I have mixed feelings about the Ms. America pageant. The ambivalence probably has its roots in my only pageant competition, I think I was 7 or 8 years old, I still had long hair, I still believed that my girl side could conquer all. I remember clearly, I walked to the pageant in my dress, full of confidence, without the slightest understanding of what my immediate future would hold, a very long bench of girls dressed in their pageantry best, out to win, out for blood; and the reality of being back on that bench too soon in the first round of those who were “eliminated.” I couldn’t even pronounce the word, but I understood what it meant.
My mother tells me I said something classically me like, “they’ll never ‘liminate me again!” Meaning, they would never have the chance to review me in such a vulnerable state ever again. From then on, all shields were up. I focused on other avenues; basketball, academics, softball, band, singing and I cut my hair real short. I got through, somehow.
Last night someone made a comment about The Ms. America pageant like, “it’s not even interesting anymore because it’s not risqué.” The point, of course, is that what made the pageant “interesting”was that wholesome seeming women were willing to dawn revealing wear and strut down a runway in front of a worldwide audience— is now no longer a point of interest because this kind of behavior is just, well, normal.
What makes the whole thing uncomfortable, thus the remark, is that this Ms. America pageantry, while it is still a competition and there are worthy prizes to be had, is a strangely projected reality of what it means to seek to be the ideal young woman in this day and age. At least, it is another one of those idyllic models that sets the bar of cultural expectation. What defines the perfect aspiring young woman in the pageant’s eye? She must be attractive, slender, smart, talented with the ability to give quick, insightful, cute, funny answers without putting the male population too much at a disadvantage. She must be pretty, but girl next door pretty. She must be smart, but not Mensa smart, she must be a little quirky but in a way that puts everyone at ease. She must walk with grace, but with a little bit of attitude, she must have more than a touch of humility but hold her head in such a way that suggests she is the horse upon which all bets must be placed. It’s a hollowed out projection of reality presented in such a way that suggests it is perfectly good and perfectly desirable. And it’s supposedly better than it used to be?
Twitter had its own competition during the pageant, adding yet another layer to the awkwardness of this idea of ideal and marketable beauty. Apparently, racist comments about the winner dominated twitter land. It seems many people believe vehemently that the idea of American beauty is synonymous with white. Not only does the winner turn the tables on the ideal of white beauty queen America, her riveting Bollywood dance performance was adorable and a real crowd pleaser, I might add, performed in a non-risque costume. She also let us know in no uncertain terms that she does not believe in plastic surgery and that the changing face of America is diversity. I found myself liking her, one who had subjected herself to the soul sucking business of pageantry.
All in all, this was the first pageant I’ve watched in a very long time and probably the last and could only watch intermittently at that. Why did I watch it? Perhaps I hoped that something new is happening in our collective understanding of women, humanity and progress, however strange it is to look to a beauty pageant for new possibility. I believe the invasion of goodness exists in every realm while trying to keep a critical eye on those things that posture as goodness but are really quite meaningless and hollow.
In a consumer driven culture, we all seem to have a hard time distinguishing between what is truly good and what is desirable. We can spend our lives chasing a dream we thought was good and desirable only to find that the dream itself was a hollowed out reality we bought into, sacrificing what was truly good along the way.
True beauty cannot be judged in a pageant competition, though it may be glimpsed, it is elusive, internal and magnanimous, unfolding over a lifetime. My hope is that women everywhere, while we may choose to better ourselves, expand our wisdom and soar into whatever field we find inspiring, or even compete in a beauty pageant, would preference the beauty that is unseen, those ways in which we deepen rather than market our self-esteem, ways that we preference self respect over self-aggrandizement. What we really crave is not so much admiration but self-acceptance, deep down, the ability to accept ourselves as we are. This is the beginning of wonder and the comprehension of beauty.