Last summer, my Dad entered a phase of his mid-life crisis in which he wanted to sing the National Anthem at as many sporting events as possible. Through various connections, he managed to sing at New York Mets and WNBA games. He even traveled to a town nobody ever heard of – Molina, Illinois – to sing at a mixed martial arts fight, in a steel cage, surrounded by a bevy of half-dressed women called “ring girls,” who announced the rounds. These successes only fueled my father’s National Anthem singing fervor. A colleague arranged for him to sing the anthem at the “Miss America Outstanding Teen” pageant in Orlando, hosted by Miss America herself. Pleased with this anthem-singing opportunity, my father thanked the pageant leader and was about to hang up when she blurted out, “Oh! And you can be a judge too!”
So I found myself flying down to Orlando during the hottest days of summer. My only knowledge of pageants came from watching “Toddlers and Tiaras,” so naturally I was pretty skeptical about this whole enterprise. My reservations were not eased when the curtain came up on fifty-three teenagers in short, sparkly, silver dresses, strutting in formation to an extremely loud, synthesized beat and screeching “Girls! Girls! Girls!” Every few seconds, a contestant would walk to the front of the stage and introduce herself in a cringe-worthy manner such as, “From the state that brings you Hot Tamales, both the candy and me, I am Kathy Kluger, Miss Pennsylvania’s Outstanding Teen!”
First, the contestants were judged on fitness. As they jogged out, waving at the audience with their ponytails bouncing, they wore matching pink tank tops provided by Regalia Magnificent Apparel. Each girl stepped forward and performed a twenty-second routine that consisted of energetically touching her knees to her elbows several times, completing an extremely enthusiastic pushup, kicking her leg high in the air, and then grinning at the audience flirtatiously over her shoulder until the choreographer shooed her off the stage. I couldn’t really figure out why being able to touch your knees to your elbows was a valuable skill. It seemed so arbitrary. How could a judge possibly distinguish an expert elbow touch from a lackluster one? Would he think: “Oh, her knee really made contact! She gets a ten!”
Next came the talent portion. Some of the girls played musical instruments in long flowing dresses. Many brought in large objects like surf boards and cabinets upon which to tap dance. Miss Puerto Rico sang one verse of “You’re Beautiful” and then proceeded to flip over backwards.
Last and most ridiculous was an event entitled “Evening Gown / Question.” Unable to determine why those two skills were lumped together, I watched on. Each girl paraded across the stage in her evening gown while the announcer told us her ambitions: “Miss Arkansas, Mary Lou Cadwell, is a senior at Lincoln High School. Mary Lou’s platform is “Against Cyber-bullying Everywhere!” Cyber-bullying turned out to be a big theme. Approximately half the questions asked of the girls were about cyber-bullying. It was treated as the worst problem facing our generation and spoken about with a gravity usually reserved for pandemics and genocide. The announcer went on: “Mary Lou hopes to become President of the United States, and then a Supreme Court Justice, all the while owning her own dance studio!” After being introduced, the girls walked center stage and paused to answer their questions. Most had reasonable responses, but when one girl was asked, “Do you think that books should ever be censored for the classroom?” she responded, “I think that everybody should read some books, because then they would be…beautiful!”
The rest of the pageant followed in much the same way. I still could not shake the feeling that the whole concept of this pageant made me uncomfortable. I did not like the idea of these girls sticking themselves into different boxes. Service, Check. Talent, Check. Physical Fitness, Check. And I did not like some of the things the girls were judged on. Ms. Rhode Island, an excellent violinist, was seemingly eliminated because her answers were too thoughtful, convincing the judges that the average American girl would not relate to her. I was worried that Miss Alabama would judge herself negatively because she had difficulty touching her knee to her elbow, a skill which I still did not feel was a good measure of worth.
And then I proceeded to go home and put myself into similar boxes. As I started to worry about college admissions, I thought about how many extracurricular activities I had, what grades I received, whether I had done enough community service. I knew that not all the criteria used to judge girls at the pageant had intrinsic value. And I also know that the criteria by which I judge myself do not reflect my worth as a person. Society determines what is considered important. For example, in America, our society has attached great value to the ability to throw a circular object through a metal hoop. Not all the skills I consider valuable are necessarily superior to those championed by the Pageant. So if you decide that being able to touch your knees to your elbows is a skill to strive for – well – who am I to say it’s not?
Anna Blech, Age 16, Grade 11, Hunter College High School, Gold Key