When I was a little girl, I spent a lot of time drawing princesses. They had sharp triangular skirts that led to teeny-tiny waists, blonde hair that curled at the ends, and big crowns with sparkly jewels. My older sisters used to make fun of me for them. “No one has a waist that tiny,” they would scoff. “That’s not realistic.” But I carried on, translating the vision inspired by endless readings of Rapunzel and Cinderella onto the page in crayon and colored pencil.
When I was about ten, I entered a beauty pageant. I have no idea where I got the idea, probably a direct mail piece, but I know why I wanted to enter, and it had a lot to do with my princess drawings.
During the interview section, I was asked a lot of questions that I remember seemed inane. What did I want to be? What was my favorite color? Why did I want to be Miss Whatever?
For my talent, I played “When the Saints Go Marching In” on my trumpet while wearing a blue and red satin matador costume. I’m not sure what the matador had to do with anything, but my mother thought it would be cute, so that’s what she sewed for me. I remember vaguely noticing that the other talents were mostly dancing. Instruments tended to be the flute or piano, maybe a violin or two. I was definitely the only trumpet and I was definitely the only one in a homemade matador outfit.
I saved the best for last. For the evening gown competition, I wore a lavender eyelet dress with a huge satin sash that tied into a bow. My mom made that for me, too. I thought it was lovely, something right out of my pastel-colored fairy tale books. Delicate and old-fashioned and, I realized after I came out into the lobby and saw everyone else, completely wrong. Their dresses were hoop-skirted and shiny, mini-prom ensembles complete with off-the-shoulder puffy sleeves. Their hair was curled and sprayed and poofed up high. My own hair–waist-length and blonde–hung straight down my back in the way I liked it best. They had full faces of make-up. I had been permitted a little purple eyeshadow and some lip gloss. I didn’t think I looked bad, but I knew I looked different.
After we did our walk across the stage, there was a pause before the finalists were announced. We sat off to the side in the dark, fists clenched, as the announcer walked to the microphone. I wondered how I should walk up when my name was called. I eyed the path, noted cords and other tripping hazards. I reminded myself to stand up straight. The announcer began calling names. And more names. And more names.
None of them were mine.
Ten girls stood on stage when she was done. Ten finalists, dancers and flutists in their shiny hoop skirts and sprayed curls. And I was stunned, truly, unbelievably stunned, to find myself still in my chair.
They took a short break after that. I quietly slipped away from the group and walked to the bathroom. I closed the door to the mustard yellow stall. And I cried. I cried great big sobbing tears that I can still feel in my throat. I cried and I cried and I cried for what felt like a very long time but was probably just a few minutes. I tried to stop, but the reality I had in my head and the reality on in the ballroom would collide and I’d cry all over again from the sorrow of it all. Then I began to get a hold of myself and felt like I could face it. I wiped my eyes and blew my nose on some toilet paper. I squared my shoulders and opened the door to two grown women giving me the most pitying looks I’ve ever received. Suddenly, I didn’t feel sad. I felt shame. None of the other girls seemed upset. They were carrying on, congratulating the finalists as they swooped about in their hoop skirts. Here I was, the dowdy little girl in her mom-made eyelet dress, breaking the smile-and-wave pact of the pageant crowd.
I was just really bad at this.
Everyone knew I had been crying–a lifelong curse of the pale-skinned is the complete inability to cry incognito–but I figured it wouldn’t matter. My part in this was done.
Except that I forgot they hadn’t done the special awards yet–Miss Photogenic, Miss Congeniality, those things. So I had to go back on stage with my puffy red eyes and running nose, a public failure and figure of pity, while all those winners were announced. I didn’t win any of the special awards either.
Finally it was over. I exchanged addresses with the one friend I’d made, a nice brunette in a yellow-striped Southern Belle dress. We’d write sporadically for a year or so, until the work of being a pen pal outweighed the fantasy of having a pen pal and we both dropped the correspondence. I packed up my little bag with my purple eyeshadow and matador outfit, and I went home.
This experience didn’t scar me. It didn’t damage me for life. I don’t plan on entering my daughter in any pageants, but if she asks, and she’s old enough, I might let her try one. There’s lots of talk about what these types of experiences teach our girls. That it tells them they are only valuable for their looks, that they need to look like grown-ups before their time, and that they are subject to being judged and ranked. I don’t disagree with those concerns. I’m sure pageants do teach girls how to be a certain kind of woman. But sometimes, they can also teach us the type of woman we are not.