Former Miss Universe Alicia Machado has been crowned the queen of election media since Hillary Clinton mentioned Donald Trump’s mistreatment of her during last week’s US presidential debate. With beauty contest imagery flooding the news, a tidal wave of memories came crashing back from a time I too dipped my politics into the drippy pageant circuit for a good cause.
When I was 17 and a senior in high school, I competed for the title of Miss Teen Sullivan County to strike a blow for young women’s rights. The patriarchy pressured me to enter in a unique way through its nascent minion, my brother.
I had no prior ambitions to let total strangers judge me on shallow first impressions and physical attractiveness. Like bearing children and marrying, I understood beauty pageants were not my thing from an early age. However, we are all products of our environments, and the environment that had me making a parading product of myself was living with my older brother Chris.
One day I returned from school and sat down to enjoy the rest of the afternoon when something glowed at me from the trash can. On top was a bubblegum pink piece of mail torn in half. As the only girl in the house, I heard her hyperfeminine wail from the pail, “For you! For you!”
Inside two halves of an envelope were two halves of an application for Miss Teen Sullivan County. Chris had hauled his judgmental ass to the mailbox before committing the sin (and federal crime) of not giving a 17-year-old young woman her mail. He thought it was dumb so he ripped it and ditched it.
At that point he might as well have taped up the form and sent it in with the $50 fee himself. No man tells me what to do.
When I told my friend Heather, she beamed that she too had entered and now we could be buddies through the Saturday trainings. Six times she drove us to the aging Catskill Mountain resort and back again. We studied stage walking, standing with our feet in a slimming position, and an awful dance choreographed to Gloria Estefan’s pop hit, “Get On Your Feet.” I still know every step of that damn dance, as a recent encounter with ’80s radio in a thrift store demonstrated.
The most humiliating part of my pageant era happened a month before the first training session. My dad was a little chafed at forking over $50 for the application when he believed I should have solicited sponsorship like a real product of a person. At the local pizza joint he suggested the owner should sponsor me to get his business listed under my name in the event program. The man behind the counter looked me up and down then gave me $10 from the register. Dad never said another word about the other $40.
All the contestants were younger than me and Heather because seventeen was the oldest age of entrants permitted. Several girls were pageant veterans who recounted tragic tales to enthralled newbies about trophies almost won. One seasoned pro said this year’s swimsuit round for the 13 to 17-year-old contestants had previously been an unsexy sportswear challenge.
There was no talent competition. There was the aforementioned swimsuit round and a fancy dress round, neither of which I took seriously enough to bother wearing pantyhose. Most of the girls’ dresses were poofy and shiny, but I was in my goth phase and went with a simple black velvet dress adorned solely with that ubiquitous 1993 alterna-couture fashion accessory, a black choker.
We were also judged on a one-minute speech about something dear to our hearts. I believe this is where I made up the points lost for not wearing pantyhose. Noble pronouncements about becoming teachers ruled the speeches, and I deftly shirked the answer by declaring one minute was not enough time to speak on something important to me. Instead, I graciously thanked everyone for the opportunity to one day make my future children roll their eyes upon hearing their mother was once in a beauty pageant. In other words, I totally pandered to the three ex-pageant queen moms who were the judges.
Before the crowning, we lined up and the trophies for Miss Congeniality and Miss Photogenic were announced. I voted Heather for Miss Congeniality (of course) but she didn’t win. Alas, I did win the Miss Photogenic trophy. The living doll winner of the Young Miss pageant (ages five-eight) approached as I broke from my place onstage to awkwardly hug her shoulders against my hip and receive the trophy. The best I can figure is the judges saw my photo and thought I was quite pretty until meeting me in person and realizing just how much cameras flatter me.
Neither Heather nor I placed high enough to warrant a ranking award, but the judges told us afterwards that our scores tied exactly. We were together when we found out, therefore much co-screaming and co-jumping quickly ensued. I’ve always harbored a suspicion they lied to us and I’m officially in favor of that kind of mendaciousness.
I will never part with the crappy plastic trophy that won’t stand straight no matter how much I fiddle with it. She stands tall, if askew, among my women’s books as a reminder that no man takes away my right to make my own decisions. That lesson, and never getting between a teenager and her mail, are the takeaway morals of this feminist beauty pageant story.
Samantha Berg is a radical feminist journalist, activist, and event organizer. Her articles have been published in progressive media for over a decade, and in recent years she has organized anti-prostitution political events in the United States and Canada. Find more of her work at JohnStompers.com and Genderberg.com.