The Beauty Behind Beauty Pageants

This essay is part of our “What Is A Woman?” series in tandem with our brand new podcast. This season, our community is exploring the question, “What is beauty?”

Every year, I was a bystander, an observer, an admirer. My hometown of Mansfield, Ohio, has hosted Miss Ohio Week for as long as I can remember, and every year the occasion brought the community together. I’d watch the parade from afar as the women slowly drove by in their convertibles, waving at the crowds of people with their giant Kentucky Derby-style hats and the biggest smiles. I’d gaze at them as they graced the stage in their glamorous gowns, perfectly placed hair, and flawless makeup. Every year, I watched the pageant and would stay up to date to see who would be so lucky to represent our state on the Miss America stage; and every year, I would contemplate if I, too, could one day grace that stage.

But one thought always held me back. I never considered myself that type of girl: the beauty queen.

We all know the stigma: the drop dead gorgeous woman with the rock solid body who struts her stuff in a bikini; she’s practically a goddess in an evening gown; you swear her makeup is tattooed on her face because it’s just too perfect; and she must have performed some type of voodoo magic to get her hair that high. And when it comes to those on-stage questions, the immediate answer that crosses everyone’s mind… “World peace.”

Outer appearance drives the pageant stigma and, unfortunately, doesn’t allow society to view pageants for the true beauty they are.

If beauty pageants were solely about everything listed above, then they wouldn’t be called a beauty pageant, they would be called a pretty pageant.

Now back to how I ended up here. Like I said, I didn’t consider myself that type of girl, yet still every year, I kept having the same urge that I needed to dive deeper and figure out why I had such a longing to pursue the crown and sash. I met up with a woman from my hometown who was actively involved with the Miss Ohio Scholarship Program, a state preliminary to the Miss America Pageant. As she enthusiastically explained the scholarship opportunities that Miss Ohio provided to her for school, I became more and more excited. After all, who doesn’t need money for college?

Then she gave me the rundown of what I would need to prepare, and let me tell you right now: It terrified me to the core of my existence.

Here’s the breakdown. Think of Miss America like sports. You have local games, then the state and the national championships. In order to get to Miss Ohio, you need to win a local title.

Simple enough, right? Wrong! What most of society (like myself at the time) fails to realize is all of the extra work that is needed. So I have bestowed upon you The List of Extras:

  • The Platform Each Miss America contestant must develop a platform that revolves around an issue she deems important. It may be a societal issue, environmental issue – anything, really – but this will be the thing she advocates for while on her Miss America journey. She will speak about her platform, attend appearances relevant to her platform, be asked questions about her platform, etc.

  • The Talent Most pageants do not have a talent portion, but Miss America does. Each contestant is required to perform a talent piece of exactly one minute and 30 seconds. That’s right: not one second over, or she is deducted points. This alone made me sweat bullets. At the time, I was pretty confident my only talent was sleeping for about 14 hours in one period, but that was definitely over the time limit.

  • The Paperwork You have to submit a mound of paperwork for every local, state, and national competition you enter. Let’s just put it this way: With the amount of paperwork you fill out, you would think you are going through all life stages in a day, from buying a car to getting married.

  • Private Interview Like most people, I had no idea this existed, because it isn’t on stage or broadcast! This phase of competition is the in-person interview. It’s a 10-minute session between you and the judges where it is a free-for-all. Meaning they can ask you absolutely anything they want. They can ask you super fluff questions and they can ask you the most politically charged questions that make you wonder why you haven’t run for office yet.

Suddenly, instead of thinking I wasn’t that type of girl, I was thinking I wasn’t talented or intelligent enough to make it.

I was a junior in college before I finally mustered up the courage to enter my first local: Miss Maple City 2017.

My first pageant ever. I had a platform. I had a talent. I filled out all my paperwork. I completed the interview. I got through all the extras….. and I was a hot mess. I look back on that moment and just think, “Who let that girl on stage?”

But that day was special. I may have been a hot mess, but my eyes and my mind were wonderfully clear. The women I was competing with weren’t the snarky, overly competitive women that the stigma suggests. They supported each other. They laughed with one another. They spoke with intelligence, grace, and positive thoughts. They told their stories about how they developed their platforms – stories of trials, of family, and of friends. They talked about their missions, hours of volunteerism, and their dreams and aspirations. They dreamed of becoming nurses, journalists, lawyers, architects, educators, and more. They were well spoken, authentic, inspiring – truly beautiful.

During the pageant itself, I absolutely was not the most graceful or most talented person on that stage. But that day, I became empowered.

Before that day, I had never sung a solo in my life. Before that day, I would have never thought I’d strut in a swimsuit on a stage and feel absolutely amazing while doing it. It was a defining moment of fully accepting who I was in the body that God gave me.

A lot of positive life choices were sparked from that one pageant. I now live a much healthier and active lifestyle. I’ve dedicated time to improve my public speaking and communication skills. I’ve devoted more time to volunteering and community service. I’ve devoted more time to bettering myself.

There is beauty in self-improvement.

Without explanation, I kept competing. So here I am, one year later. I’ve competed once for Miss Ohio with the local title of Miss Heart of Ohio 2017, and I’m blessed to be returning to the Miss Ohio stage as Miss Portsmouth 2018. My personal development and confidence have grown immensely through this organization. Pageants have done more than just empower me; they’ve given me lifelong friendships, another family. They’ve provided networking opportunities and have made me set goals for myself. They have tested my determination and perseverance. They have provided amazing scholarship opportunities that have furthered my education.

I’ve discovered more about myself in the last year than I have in the last five years because of this organization. The opportunities are beautiful.

So when we define beauty pageants and beauty queens, we should take the time to acknowledge that they are so much more than just the exterior façade that everyone sees. The reason they are called beauty pageants is because they help you find the beauty.

Now, if anyone ever asks me, “Are you a beauty queen?”, my answer will be an overwhelming and exuberant “YES!” – because I am that type of girl.

Tune in to the first ever episode of our "What Is A Woman?" podcast, "What Is Beauty?" Listen here.