Pageants, Daughters and Change

Full disclosure: I was Miss Minnesota 2003.

Pageants, Daughters and Change | Twin Cities Moms Blog{Photo credit: Paula Preston}

Yup, that’s me in the hot pink satin, 15 years ago, 25 pounds ago, two kids and a marriage ago, becoming Miss Minnesota after an unlikely ascension through the pageant ranks.  I competed in my first pageant when I was 20, and by age 23, I was competing at Miss America.  The best part of that was how, at the time, I was in seminary training to be a pastor.  I had to ask my professors for a month off of class to go wear a swimsuit and high heels in Atlantic City.

I am very certain that you have your own ideas of what kinds of girls compete in pageants.  I had those same ideas.  And then, in pursuit of scholarship money and new adventures, I tried the Miss America system at the suggestion of a family friend.  I found myself changed, and not only because I finally learned how to put on false eyelashes.  But I discovered a world of young women passionate about their communities, dedicated to their educations, and earnest about their desire for growth and self-improvement.  I came for the cash.  I stayed for the people.

Whenever people find out that I have a secret stash of competition-ready evening gowns in my closet, they obviously come to me with a million questions.  Aren’t you too short?  Did you do those kid beauty pageants?  But you don’t even wear dresses!  (Not really, absolutely not, and you’re right.)  Now that I have two little girls of my own, the question I most often get is: will your daughters compete in pageants someday?

Pageants, Daughters and Change | Twin Cities Moms Blog

It’s a tough question for me.  I’ve always told people that my daughters get to decide for themselves.  Because the Miss Minnesota Organization will always be a part of my life, my girls will be around pageants.  They will see these hard-working young women absolutely killing it on stage in talent, they will be surrounded by families and volunteers who support their contestants with a voracious joy, and they will always know that they can do it, too.  But I will never, ever make them do it.

At least, that’s what I told people.  In reality, I had an unspoken catch: I still struggled with the swimsuit competition.

Pageants, Daughters and Change | Twin Cities Moms Blog

When Miss America started in 1921, it began as a bathing beauty contest to attract tourists to Atlantic City after peak summer beach season.  As the pageant continued, the swimsuit competition remained a cornerstone of the pageant.  In later years, the pageant renamed the competition as “Lifestyle and Fitness in Swimsuit,” billing it as an opportunity for young women to show off their dedication to an active, healthy life.  It became an opportunity for women to demonstrate their confidence – after all, if you could walk across a stage in a bikini, nothing would ever throw you off.

But now, with small kids of my own, I wasn’t as sure about how I felt.  I want my girls to grow up knowing that their worth is inherent.  They are to be considered on their character, their kindness, their hard work, their service to others.  I want them to enjoy and appreciate beauty, to have fun with their appearance, to always be confident presenting their best selves in the most meaningful way.  But I don’t ever, ever want to them to think that they’re only worth how others think they look.

The message about appearance comes early for girls.  No one really has to tell you that you’re meant to be pretty, skinny, and stylish.  It’s like the message just comes seeping out of society at you.  It’s hard enough to live in that world.  Do I really want my girls to have to enter a world where judgment on appearance isn’t just a societal norm to be subverted, but an actual phase of ranked scoring?

I can truly and honestly say two things about the swimsuit competition.  First, it didn’t ruin me.  I rose to the challenge and found myself in the best shape of my life.  I needed that physical strength and endurance to last a grueling year as Miss Minnesota, juggling grad school and state-wide appearances on very little sleep.  But secondly, it was my absolute least-favorite part of the competition.  I endured it so that I could do the rest of it.

And oh, the rest of it!  I got to perform on the largest stage of my life, singing my heart out to thousands of people.  I got to wear the most perfect fancy dress of my dreams – and I don’t even like dresses.  I got to show off my brains and poise in the interview, where for once, people lauded me on my linguistic talent rather than assuming I was a show-off.  These things are things I want for my girls.  I want them to be challenged in performance, in intelligence, in service, and even in poise and fashion, because hey, there’s no shame in being a lady.

But swimsuit.  Would I, as a mom, feel comfortable someday watching my own daughter walk across a stage in a bikini, knowing she was being judged on the quality of her abs and the tone of her legs, fully aware of the behind-the-scenes tricks she was employing just to make the grade?

No.  No, probably not.

And that’s why I could not be more excited about what’s going on with the Miss America program these days.  New chairwoman of the organization, Gretchen Carlson – an Anoka native who won Miss America as Miss Minnesota, and the first female head of the organization – led the move to eliminate the swimsuit competition from the pageant, to mixed reviews.  For the first time, the pageant will no longer be judged on a contestant’s appearance.  In fact, it no longer wants to be called a pageant – it’s a competition.  It’s a competition that fully owns what it has claimed to be: centered in the style, scholarship, service, and success of our state’s young women.

I look at my two little girls, already asking questions about what it means to be pretty or how a girl should dress, and I realize it’s exactly what I hope for them.  I hope that they will find those places where they can challenge themselves in meaningful, profound ways that could actually change the world (perhaps even bring world peace).  I want them to feel good about how they look, but not because of what someone else says about their appearance.  I want them to have talents they love.  I want them to excel.  And now I fully feel that someplace like the Miss America Organization can be a place where they can do that without my modern feminist heart cringing just a bit.

Moms of girls, let’s stand together.  We do hard work as we raise these fierce little warriors, knowing that our past made us who we are, but also hoping that our girls don’t have to endure or do some of what we did just because it was okay back then.  We can be proud of what we’ve done or achieved even if we don’t think it’s appropriate for our own daughters to have to do as well.  May this change be one of many that allow our daughters to live into the fullness of their identities and find joy in the journey.

I know my own parents were proud even though they wondered what on earth I was doing.  I promise to grant the same grace to my own girls someday, pageants or no.

Pageants, Daughters and Change | Twin Cities Moms Blog

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