My not-so-pretty pageant past

When the Miss Teen USA pageant airs tomorrow night, I'll probably do what I do every year. I'll sneak a peek, and mutter to myself that the contestants appear to be 16 going on 30. "They look so much older than we did," I'll think, remembering my own teen pageant days.

I'm not proud of my beauty contest past. It's not something a well-educated, professional woman wants on her résumé. The title "beauty contestant" still carries certain bimbo connotations. And no matter how hard the pageants try to be "scholarship programs" or "opportunities for growth and self-confidence," there is still a dark underside.

Pageants promote what I'd call the other fractured fairy tale for women. The first one, of course, is that happily-ever-after comes from finding Mr. Tall, Dark, and Perfect. Most women saw through that one years ago, but the myth the pageants sell still has many of us by our pretty little throats: Win the crown, and you'll win a satisfying life.

This lie turns the whole notion of independence upside down. It says that if you have the best body and the best smile, then you have a right to feel good about yourself. Win the crown and you will be somebody. Everyone else walks away a loser.

This concept becomes clear the moment you enter the pageant world.

My first pageant was Miss United Teenager, held in central New Hampshire, a 2-1/2-hour drive from our house. When we contestants arrived, most of us didn't realize how closely the pageant officials were watching us as they checked us in. And we certainly didn't know that the competition had already begun. Officials noted our every move, what we wore, which clique we fit in with.

Teen pageants are usually a weekend affair. You arrive Friday night, rehearse Saturday, and put on the big show Saturday night. Only a farewell breakfast takes place on Sunday morning.

But in reality, the contest is over by Saturday morning. That's when you know which girls you belong with: the really polished, savvy ones, the girl-next-door types, or the shy, awkward flowers. Once you're labeled, there's no going back. Either you have the "winning look," or you don't. Contestants know this, and they can be brutal to one another, even as they share the performance-quality hairspray that's supposed to hold your "do" in an 80-m.p.h. wind.

I learned three things from my first pageant: First, that 7UP is how contestants keep their bathing suits (in adult pageants) in place. (Pour it on the skin; let it almost dry; get dressed.) Second, that winners are groomed, not born. (The girl who won had been in this pageant three times before.) And third, that if you don't have the right dress, you don't stand a chance.

I didn't make the finals. In fact, all I got was a Miss United Teenager watch, for writing the best sponsor thank-you letter. But when I look at that watch today, I am reminded of a friend who did very well in several pageants of her own.

She was dazzling: tall, dark hair, doe eyes, poised. She projected a serenity that I'd never seen before. She was my best friend, and the reason I got into pageants in the first place. She had a shelf full of trophies - for Miss Congeniality, Miss Photogenic, Second Runner-up. But over time, she became thinner and thinner. Her beautiful dark hair became brittle and started breaking. She never did win the crown. None of us did, really. Pageants may look like fun, but often they fuel women's deepest fears about their bodies. This is as true for women watching at home as it is for those on the runway.

My second pageant was New Hampshire's Junior Miss, a cut above the others. The girl who won was smart and talented, in addition to having the right dress and the perfect walk. But even she didn't escape unscathed.

After the show was over, we contestants congratulated her heartily, but privately we picked her apart from head to toe, especially her prominent proboscis.

Apparently she focused on it, too.

I know this, because I caught a glimpse of her on a newscast in Florida a few months ago. There she was, familiar voice, familiar smile, but something about her nose looked, well ... different. New, actually. I admit that she did look better, but something seemed to have been lost as well - a certain distinctiveness that goes beyond mere features.

Beauty, as I have learned, is more complicated, and much simpler, than the pageants would have us believe. It's not just what you see, but how you see.

I began to realize that after my second, and last, pageant. I felt prettier and more confident when I stopped ripping apart my opponents - and myself. Beauty is the first thing girls abandon when they start desperately seeking some title or flimsy rhinestone crown.

Elizabeth Lund is the Monitor's poetry editor.

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