My daughter participated in the Kansas finals of the National American Miss pageant this weekend in Wichita. Not an earth-shattering event–thousands of girls take part in pageants like this every year. It’s a staple of American culture. In equal measure, pageants are praised as a builder of confidence and positive self-image, despised as a perpetuator of shallow gender stereotypes, and lampooned as a parade of vanity, silliness, and obsessive mothers re-living their childhood by proxy. None of those perspectives, I believe, is entirely true, though each contains a nugget of truth.
We’d never done anything like this before. Somebody nominated my daughter as a prospective candidate, she decided she’d like to give it a try, and we were off to the races, trying to stay as hands-off as possible.
It wasn’t so bad. My daughter surprised me with a poise and fearlessness I didn’t know she possessed. She sure didn’t inherit it from me–getting up on a stage is one of my most paralyzing terrors. For her, it was no big deal. She had fun and learned a few things about public speaking and walking in a long dress.
There were lots of talented girls at this pageant, but some of them struggled. There were girls who obviously loved to sing, but even to my untrained ear, it was clear that perhaps singing wasn’t their gift. Likewise, there were some dancers, who, despite their profound love of dancing, probably won’t get that shot on Broadway, or even in their local community theater, that they’re dreaming of.
It brought to mind a skit performed by British comedienne Dawn French on her sitcom, The Vicar of Dibley. It’s a funny and poignant little scene of a prima ballerina confronting her reflection in the mirror–a very rotund, awkward, and un-ballerina-ish image. The two figures begin to dance, and partway through, it becomes unclear which is the reflection and which is the reality. Is the ballerina confronting her fears and insecurities, or is the chubby lady reveling in a grace and beauty she knows she possesses, but the world will never acknowledge?
It takes courage to stand up in front of a crowd of strangers and do almost anything. Our culture is saturated with “American Idol”-type performance shows that emotionally vivisect people on international television. To expose oneself to ridicule by singing on stage with a voice that is less than perfect, or dancing with a body that doesn’t fit the conventional image of beauty takes phenomenal courage–battlefield-level courage.
I saw some girls at the most emotionally-vulnerable point in their lives do just that this weekend. They may not have won any prizes, but I think they accomplished something that will last a lot longer than a plastic trophy.
It may be cliche’ to say they’re all princesses, but it’s true.