A Liberal, Feminist Beauty Queen
By Rae Carson
True confession: I competed in beauty pageants. Excuse me, scholarship programs.
I really did need tuition money. I had just graduated with a B.A. in Social Science—which qualified me for the management track at McDonalds—and I was flailing. College had not made all my dreams come true, I had a mountain of debt, and I still had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I thought if I parked myself in an MFA program, I could stave off adulthood and poke at the idea of becoming a writer. I saw pageants as a bedazzled meal ticket to grad school.
This plan terrified my ultra-conservative parents, who believed pageants were a gateway drug to acting in adult movies. But I was twenty-two years old and desperate to do something bold, something different, something outside the stiflingly narrow set of expectations for “a proper woman” that had been forced on my life.
So I called the Miss America Pageant folks and eventually got in touch with a local director. A few months later, I was crowned Miss Anaheim 1996. I had so much fun that I competed again the next year and was crowned Miss Gavilan Hills 1997. I volunteered for a few years after that, emceeing local pageants, choreographing stage numbers, and training contestants.
My friends know me as a plus-sized, liberal feminist. So when I confess to my sordid pageant past, I’m often greeted with stunned silence, followed by: How could you?!
Because, believe it or not, competing in pageants set me on the path to greater independence and self-actualization. Here are just three examples of how pageants did this for me:
1) I was never the prettiest girl on stage. I have a huge Greek nose, a gummy smile, and recurring acne. But I learned quickly that the perception of beauty is a fluid, subjective thing. It wasn’t about being the most beautiful girl on stage—it was about making the judges think I was. I could increase my score by a winning factor just by strutting/smiling/speaking like I owned the world. In other words, I won pageants not by being pretty, but by feeling powerful.
2) Competing in pageants gave me a platform to say what I thought. My official cause was “youth literacy,” and my gaudy rhinestone crown opened doors for me to speak at schools and events about reading as a springboard to success, which was awesome. But unexpected moments along the way were just as wonderful. For instance, during the state evening gown competition, I drew this question from the blinged-out fishbowl:
How can we solve the looming Social Security crisis?
My first reaction, concealed behind a serene smile, was OMGWTFBBQ?! There was no real solution I could do justice to in the allotted time. I knew I was expected to settle for something bland-yet-heart-warming about working together. Alas, what came out of my mouth was:
Congress has been working on the problem of Social Security for twenty years. It would be the height of arrogance to presume I could solve it in twenty seconds.
Okay, so I didn’t score very well, but after a moment of taut silence, I got a standing ovation. I suspect the crowd was relieved to not have to listen to yet another poor girl try to flirt her way out of a corner. I took it as affirmation for choosing authenticity over traditional feminine charm, and it made a big impact on me.
3) My favorite girl power moment occurred when all the Miss California contestants attended a charity lunch with a large group of boosters. Each ginormous roundtable was a mix of contestants and boosters, which gave us the opportunity to coax them out of their spare cash.
I sat beside another contestant—let’s call her Jane—whom we’d all noticed had a strange relationship with food. She ate like a bird when she ate at all, and she would do it surreptitiously, as if ashamed. We pegged her right away as One Of Them, you know, the ones with eating disorders. (Despite stereotypes that indicate otherwise, there were very few of these. So they stood out.)
As the rest of us chatted before lunch was served, she eyed the basket of rolls with longing. Silently I urged, Go on, Jane. Please eat something. She reached out—tentatively—and picked one up. She stared at the roll in her hand like it might grow pincers.
She was finally bringing it to her mouth when a booster gasped out, “Don’t eat that! You young ladies have to watch your figures!”
Jane dropped the roll as if pinched, huge tears pooling in her eyes.
I was outraged, and I said a little too loudly, “Jane can eat whatever she wants. We don’t starve ourselves to compete, you know.” And I grabbed a roll and took a huge bite.
Then, simultaneously, every single contestant at that table grabbed a roll and shoved it in her mouth. We chewed defiantly, glaring at the booster. Eventually, with a shy smile, Jane ate one too.
So when I tell people that competing in pageants set me on the road toward feminism and body acceptance, I don’t mean it in a way that is critical of pageants. (Though there is much to criticize. Maybe I’ll do a whole ‘nother post!) What I mean is that, in a time when I was lacking purpose and confidence, pageants provided a way for me to explore my own personal power.
The proof is in the tiara, or so they say, so tune in tomorrow for some very old photos for your amusement.