I knew I was in trouble when I looked down in the white porcelain bowl of my boyfriend’s toilet and saw the remnants of my nonstop morning-to-afternoon meals. Swimming in the red pool of stomach acid was bits of pork sausage, chunky marinara sauce and whatever else I had binged on earlier that day.
I took a generous wad of toilet paper off the roll and wiped my mouth. I cleaned the toilet rim with the rest and flushed it all down.
Just a few weeks before, I had been on stage and in front of a crowd of hundreds. There I stood, 15.4 pounds lighter from dieting, heavily made up, big hair held together by enough hairspray to destroy what’s left of the Earth’s ozone layer, pale-skinned, confident yet submissive, a plastic smile plastered on my face. I was the perfect combination of two cultures, the perfect example that two different worlds could coincide, without one or the other having to give up a part of themselves.
I was the first runner-up in a beauty pageant -- well, a cultural pageant to be exact, though there are more similarities than differences. Just like in a beauty pageant, in a cultural pageant we are scored on our swimsuit, themed wear, onstage question and answer, speech, poise, evening wear and private judges’ interview.
The only real difference between a beauty pageant and a cultural pageant is its name. In the early days, beauty pageants were held to celebrate women of great standing and mostly great physical attributes. Cultural pageants were created when people realized that only white women were allowed to join, and “we” wanted something of our own.
They clipped the oversized crown to my head and placed the sash over me. I was blinded by the bulbs of flashing cameras, but I kept smiling.
By the time we got to the press conference, I could feel my feet cramping up in my heels and the smile waning from my face. This should have been one of the happiest moments of my life. An achievement, a triumph, but for some reason all I wanted to do was cry.
Three days later I found myself in front of a psychologist. I’d had a breakdown.
It all started months earlier when, after a series of essays and interviews, I was accepted as a contestant in the pageant. In reality, this probably stemmed much further back than that.
I wasn’t bred to be a pageant girl and most likely will never be in one again. Like most of the world, the only thing I knew about this institution was from reruns of “Toddlers & Tiaras.” It’s safe to say, I didn’t have the best impression.
I’ve always known about the pageant. Growing up, I would see their posters plastered on every ethnic supermarket in the area. They ran commercials on local stations. My grandma would always tell me that those competitions were rigged, and the girls slept with their sponsors and judges.
While my grandmother’s opinions on pageants died along with her a decade later, I always remembered the supermarket posters, and I thought about them, a lot.
I decided to join shortly after I had received notification that I had made it to the second round of a fellowship I had applied to. They would inform me of their final decision in December, when -- coincidentally -- the pageant would also take place. In my mind, joining a pageant would be a perfect distraction in case I was rejected from this fellowship. Plus, it was the last year I met the age requirement.
Besides what harm could it do?
So when people ask me why I joined, I give them one of two answers: To the judges, it was so I could gain a deeper understanding of my culture. To everyone else, it was so I could have a distraction during the month of December while I was awaiting the results of a fellowship.
The truth was somewhere in between, but in many ways it was none of the above.
From the very beginning, the pageant coordinators made it clear to us that this wasn’t a traditional beauty pageant. While, yes, there was a swimsuit portion and, yes, we are required to wear high heels and a gown, this was a test of intelligence and ability to be a “good” spokesperson for the community. They were a non-profit organization that encouraged us to sell tickets to different events and find sponsors who would pay the four-digit contestant fee.
In ordered to be considered as a contestant, I had to:
- Send an essay, resume and a headshot.
- Make it past the preliminary interview.
- Pay the application fee.
- Have a sponsor who would pay the sponsorship fee.
After mailing out the required materials, I received the email confirming I had made it to the preliminary interviews a few weeks later.
I had expected a one-on-one job interview-like situation; instead I was met by a panel of pageant board members and a single solitary fold out chair in front of them.
“You have a minute to give your opening statement. We will then ask you a series of questions. Then you have another minute to give your closing statement,” said the board member who sat directly in front of me.
The [albeit few] blogs I had read on pageants never mentioned this.
Family. Culture. Honor. Since the beginning of time, every society on the face of the earth shares those same exact values, but some like to pretend they do it better than others. I repeated those things over and over again, varying on words and phrases.
I got the acceptance letter a week after that.
Don’t you find a pageant exploitative? How can you do this when you consider yourself a feminist? I just can’t support you on this. What do you want me to say? There’s no way putting yourself on stage to be judged could ever help with your self-esteem and body issues.
Those were the words of my friends when I told them about my new venture. Those words would continue to haunt me as I began the 3-month long rehearsal process. From there on out, every weekend, 17 girls and I would begin the process of re-learning how to walk, smile, talk and present ourselves.
From the start I was hesitant about this process, but then the 2013 court came to visit us. They described in detail their experience and growth over the last year. How they learned greater self-confidence and how to present themselves in front of people.
“It’s an amazing opportunity to network and build your career,” they said.
But what really got me was when the third runner up, Jean* told us about the other benefit of making it onto court.
“What we really do is community service. We go to women’s shelters and visit the old folks’ homes. We work with kids from lower income neighborhoods.”
She was so touched during some of these events that she even cried.
I was sold.
You see, I knew deep down inside that I couldn’t live with myself knowing I was in a beauty pageant, but thinking that I could possibly make a small difference in someone’s life, that I could believe in. And I genuinely did.
How wrong I was.
The day of the actual pageant felt like an out of body experience. I wasn’t nervous, I wasn’t afraid. I really didn’t feel much of anything.
Maybe it was because I knew there was no turning back now. I had already invested close to $3,000 (which was low compared to others) in dresses, hair and makeup, buying tickets for my friends who couldn’t afford to attend the event, and being my own imaginary sponsor (the required sponsorship fee was over a thousand dollars on its own; most girls had their parents “sponsor” them).
Or maybe it was because I popped two Ativan before the whole event started.
When they finally announced the winners, all I could hear was the cheers of my friends and family. I knew I should have been happy for myself, but I wasn’t. I knew that everyone there for me that night was genuinely and truly proud of me, no matter how much they were against me joining a pageant in the first place. I wish I could feel that for myself.
By winning the 1st first runner up title I received
- A sash and crown
- A monetary scholarship (half I received then, the other half I will not receive until I finish my one-year commitment)
- A big ass trophy
After winning, instead of going to soup kitchens, we did photo-ops. Instead of outreach events, we handed out prizes to rich businessmen at galas and so called “charity” dinners, where no one knew what they were raising money for or what charity it was.
“All you’re going to do for the next year is sell raffle tickets,” Jean said while visiting us during one of our first engagements. It had been Jean's words that had me convinced months before, but maybe I just wanted any excuse to continue.
It occurred to me after a drunk man spilled wine on my dress and proceeded to feel up my backside as he was taking a picture with me, that these people didn’t look at us as potential job candidates or role models.
And why would they?
In our gowns, sashes and crowns, we were novelty items. What we did was no better than the scantily dressed girls at car shows that handed out brochures to horny old men.
I am a lie.
The fact of the matter is as much as I can criticize the contradictory nature of the pageant world, my breakdown was the result of a number of factors.
When I stood there smiling at the press conference, I wanted to cry because I thought I had failed by placing first runner-up. As much as I rationally knew I should be grateful or at least think of the 13 other girls who wished they were in my spot, there was only one thing on my mind:
I’ll never be good enough for them.
Maybe you can psychoanalyze this mentality as a result of my childhood. The sexual abuse I encountered by a family member and the dismissal of those events by my mother when I finally told her. Maybe it was the violent relationship between my grandparents who raised me. Perhaps it was my grandfather’s hatred towards me and his preference for my older sibling. Maybe it was even my father’s alcoholism, abandonment and his “new” family.
Feasibly, it may have been how the other families, especially those of my same ethnicity, would look down on us, pitied us. Or, maybe it was simply the cliché school bullying I endured because I was fat and we were poor.
Whatever it was, I had developed a need for validation. I needed their approval. I needed them to tell me that my existence was worth something, and in order for that to happen, I needed to be perfect. I needed to be number one.
That is the real reason why I joined the pageant.
Even though I knew that rejection was a possibility and this was a potential trigger, I needed them to accept me. I needed them to tell me I was good enough.
A while back, I rode on a float. I waved at children who smiled at me and their parents waved back. Afterward, a little girl came up to me with her grandma. They asked if they could take a picture.
“Every year she takes pictures with the princesses,” said the grandma. “She likes to collect them.”
I put my gloved hand around the girl’s shoulder and we smiled for the camera.
“See, maybe one day you can be her,” the grandma said afterward.
How badly I wanted to tell her to aim for something better.
*Names changed for privacy.