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A Past of Pageantry
If someone had told me when I was 12 years old that in five years I would not only compete in a beauty pageant, but also win, I would have thought they were either downright crazy or just mean.
I should preface this by saying that at 12 years old I was in a pretty awkward place in life. Severe scoliosis put me in a rigid back brace for two years, leaving me no other choice for clothes, but big bulky sweaters and oversized band tee shirts and flannels. Thankfully this was the 90s and I was all about grunge music, but I still felt incredibly insecure about my situation. I closed off inside myself and hoped for a more “normal” future, but seriously doubted I’d ever have one. I became a loner, camping out in my room and daydreaming the hours away.
When the back brace didn’t work, I underwent major spinal surgery with titanium rod implantation, allowing me to skip most of my freshman year of high school and bask in months’ worth of Vicodin. Bedridden and sentenced to months of physical therapy to learn how to use my new body, I continued to spend a lot of time alone, isolation made all the more bearable with a number of obsessions and compulsions—writing, the Internet and intense body maintenance, especially in the realm of body hair removal.
I clung to these obsessions even when I returned to school, feeling a little more open without the back brace, but still painfully self-conscious. Fashion magazines also became an obsession, their covers offering new and beautiful white actresses I tried to emulate as best I could. Gwyneth Paltrow playing Estella in the adaptation of Great Expectations became my ideal of beauty, appearing smooth and slim and seductive throughout the film. I copied dramatic gazes from perfume ads, refused to leave the house without red lipstick, bought green contact lenses to cover up my brown hue and coated my face in my mom’s expensive facial creams that smelled like jasmine and perfection.
For the first time in my short life I started to get the attention of boys and men, which was no small feat since I went to an all-girl’s Catholic high school. Their validation helped me feel like I’d made some progress in my appearance, but that didn’t last long. As any grown woman who was once a fragile girl knows, seeking worth in external sources like male attention is only a temporary solution to the bigger need for self-love. But it would be years before I’d learn this truth.
So I signed up for the pageant. I was thin enough, straightened out enough, hairless enough and ready. To be honest, it began as a casual remark from my mom, who showed me the local newspaper ad for the pageant and pointed out the cash prize. My first knee-jerk reaction was, “Of course not. I’m ugly.” But then the part of my brain that wanted so desperately to be beautiful and needed an external confirmation of this fact, perked up. I would try out for the pageant and I would win.
I’ll keep the particulars of pageant life to myself due to their lack of extraordinariness. Go watch Miss Congeniality—my experience was not much different, except for the fact that most of the contestants were Mexican like myself and there was no bathing suit segment.
I slathered Vaseline on my teeth to minimize effort while smiling, wore bright red lipstick to match my bright red dress, paraded my body around on stage while waving to the audience, and gave a speech about the hardship of having once been a back braced girl.
And when they placed the crown on my head and filled my arms with a bouquet of red roses, I sighed relief. I had proven, on a stage, in front of an audience, that I was a person of value, and this value was a direct consequence of having outranked the other girls on stage—about 15 of them, standing there beside me in their own bright dresses, Vaseline-enforced smiles on their faces, clapping politely at my nasty, trivial victory.
Jerry Seinfeld has a funny bit in one of his stand-up specials where he ponders the origin of beauty contests. He says, “Who do you think came up with the beauty contest? Think about the idea of the beauty contest. ‘You’re very attractive! I challenge you.’ ”
To think that in this day and age, beauty contests still haven’t been laughed out of existence worries me. What could a contestant possibly learn from her experience? Whether she wins or loses, the lesson is clear: either you are superior or inferior to another female. She is your enemy. And value, recognition and, of course, beauty, are the prizes for beating her. There is no shared crown. No camaraderie. No sisterhood.
And just like the rush of validation that washed over me with male attention, the rush of “winning” the beauty pageant was just as short-lived. At 17, it was confirmed for me what had been hammered into my brain since I was old enough to pick up on what the magazines and television shows were selling—my beauty is my worth. But trying to keep up with a flimsy lie like this is not just exhausting, but futile, because of course my beauty is not my worth. Truth always reveals itself in the end.
Sometimes I picture myself infiltrating pageants like an undercover spy, waiting for the moment of crowning so I could pop up and intervene, letting them all know the truth. That the crown and title won’t solve their problems. That their beauty and worth are not determined by the outcome of the evening. That, in this case, winning is actually losing because a woman’s biggest ally isn’t the pageant judge, but the person standing next to her on stage.
***This piece first appeared in Luna Luna and was republished here with permission. ***
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