I told myself I”d never do it again. I always felt so worthless afterward, so empty. Sometimes it made me violent. Sometimes it made me cry. I knew normal people didn”t react to it like this thankfully, I managed to stop before it got out of hand. For years, I avoided it, but it never went away. My vice lived on through superficial conversations and glittery television commercials. She was everywhere. I was weak.
I fell off the wagon last Saturday at 8 p.m. eastern standard time.
With motives ranging from curiosity to masochism to desperate hope that it actually would be a celebration of intelligence and community involvement this year, I gritted my teeth and watched the 2002 Miss America pageant. I was eating ice cream at the time. Full-fat ice cream. Right out of the container. Which is hard to do while gritting one”s teeth. But I”m just that good.
I knew I was in for a fun time when this year”s pageant host (Tony Danza of “Who”s the Boss” fame) launched into a speech about the scope of Miss America competitions nationwide. After explaining how many women were eliminated in each of the preliminary rounds, he concluded that for every woman on stage that evening, “2000 other women can finally eat whatever they want.” I felt ill. The audience laughed. Ha, ha. Those silly college girls and their compulsive dieting. How charming. And me without my laxatives.
While the Miss America Organization boasts of being the nation”s largest provider of scholarships to women, Miss America is not, nor has it ever been, a battle of wits. The contestants are smart, talented, socially conscious women, but these are not the attributes that ultimately got them into the finals. The Miss America Organization insists that its primary objectives are “educational advancement, achievement and public service,” yet it requires contestants to parade around on stage in swimsuits and high heels with glow-stick raver music blaring in the background. Its website emphasizes its “rich scholastic tradition,” yet whole segments of the show are devoted to elaborate song-and-dance numbers with the contestants in matching white dresses.
But the idea of beauty pageants is dated it would be impossible to retain the kind of popularity Miss America has without a bit of euphemistic language. Since changing the name of something (e.g. Butt Doctor vs. Proctologist) always makes it seem more appealing, the Miss America people have decided to re-name some of the pageant”s er, “telecast”s” more politically incorrect components.
The swimsuit competition is now called “Lifestyle and Fitness.” But you still have to do the swimsuit thing. The talent competition is dubbed “Artistic Expression” because the latter sounds less like something you might also find at a dog show than the former. Though the evening wear competition has become “Presence and Poise,” evening wear still required.
Miss America does not promote “professional advancement” for women it restricts us. Even the euphemisms don”t hide it. “Artistic Expression” is reduced to that which can be performed in front of a live audience between commercial breaks. If a woman expresses herself artistically by writing computer programs or short stories or by painting beautiful pictures, she”s out of luck. Similarly, the judges aren”t interested in her “lifestyle” or “fitness.” The five miles she jogs every day mean nothing to them unless she has a cute little stomach and a stellar pair of legs. Insinuating that a woman”s “presence” and/or “poise” is dependent upon her choice of fancy dress is insulting and further discourages contestants from acting outside the box.
These three categories make up 70 percent of a contestant”s preliminary score.
Some people think I don”t like beauty pageants because I was a fat kid. Because I can”t take more than three steps in a pair of high heels. Because I can”t carry a tune in a basket. Because I”m shaped, more or less, like a cereal box. Maybe they”re right maybe I”m just bitter because I want a piece of that scholarship money. Maybe I wouldn”t be so critical if I could wear that tiara for a day.
I”d like to think not. If becoming Miss America means advancing in life, I”d rather stay right where I am. I can be poised in parachute pants. I don”t have to wear heels or hairspray to the beach. I reserve the right to eat ice cream. Full-fat ice cream. Right out of the container.
Aubrey Henretty can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.