truly awful, but this isn't that hard to do), you can win a local, although you may have to be lucky enough to enter a local that isn't that competitive.

The thing about winning a pageant, even if it wasn't for your beauty per se, is that you then have been officially certified as "beautiful." After all, you won a pageant, right? I went back to college in the fall, and instantly found that people treated me differently. This wasn't all bad. My close friends were more or less the same, but the guys.... oh, the guys. You have to understand that my guy friends were not the kind of guys who ever imagined that they would be on speaking terms with a beauty queen. And oh my gosh, I was their FRIEND. They loved it. They ate it up. I was mostly amused by the fact that all of a sudden, these guys thought I was attractive. Not necessarily in a "we want to date you" kind of way (well, not for all of them- it did get me some attention from guys who hadn't previously paid any attention to me), but in a "Hell yeah! You are hot! And you talk to us!" kind of way. The girls (the ones who weren't close friends) were more scornful about it, in a "What an unfeminist thing to do, enter a beauty pageant! You must be dumber and more superficial than we thought!" kind of way.

But the thing about Miss America, and the reason it will have my lifetime allegiance, is that it was the first place, and I cannot emphasize this enough, the first place where I felt appreciated for being both intelligent and attractive, but I was not forced to choose between one or the other, and in fact, was a stronger and more formidable competitor because I was both. I did not even have this in my own family, which felt the need to promote harmony by dividing up the labels between my sister and me. What is more feminist than saying that women can do it all? Isn't this the argument that feminists have been trying to make for years?

Miss America is the true renaissance woman. She is expected to be attractive (you don't have to be the prettiest to win- not by a long shot- but let's face it. As Suzanne Sugarbaker once said, "It's not a beauty pageant, but it ain't an ugly pageant either."), to be intelligent and well-informed, to have some kind of proficiency in the performing arts, to care about her community and the world around her. To me, this is the most modern thing of all, not to hold women to impossible standards but to say "Yes, we can do all this. Don't put us in a box."

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