I was never going to be a beauty queen. Not from the day my mother first fed me solid food. I liked it, you see. I liked it, and I never had one of those “eat whatever you like and never gain a pound” metabolisms. By the time the exercise-induced migraines hit hard when I was 8 years old, it was pretty much written in stone: I was going to be the fat kid.
What’s more, I was a couple years younger than my grade level peers, and was taller than they were. A tall, fat girl–developing into adolescence 2 years behind everyone in her peer group.
And I knew, with all my painfully awkward fat adolescent kid ways, that I’d never be a beauty queen. So why bother learning how to use makeup? Why wear dresses? Not being pretty meant I had the freedom to make my time my own. It meant that I could roll out of bed in the morning fifteen minutes before the school bus arrived and be ready to go with two minutes to spare. It meant I had more time for all the things I liked better than torturing myself to be pretty.
Because it’s always some form of torture, isn’t it? The beauty enforcers can wrap it up in any amount of ritual, but it’s torture. They put a curling iron right up close to your face, this chunk of scorching metal inches from your eyes, and they call you names when you shy away. They clog up your pores with chemicals and then they sell you new chemicals to unclog your pores and new chemicals when you’ve stripped away all the oil in your face with chemicals so your skin looks like it’s been to hell and back. They give you skin cancer in tanning beds. They deform your feet with high heels. They put you in dresses that make you conscious, constantly, of where your hemline is and whether you’re being appropriate and who’s looking at you and where they’re looking. They rip your hair out and burn your hair off and leave you with little ingrown hairs scarring your skin. Look at your average day spa: how many “indulgences” are they selling which involve physical suffering to some degree or another?
When you participate, you’re tortured. When you don’t participate, you’re tortured in other ways. Bullying starts early if you’re not a girl who gender conforms. In the 1980s and 1990s, being a girl who liked playing with boy toys and liking science could mean your ass was about to get kicked on the playground. A little later on, the bullying got more subtle and more cruel.
Even so–for all the bullying, all the scorn I received from my female classmates and elders for not doing enough to gender perform–I often believe very truly that I got the better end of the deal.
My mother was in pageants when she was younger, and was a figure skater, which for women (especially at that time, before many of the harder technical elements of today’s figure skating were added) was in many ways another form of pageantry. She developed an eating disorder that I believe has had consequences on her health for the rest of her adult life.
My sister and my cousin who is my sister’s age both participated in several pageants. Both developed issues around food, around men.
I’ve known a lot more “pageant girls” than most people. Some big pageants, but mostly small towns, county fairs–the kinds of pageants where, minutes after the glittery podium gets taken down, a demolition derby might start up in the same arena.
People mock pageant girls. They say that they’re shallow, that they’re unintelligent, that they lack senses of humor or an ability to think analytically. They’re thought to be overly earnest, chatty, extroverted, constantly smiling, and possibly dangerously oversexed. For every one of those descriptors, I’ve met a beauty pageant contestant who fit it. I never met even one beauty pageant contestant who fit all of them, or even close.
If you have an idea in your head of who pageant girls are, what they look like when they’re not in pageants, what goes on in their brains, get it out of your head because it’s all bullshit and you learned it from shitty movies that existed in part to make cheap fun of women.
The women in beauty pageants are working really hard. THAT is what makes beauty pageants tragic, dear reader. It’s not that it’s easy to be a beauty queen, it’s that it’s actually quite difficult to even make it into the named runners-up. It takes practice and dedication and money. You may think that every girl in these pageants has rich parents footing the bill, and that’s not true, either. I’ve seen girls in pageants who paid their way there by doing wage labor, and those who were already developing a knack for sales and marketing getting sponsorships from local businesses by just dropping in and making cold calls.
And it’s not just the hours of practice at the actual pageant. Do you know how many hours you have to train yourself on femininity practices before you come close to walking like a beauty queen in towering heels? Just to move and be comfortable in the face paint and garb of a pageant girl requires an incredible investment of time and energy.
For less than nothing, in some ways, because even if you’re the winner, so what? Are you going to put that on your resume? Unless you’re Miss America or at least a state-level Miss America pageant winner, and maybe even then, most employers will just look at you with an eyeroll. Being the county fair beauty queen took work and effort, but it’s the kind of work (read: women’s work!) our society belittles and devalues, making the people who perform it seem shallow and stupid.
That’s why at the end of the day, I feel like my sister and my cousin got a more raw deal than I did–because beauty performance is addictive, and it’s something that’s very hard to scale down once you’ve started performing at a particular level. If my sister or cousin suddenly chose to take as little time with beauty rituals on a daily basis as I take, they would be perceived as “letting themselves go.” Because people are used to seeing me without makeup, I don’t get told that I look “tired” when I’m not wearing it.
They also got told, much more than I did, that they had some sort of shiny, glamorous “perfect” self that was set above their normal, humdrum, everyday self. Without a perfect self to compare myself against and to fail against every single time, it wasn’t difficult to face the me who woke up bleary-eyed and tangle-haired. Without face paints, I never had to consider myself undressed without makeup, never had to wake up before my boyfriend so I could make sure he only saw me after I “put my face on” (a telling euphemism, as if the bones and skin and flesh beneath the makeup were mere scaffolding for the real face of paint).
When I see people who are otherwise relatively decent human beings make negative comments about beauty queens, it makes me angry. The part of beauty pageants that should frustrate us is how much of the effort, how much of the brilliance and time and energy of many of our young women, goes into a type of production rooted in pitting women against each other and ranking women according to their looks. The part that should frustrate us is how many of those young women come out of pageants with fresh new eating disorders and ulcers and anxiety problems and depression. The part that should frustrate us is that over and over again, women can’t win for losing–performing gender will get you trashed as surely as failing to perform it, and often by the very same people.
Many women worry about their place in women’s social hierarchy, whether they seem feminine enough, attractive enough, whether their performance of patriarchal gender norm compliance is enough. In case you’re wondering exactly what you’re doing wrong, take heart. It doesn’t matter if you’re a butch or a beauty queen–the beauty enforcers don’t hate your performance. They just hate you–for being female.