“It’s a relief to have a meal with a young woman who isn’t scared to death,” the Very Minor Celebrity who was visiting our very small college told me. “The girl I sat beside at lunch was so nervous her hands were shaking, and the peas kept falling off her fork.”
It’s not that the Very Minor Celebrity was such a scary guy. True, his self-assured presence and trained actor’s voice, not to mention his advanced age (he had to be almost 30) gave him a sophistication that was more than a little intimidating. But the real reason the poor girl couldn’t eat her peas wasn’t his presence but the reason for his visit. She was one of the contestants hoping to be chosen to represent our school in the Miss South Dakota pageant and potentially have a shot at becoming Miss America 1970. He was one of the judges.
Even though I was perfectly calm enough to eat my peas in peace, I was also participating in the pageant. Not as a contestant, though. (Please, do me a favor; at least pretend for a moment to be surprised? Thank you.)
No, as a shy freshman with no skills whatsoever in public performance, I was the mere minion assigned to sit at the table with the judges and help tally votes. (Given that there were only three judges and only about a dozen contestants for them to choose from, the fact that I was an English and art major rather than a math major really wasn’t a problem.) So the night of the big event, I duly parked myself in my assigned seat directly in front of the stage.
At that point in my life, I was only vaguely a feminist. I believed in equal rights for women, certainly, but in a theoretical sort of way. Given my lack of friends and social life throughout high school, I’d never even come close to having anything I would have recognized as a “me too” moment.
The beauty pageant turned out to be a milestone for me. What I saw from my vantage point at the judges’ table helped turn me into a committed—if still quiet—feminist. It also gave me a profound and lasting distaste for beauty pageants.
The talent portion of the competition was okay. The evening gown section wasn’t so bad. The swim suit competition was dreadful. Here were these young women, mostly inexperienced at public appearances of any sort, all nervous, parading in high heels and swimsuits across the stage of a chilly auditorium. I was close enough to notice their knees shaking. I could see the way the skin on their thighs was blotched from a combination of cold and fear.
The audience members, of course, were all fully clothed. The judges, of course all men, were placidly armored in their suits and ties. The whole thing was uncomfortable to the point of being creepy.
I was pleased when, the following year, my school decided to abandon its beauty pageant.
It’s good that Miss America has—only 48 years later—finally ditched the swimsuit competition. It’s good, that, at least theoretically, “candidates will no longer be judged on outward appearance.”
But I’d suggest one more change for any beauty pageant organizers who still think swimsuit competitions are the best idea since Botox. For that segment of the event, require all the judges to be up on the stage—with all the women in bikinis and all the men in Speedos.