This is an old one and a long one but hopefully worth the read still:
I would like to invite you on a journey, not across space, but across time, my time, the time I spent living in the body of a teenage beauty queen. This isn’t science fiction; there won’t be a time machine, or any freaky body snatching, only words. Words that are hopefully vivid enough to paint a picture of the past, to transport you through time, to allow you to witness the creation of what I have come to view as the feminine machine. A girl souped up, dolled up, gussied up, and turned into a woman of the world.
Imagine, the year is 1998, nothing spectacular happened that year, not that I can recall. But, alas, that was the year I began to learn the ways of the feminine machine. I was ten, and in previous years I watched my sister model incredibly beautiful dresses. I saw her showcase her talent. I heard the applause of the audience. I wanted that. I longed for that. I wanted to be beautiful, feminine, and talented. Mostly though, I wanted to be acknowledged. I was a bright and talented tomboy, a little girl who could do pretty much anything except for pretty; pretty wasn’t something I was particularly good at, but cute was another story. On most days I was rough-and-tumble. I liked to play in the mud, walk barefooted through town, and destroy stuff. My favorite toy was a connectable railroad track and its connectable train. Occasionally I would play dress-up, like I was told little girls liked to do, but it was never quite right. I spent a week in a pink princess dress traipsing up and down the sidewalk in front of my house, just imagining that it was a red carpet and I was a princess. A princess never would have had such matted hair and chapped lips, but still I persisted. I saw the world of pageantry as the kingdom, the domain I had been longing for. I wished to immerse myself in the world of tulle, crowns, make-up, and elaborate costumes. I asked my mother if I could enter into a pageant, and she agreed. I was now in a position to create a feminine persona, despite all of my previously failed attempts.
Thus through entering my first pageant, the creation of the feminine machine began. It wasn’t a quick process. I was adamant. My mother was stubborn, at first, always only at first. I have to give my mother credit where credit is due, she put up a good fight and she never allowed the use of female add-ons. If you have seen just one episode of Toddlers and Tiaras you probably know what I am talking about: flippers, spray tans, wiglets, etc. The only enhancements I was allowed were highlights and fake nails, and even that had to wait until I was 13 (old enough to enter the teen division). At that point it was less taboo for me to look like a grown woman, at least this logic made sense to my mother, who thought that she was doing a good thing for me by allowing me to participate in pageants. She thought I would gain valuable social skills (I was anti-social even then), and that I would possibly win a scholarship (these things were called scholarship pageants after all). I never won a scholarship, but I did gain skills that have helped me in job interviews in the present.
I would be lying if I told you beauty pageants were all bad. I was never forced to wear skimpy costumes or perform sultry dances. My costumes were tasteful. My talents were genuine. We, my mother and I, entered the pageant system and did things our own way. I was completely myself, up until I lost sight of who I was. I suffered the disappointment of never winning a state or national pageant, because we did things our own way and that meant not fitting their standards of beauty. But, I was rewarded with several beautiful friendships forged on the battlefield of “beauty.”
While we are talking about friendship, shall we fast forward a moment to 2002, there is much less tulle in this year, in the teen division, but really it is just more of the same. I put on a pretty dress; I have my mother threaten to “rip my fucking head off” backstage (she knows that my anger fuels my success); I traipse across a brightly lit stage trying my hardest to force a smile while my family does everything they can from the audience to just get me to wipe that pesky snarl off my face. The entire time it is my position to watch the judges watch me, put on a good show despite being deprived of sleep and deprived of food. After all of the stage business there were activities planned for all of the contestants to interact, and I suppose for the mothers to gossip or get a break from we moody children. Have I mentioned that I was anti-social? I hated those activities, but I participated. I was determined to experience the whole thing, milk it for all that it was worth. I preferred the small pageants since they didn’t require such social antics, but I knew I had to keep going, there wasn’t any turning back at that point.
In this time period, between 1998 and 2002, I had already traded in small town pageants for state and national pageants, having easily qualified by winning the required preliminaries. In 2001, I competed for the title of International Miss Teen miss in some town I had never heard of previously, Pensacola (maybe). I wish I had known then how the people I met that day would influence my life. It is the people in the pageants–the people struggling to hold onto the same vision of natural beauty–that make these potential atrocities just a little less shallow. That year I met Paige and Samantha. There wasn’t an instant connection. I didn’t sense how truly beautiful they were, not at the preliminary where I met them anyway. I had already tasted the likes of winning. I had seen what outer beauty could get you. I had been consumed by the idea that beauty was only on the surface. I thought that was how I was being judged, and how I should judge others. The three of us did well enough in that pageant to proceed to State, where some real transformations were to take place.
I will remind you again, because this is important, I was terribly anti-social then. I had the attitude of show-up, see what there is to see, and win this thing; this wasn’t an attitude that served me well. My mother knew that, and encouraged me to befriend Samantha and Paige. I suppose that no matter how insistent my mother was that I stay in pageants she never did lose sight of what…or rather who was really beautiful. I was resistant at first. I am awkward and making friends has never been easy, but I tried. I am forever thankful that I tried, and succeeded. We spent the entire week together, acting like fools, like the teenagers we should have been acting like all along. We ate junk food. We took over the elevators riding them up and down and up and down, laughing so hard our stomachs hurt. We told ghost stories in the night. We talked about teenage romance. In those days I felt like a real person, a decent human being, someone who was happy. These girls taught me that there was more to being feminine and beautiful than frilly dresses, perfectly applied make-up, and a well-rehearsed talent routine. Unfortunately I did not learn these lessons quick enough. There are things about that year that I genuinely regret, will probably always regret.
The last time I saw Samantha (alive) I was sulking. I made top ten at the state pageant, but I didn’t really win anything. I was crushed, and acted like a pathetic, spoiled child. Paige and Samantha were wonderful; they didn’t make top ten at all, but they were happy and hopeful. They tried, my god did they try, to make me see the light, to understand that there was more to life than being the prettiest. Winning that pageant wasn’t what should have mattered to me. I wish I could have opened my eyes to see what I truly won. I won the most genuine kind of friendships. These girls stood by me, even when I was ugly with bitterness. I wish I had been a better person and a better friend.
Samantha died that Summer. I was in shock when I heard the news. My mother said there had been an accident, Samantha was dead. I thought it was a cruel joke. I thought, people don’t die in plane crashes and besides I had just seen her. I was supposed to see her again in about a month. The odds against death by plane crash are outstanding. But I had to learn to accept that the odds just weren’t in her favor that day. The last time I saw Paige was at Samantha’s funeral. We held hands, and wept as we looked down on Samantha’s lifeless body. Her life-force was drained from her, the shell that remained was beautiful, but it lacked the essence of what truly made Samantha the beautiful person she was. There were so many people there to celebrate the life Samantha had lived. She was 16, and incredibly loved. Samantha exuded a kind of beauty that I still don’t really understand. I trusted her implicitly for no other reason than she felt safe. I was going to come out to her; she would have been the first person I officially told. I was tired of being alone in my secret and I knew she would accept me. I knew that she wouldn’t judge me. She was just like that, accepting and kind. She was the real beauty queen. But that is the thing, the judges in these pageants don’t see real beauty, they only see what society has trained them to see. The beauty of the pageant world is superficial.
At nationals that year I dedicated my door (all contestants were encouraged to decorate their doors for a door competition) to Samantha. If there are angels on this earth, she was one of them. I didn’t win the door competition, but it wasn’t about winning. I wanted to honor her memory, to share how beautiful she was, I wanted people to understand that there was more to be seen if they would just open their hearts instead of relying so heavily on their eyes. True beauty is something you feel and experience. I made so many friends that year at nationals because Samantha taught me how to feel beauty, and not just see it.
I will always be thankful for the lessons I learned in the pageant system, but I can’t neglect to also share the damage that was done. I think my mother thought pageants would bring us closer, but they didn’t. I hated her in those days. I wanted to quit, to back out, to be normal. I wanted to the person I knew I was. Each day was a battle. I was a round peg, and she was trying to force me into a square hole. There was so much pressure. We couldn’t talk, or at least I felt like we couldn’t. I had no one to talk to about losing, about not feeling good enough, pretty enough, woman enough. I felt inadequate. I could recognize the beauty in others, but I struggled to find some semblance of beauty in myself. I wasn’t like the girls who won. I wasn’t bubbly and cheerful. I was reserved and contemplative. I became increasingly dark and twisted. I thought that was bad. I punished myself with razors, knives, and lighters. I sliced and burned the smooth beautiful skin of my arms, legs, and stomach. I wanted the outside to not matter. I wanted someone to see that I was beautiful inside too. I felt like no one saw, no one understood, and no one really knew me. I had already lost one of the only people that did understand, that did know me. I suppose I was punishing myself. I stopped eating. I started throwing up after every time I would fail at not eating. Then throwing up wasn’t enough. I resorted to other means of punishing my body. I wanted to sink into non-existence. I wanted to die. I tried, over and over, I tried. It just wasn’t meant to be. There was some reason, there is some reason that I am still here. It wasn’t just the pageants that changed me (life was a bitch), it would be unfair to place all of the blame on them, but they did undoubtedly perpetuate the problem. When I finally left the pageant system at age 15 or 16 I had little to no self-esteem left. I made frequent attempts to end my life. I wrote dark poetry. I lashed out during school. I didn’t know how to, or I wouldn’t make any meaningful attachments. I had boyfriend after boyfriend and then girlfriend after girlfriend. Nothing made me feel wanted or beautiful.
Honestly, I don’t know who I would be or where I would be without ever having been in pageants. I still struggle with the damage. I still feel like I am never good enough, but fortunately as I approached adulthood I met people who shared lessons with me about life and about being a woman. I spent years living in a world of “shoulds.” I should be prettier. I should be more intelligent. I should have a broader vocabulary. I should know how to write an awesome topic sentence, or an awesome thesis statement. I should know how to relate to people. Should, should, should. I was consumed, and I didn’t even realize it until my first or second semester at a four year university. I was 20 or 21, and having a hell of a hard time with life. I was going through medical test after medical test, imprisoned within a malfunctioning body. I had just divorced my husband. I had just come out as a lesbian. I was in love with a woman who was still in love with her ex-girlfriend. I was physically and mentally dying. The “shoulds” swirled around me, sucking the life out of me. I was losing momentum fast, but then one of my professors, Bridgitte, tells me simply that a person can’t possibly live in a world full of “shoulds,” and that was precisely what I was doing. She opened my eyes to the absurdity of the world I was living in, that I had constructed for myself to live in–that world wasn’t the only possible reality. I don’t know how I could have possibly expected myself to live up to the outrageous expectations that I forced myself to strive toward. I still have unrealistic expectations for myself, but I at least owe her a great deal of thanks for opening my eyes. I can see now when I am being unrealistic, and I don’t beat myself up nearly as much for not being the perfect woman. Bridgitte also taught me that it is okay to be a little dark and twisted; I am just as valid as the girls who were winning those beauty pageants, who were perpetually bubbly and happy. I don’t know how I would have ever learned to accept myself for who I am and who I want to become without having learned those lessons. Bridgitte was only one of the amazing women I met in college that changed my perspective on life and myself. I made more amazing friends and had some fantastic professors.
College was a game changer for me. Who knew there was this whole world of feminism and gender theory where people actually talked openly and critically about the things that I lived through?! I had no clue. I was probably light-years away from being a feminist at that point, as I judged others and judged myself. Pageants taught me how to believe in that cookie-cutter mold of a woman. What I have learned since has taught me that the cookie-cutter woman is valid and so is every other kind of woman. I can wear high heels because I feel like they make me sexy. I can wear cargo pants because they are bloody comfortable. I can wear push-up bras or sports bras. What is on the outside doesn’t make me any more or less of a woman. I don’t have to be a feminine machine, applying add-on after add-on, like some decked out web browser. I can just be me, because I am beautiful. My skin may be scarred, my thighs and ass may be disproportionate to my body, my face may be blemished, but there is more to beauty than that. Beauty is not synonymous with perfection. I know that now. I wish I knew that then, but since this isn’t science fiction and there aren’t really time machines I suppose I can’t go back and change my past self. I can only settle for embracing the power of words in the present. Words give us knowledge. Knowledge is empowering. I hope that the words I just shared will enlighten someone, anyone. I hope they will reach at least one person on a deeper level. There are all different kinds of beauty. There are all different kinds of women.
The year is now 2018 and I have been through one hell of a long journey (a journey I don’t intend to end anytime soon), but I hope that this journey has taught me enough to enable me to say honestly that I have finally become an empowered woman. We all have the potential to be empowered women through accepting and loving who we are, to hell with what/who society wants us to be.