I have a dark secret, at least for a feminist. Knowing this is a safe community, and you will not judge decisions of my youth, I confess—one time—to parading in a blue mermaid gown with hair sprayed as high as the Rocky Mountains. No offense to anyone who has been in a beauty pageant. It turned out to not be my thing.
I learned this at 18 after reasoning the pageant was a good idea because it might lead to a scholarship and the attention of a certain young man (a double win). Neither the scholarship nor the relationship with the man turned out as hoped.
For one, I didn’t know how hard it would be to walk in high heels. Standing at five-nine, I’d never worn them because I’d never wanted to be taller than dates at school dances, not that I’d had many.
Two: I’d never worn much makeup, and pageant consultants had to talk me past doubts I looked like a clown with a blonde permanent.
Three: the bathing suit competition did not go as smoothly as planned.
Four: I received pretty low scores from the judges, although fellow contestants voted unanimously for me to receive the congeniality award.
Five: the young man I liked started dating someone else.
My stunningly short pageant career wasn’t in vain. Although profoundly embarrassing, it affected the course of my life. More than one therapist has heard me explain what being in a beauty pageant has taught me.
1. Makeup, heels, and well-styled hair will only get a woman so far.
I devoted three months of my life to preparing for the beauty pageant. To this day, I wonder if I considered what it would actually require. The person who invited me to be in the pageant described how much fun I’d have wearing a glamorous dress and singing for the talent competition. Her mention of a $1,000 college scholarship peaked my interest. And, I liked singing. Having avoided “frilly” dresses since early childhood, I figured I could deal with the gown if it turned into some money. Also, it seemed like a good idea to invite the young man I had a crush on to watch the pageant. After all the work, I wondered if I’d made the best investments with my time and talents.
2. It’s better to make friends than compete with other women.
At the first practice, I realized that most of the other contestants had been in modeling and pageants their whole lives. They chitchatted about previous competitions, heel heights, false eyelashes, and clothing brands I’d never heard of. It dawned on me how little I knew of preparations for beauty pageants. Realizing I was in way over my head, I considered dropping out. Then again, it seemed like an opportunity to learn better posture, how to walk in heels, and apply makeup. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I continued with weekly practices.
Knowing I had no hope of winning (truly I didn’t) freed me from competition. Brushing aside nervousness, I befriended and cheered on fellow contestants. That broke down walls. I strongly suspect the other women knew I had no chance. They began sharing tips for fitness, hair care, applying cosmetics, and eliminating scales on elbows (who knew Corn Huskers oil takes care of that). One young woman, who had wrapped a scarf into an elegant top, taught me how to walk in heels. I came to admire the incredible self-discipline and work ethic of those women. To this day, I follow many of their tips.
3. No woman deserves for anyone to talk about her body.
I’m not sure why, but I waited until the week before the pageant to learn how to walk in heels. That didn’t make me very confident about the swimsuit competition. I wasn’t wild about parading in front of a crowd in form-fitting polyester fabric.
Waiting in the wings, I heard the emcee introduce another contestant for the swimsuit competition. She stepped onto the runway. He relayed that she loved animals and volunteered in shelters. Music played, and she paraded in front of the crowd. The emcee cast glances at her body, “Whoa, I wish I had a collar on right now.”
I froze. My turn came. I dreaded stepping onto the stage. The music played, and I moved toward the runway. I felt his eyes surveying my figure.
“This is Amy. She plans to major in psychology because she cares about improving the lives of others. I know my life has improved in this moment.”
The tip of my heel caught the floor, and I stumbled. It felt gross. I never wanted to feel that way again.
4. Women are humans—soul and body—not decorations.
I promised, that night, never to put myself in a position like that again. It’s not that I believed fashion, beauty, or pageants are wrong. The experience caused me to dig into what it means to have value as women. I have since devoted much of my life to sorting out that question. The deeper I dig, the more I believe God made us humans to exercise unique strengths for the benefit of others and the rest of creation. God delights in our unique forms—all forms. But we are not decorations.
5. We do well to make long-term investments with the highest yielding dividends.
My investments in the pageant did not result in a scholarship or a date. But I had some new friends. I reminded myself that I’d gained some helpful skills for adult life, and it wasn’t too shabby to come away with the congeniality award. My appreciation for youth, fashion, and beauty did not diminish after being in a beauty pageant.
Mostly, the experience reframed my thinking about where to invest time and talents for the highest yielding dividends. God’s Word whispered of flowers and youth fading (1 Peter 1:24, Proverbs 31:30).
And, I began to see the importance of investing in beautiful feet.
How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger bringing good news, breaking the news that all’s well, proclaiming good times, announcing salvation, telling Zion, “Your God reigns!” (Isaiah 52:7, The Message)
Published first in SheLoves Magazine.