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Reality Check

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Unrealistic beauty standards set by

pageants can often be taken seriously by women

by Karen E. Culp

In nine long years, the scene has not changed. It's a Saturday night in September, and a group of my friends and I are staring at the television. It's not CNN, a Lifetime movie or the "X-Files" that has us entranced: It's the yearly slice of American life known as the Miss America Pageant.

It was in college that I first witnessed what the pageant can do to young women. After pledging a sorority, I learned that one of the informal, yet sort-of-required activities for pledges, was a gathering in which we all watched the Miss America Pageant.

I had watched the event before, in my parents' living room, with my sometimes honest-to-the-point-of-obnoxious brother, but I'd never been among a gathering of women who took the thing seriously.

I had always thought the pageant, or any pageant, was an excuse for regular, plain-Jane girls like me to make fun of a standard of beauty thrust upon us by someone else.

I never considered that some people thought the standard was real, just as I never considered that anyone thought real women, women like me, who work for a living and raise families far away from Los Angeles or New York, are supposed to look like the models who parade down runways, their hips so narrow as to remind me of a 10-year-old boy's, rather than an adult woman's, body.

But it was there, in the sorority apartment, that I first saw women look and compare, analyze and wish their bodies, their faces, were similar to those shown on the television set. The room was filled with women who had, at one time, participated in one of these contests.

One of them turned out to be one of my very best friends. She watches every pageant she can, and when I talk to her today, I hear a 26-year-old, married woman with a beautiful daughter make plans for that baby to walk the same runways as her mama.

"I'm already working with her," she'll say, adding that the little girl is to take music lessons, dance lessons, all to help her win a few of the crowns that her mother was once so proud to wear.

That women watch the shows, or even that they make a casual comment or two about their own bodies during the program, is not so upsetting as it is when the women take the pageants so seriously they begin to think about things differently as a result. My friend, for example, was plagued by a deep depression when her pageant days were over.

Other women have resorted to near violence when their child or grandchild missed a chance to be Little Miss Something-or-Other. My mother used to coordinate a baby pageant for the St. Francis, Ark., picnic every year.

When Mother asked my sister-in-law and me to be judges, I quickly discovered I had to decline because a childhood friend of mine was entering her own young son in that year's show.

Apparently, one grandmother mistakenly thought I had been a judge, and, when she caught me joking with my childhood friend about the episode after my friend's baby had won the pageant, took off across the picnic grounds to lay into my unsuspecting mother. This woman's grandchild had placed second.

When the woman found Mother, she threatened to report her to some kind of pageant authority, and admonished her, "that baby had no stage presence!" Mother retorted that babies were not supposed to have stage presence, and indicated that the woman was a little shallow. She also indicated a few other things I won't repeat.

I was once a pageant girl, too, when I was 5. Amid repeated objections from my father, who liked to use the term "meat market" in association with the contests, my mother and grandmother entered me in the Little Miss St. Francis pageant.

In the end, my father won the family fight I think because though I wore the dress, agreed to stand still for a spritzing of Aqua Net and shoved my toes into patent-leather shoes, I refused to walk out on the stage during the pageant.

I couldn't get the image of the cows we raised being loaded onto trailers and taken away out of my little mind. After I was expelled from the pageant, I began walking away, determined to get in a few more rides on the carnival swings on the picnic grounds.

My friend Melinda wailed when she saw me leaving, begging her mother to let her go with me to ride; Melinda, unfortunately, had to stay and be crowned Little Miss St. Francis of 1977.

In the years of my own experience with pageants, watching little girls like my friend, Melinda, dress up like women, seeing little babies trained to hold a smile or wink and blow kisses, and watching grown women get ideas about their own appearance from them, I have grown to dislike them.

Yet, I am still surrounded by women who insist on watching every year. A few things had changed at this most recent gathering. Instead of trying to guess who would win, we tried to guess which contestant had had plastic surgery.

We were catty, but it was almost like a defense: we were trying to break the pageant apart, to show that it made no difference to us, and we were being a little too overt. That is what I detest most about these shows: the way they can make a grown woman feel.

While the standard of beauty they enforce is, apparently, attainable, is it really necessary to win something simply because you've attained that standard?

Is it not more important to win a $40,000 scholarship because you studied hard?

Perhaps not for some, and those are the people who should enter these contests and support them. The rest of us should ignore them, myself and my friends included.

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