Recently, our NAM team came across this article on Minnesota Public Radio from one of their own interactive producers, Julia Schrenkler about her own pageant experience when she was kid. No, this women is not a NAM girl, but I wish she had been! A MUST READ!!
The pageant itself didn't resemble anything you see in reality television shows. We didn't have a high-tension talent competition or outfit changes. We wore no makeup. My hair was done with a barrette and a few runs of the curling iron.
It was innocent and enjoyable, and when I "won" I didn't really understand what my life would be for an entire year. It was more than rhinestones and dresses; it was a role and it was a responsibility.
I would represent my city at festivals, at carnivals, and in those slow parades. I learned lessons: how to wave, how to speak clearly and diplomatically, how to help — or at least not hamper — the young adults who had won scholarship money and had to actually host events.
I observed young women giving each other advice about health, doing chemistry homework while waiting for an appearance to begin, talking about men and feminism in code words I only partly understood. I witnessed ambition in those dressing rooms; most of the talk I remember was about scholarship money, college choices, resumes and networking tips.
As for me, I don't recall being handled, managed or manipulated. Certainly my cut-off-wearing, free-running self had to wear dresses and sit still for the curling iron sessions, but I bore no actual pressure. The expectation was that I demonstrate kindness, that I not embarrass anyone, that I express myself gracefully when speaking and that I be in the right place at the expected time. Good lessons for a career if you think about it.
I spent an entire year absorbing these lessons while throwing candy to kids during parades, meeting talented people and local government officials at events, and tagging along with two extremely beautiful, glamorous older women (who must have been all of 19 or 20).
But I didn't continue in pageants. I had a glimpse into that world of perfecting vocal and instrumental pieces for extremely competitive performances, of makeup and prepping before going anywhere. I distinctly remember a circle to speed-read the newspaper to be up on issues. It was a world of public expectations I was pretty sure I didn't want yet. The desire to read more "fun" books, to ride my bike without a schedule and generally embrace my true tomboy nature, won that particular competition.
Over time I'd hear criticism of pageants: the exploitation of women, the focus on beauty, the sheer pressure to win at any cost, including one's health. Perhaps I was too young, the stakes weren't as high, and the physical definition of beauty wasn't so extreme. Or perhaps the past 36 years have buffed my memory to an innocent, satin-sash finish.
But when the cameras focus once again on the swimsuit and talent competitions — as they did last weekend, for the Miss America extravaganza — I remember the precision, dedication and passion of the pageant participants.
I didn't choose that path for myself, but I learned a little bit about the world in my own time. Most importantly, I learned that I could make decisions about what I did and did not want to do. And that I could make those decisions stick.