When I was in elementary school, my mother and I would watch the Miss America Pageant. Religiously. We tried Miss Teen USA, too, but found it was lacking drama. When I was eight years old, it was my job to gather the paper and pens, a set for each of us. We’d meticulously rank the women based solely on their appearance and their micro-hints of personality. (If Miss Michigan happened to have a penchant for horses, she’d get a few extra points in my book. I fucking loved horses). But for the most part, their scores were cemented based on the length and thickness of their hair, the cut of their cheekbones, and the straight whiteness of their teeth.
When I was eight years old, I learned a woman’s only value was in her appearance. My mother and I both always wished Miss Oregon would somehow be a standout amongst the ranks. That, somehow, she carried a part of us with her, that the Oregon rain watered us all. That, miraculously, Miss Oregon would have an edge over Miss Texas who won year after year thanks to all those pageant-specific finishing schools in that sprawling state.
But Miss Oregon never won.
When I was twelve years old, my mother entered me into the Junior Miss Oregon Pageant. I was an only child, an awkward child, but armed with a decade of non-stop dance, music, singing and performance lessons, I had not a quiver of stage fright and could fake it better than most sixth-graders. I’d also been tanning, daily, and finally looked half Cherokee for once.
But there was a problem. I didn’t fit in, never have (and, as I’d find decades later, never would). Maybe my mom didn’t realize this, but she’d dumped me in the middle of a hissing snake pit where the only chance of survival was fitting in.
At the state finals—because, yes, I actually did make it that far—I nailed the piano solo. I don’t think the judges realized it was Janet Jackson’s “Again,” my addiction at the time because I’d fallen hard for Poetic Justice. If they had known it was Miss Jackson and not Byron Janis, I surely wouldn’t have made it so far. I was flawless in the question and answer portion. That was no surprise. I’d been forced to practice interview questions for hours every night for the past eight weeks. The group choreography? That was easy. I’d been taking jazz, tap, ballet and modern dance since I could walk. It wasn’t any of that that was my undoing.
It was the evening gown portion.
All the other girls were wearing the fashionable gowns of the moment. Either sparkling or a satiny sheen with spaghetti straps. Ballgowns were also appropriate, though most middle schoolers couldn’t pull that off. And then there was me.
Let me be clear, I thought my dress was bomb. (And I’m sure that’s the word I used at the time). Short and mostly black, the ruched material hit mid-thigh. And on top? A humongous white silk flower that would have put 1998’s Carrie Bradshaw to shame. It was at least as big as my head … but apparently not quite big enough. My mom attached additional blossoms in a rainbow of colors. It looked like a goddamned Easter basket was nesting on my shoulder. To complete the look, I went with six-inch red patent leather Mary Jane heels. (I like to think I was ahead of my time).
I’m not certain, but I think I’m the only girl the coordinator pulled aside after the pageant was over. Even then, I was hyperaware of the “sandwich criticism.” I was skilled at blocking out compliments, the faux fawning over my piano solo and discipline. Instead, all I heard was the coordinator telling my mom, “If she continues, she needs to find evening wear that’s more … appropriate.”
Appropriate. Before I was a teenager, I learned how to judge. How to demolish a woman with a number, and the numbness that kicks in when such a number is assigned to me. I never did go back to pageants, but I came close.
When I was fifteen years old, my mom drove me to a local “model search.” A handful of girls were then invited to the statewide search in Portland. I was one of them, blessed and earmarked for something more than that smothering small town. Who cares if I barely reached Kate Moss’ height? To me, Portland was the big city, and it was my out. I was five-foot-seven and a solid size eight, but with the kind of curves that ensured my first kiss was mostly a grope by a marine seated next to me on a school trip to D.C.
I demanded to go to the mall in Portland, and the day before the call was spent at Lloyd Center. There, my mom bought me a shirt that said “Supermodels Suck” from Hot Topic. It was the apex of the grunge era, and I was solidly in My So-Called Life angst. If I couldn’t wow them with my looks, at least I could shock them with irony. I clutched that bag tight as we had burgers at a 50s-style diner where the cute mixed waiter asked for my number. My mom nudged me with her big, milky blue eyes. See? See how worthy you are?
The day of the call, even I heard the whispers when I walked the stage. Someone’s mom touched my elbow as I descended the stairs. “They were all talking about you!” she said. When a pageant mom gives you a compliment, you know shit is serious.
The shirt worked in that barely kind of way I knew it would. I got one response from a scout. He asked me to lose thirty pounds and if I was okay with lingerie and implied nudity. I was. My mom was. What she wasn’t okay with was getting locked out. He made it quite clear parents would no longer be allowed within the realm of this precious world I wanted so badly to hack my way into. But for all those piano drills and wins at storytelling competitions, I just couldn’t figure out the trick to open the door.
When I was still fifteen, I gave my virginity to a boy I could barely stand just to get it over with. When I was twenty-three, I gained 100 pounds. When I was twenty-four, I lost it all and kept it off on a crash diet that never ended. When I was twenty-six, I was diagnosed with my first bout of melanoma after spending the past fifteen years soaking cancer into my flesh daily—first in my mom’s at-home tanning bed at eleven years old at her urging. Later in tanning salons. When I was thirty-two, I was diagnosed with anorexia when half my hair fell out and my heart began to cannibalize itself.
But, when I was a child? When I was a child, I was taught a woman’s value was flanked in pretty and judged by the ounce.