Feminism, Pageantry, and You: Part 2

Betsy Leimbigler

I am not your “typical” pageant girl, whatever that really means.

Oblivious, gangly 14 year old in boy’s clothing, perusing Japanese books and mags.

In my case, I’m referring to the fact that I was a pretty big tomboy as a kid and I never had dreams of being a princess as a child. I wanted to be a cop, and then a pilot, and had dreams of joining the army at one point to prove to whoever cared that I could, but ended up going to University to study international studies. I never wore makeup until I learned about it in modeling at age 17. I got into sports in high school, shunning my ballet training, ashamed of my ballet flats and pink leotards that I had been forced to wear while doing pliés like no tomorrow. But what exactly is a “typical” pageant girl? It’s a stereotype that shunts aside any other interests or sense of identity that a woman might have. The women I met in Miss Universe Canada were very ambitious and well-educated. They all had other interests and many had careers already as journalists, consultants, and lawyers.

Jetlagged in Japan at 14, wearing my favourite shoes (my brother’s) and baggy, nondescript sweater. Believe it or not, this was my get-up for many years. My face says, “yeah, I listen to Linkin Park,” and my swagga says, “I can be tough.”

I am an ardent believer in having an open mind. My concept of living as a conscientious human being is to learn and experience new things, to challenge yourself and to try things that scare you. Well, colour me purple if auditioning for Miss Universe Canada wasn’t one of the scariest things I have ever done. I was in my last semester of my undergrad degree, and I had forgotten about my application, truth be told; sent on a whim months beforehand after a friend and then another random girl I met encouraged me to apply all within weeks of one another. I gave it a shot and chuckled to myself as I pressed send.

It wasn’t just the audition or the phone interviews, or that board room interrogation with controversial questions to see how you hold up under pressure. It wasn’t just the bathing suits or the professionalism of the other girls at the very beginning that was scary. It was the moment when I got the coveted email and I realized I had become a national finalist and that I would be competing against 55 other women for this title…and what exactly that entailed.

I would be meeting all the Quebec delegates for the next 3 months, then meeting all 55 of the other girls during our sojourn in Toronto in the summer. I’d be meeting lots of new people, including our pageant coaches, and finding sponsors and working with a charity in the meantime and organizing fundraising activities and learning how to walk, dance and present ourselves on stage during rehearsals in Montreal and Toronto.

I was going to have to learn how to properly pose in a bathing suit too.

We were going to get increased media attention, so there was to be high facebook security settings and of course, absolutely no compromising pictures. The reason for this is because a professional woman representing Canada and acting as a role model is seen by the organization as being incompatible with distasteful photography.

In any case, sure, you’re funny and cool and hip and down with it if you have unflattering documentation of yourself on a social media website, but once you’re associated with a title such as Miss Canada finalist, if anyone sees that then there is outcry. One is labelled a “whore” by the world – see controversy of Miss USA 2010 Rima Fakih’s pole dancing, where photos surfaced of this pageant winner, fully clothed, dancing on a pole. It is very problematic to assume that engaging in a sport like pole-dancing is akin to drawing a huge equal sign to “being a whore.” Where did that come from? Just because she was Miss USA, she’s not allowed to dance on a pole for a friend’s charity fundraiser?

That was the truly frightening part; the questioning of how others would perceive you. Or worse…getting a brain freeze and saying something stupid or forgetting to say something vital on tv. In fact, my video interview has me briefly discussing how “football” is my favourite sport, when I obviously meant soccer, and I double face-palmed when I heard it the first time. Way to fail to reach out to my North American supporters…oops. My “most embarrassing moment” answer was not my most embarrassing moment, but an inside joke with good friends about sweaters, since I didn’t want to detail something truly embarrassing – but to me it sounds out of place in the video. It’s just so easy to miss something when you’re on set and not allowed to cut the video.

Hopefully now, my terror is more understandable. You want to challenge yourself? Try putting yourself in that position! Try attempting to open your mind to doing something like this, and venturing into the unknown. It’s not as easy as you think, which perhaps explains why some may be content to stay in the dark about what pageants are really about.

Self Doubt 

Dropping out crossed my mind at one point. I was new to this world of female competition, despite having had dance training and modeling experience. Nothing can really prepare a girl for this level of competition. I consulted a feminist professor, who encouraged me to open my mind, not to fall victim to stereotypes and to experience it in order to make up my own opinion. She was very influential. Also, my competitors were fierce, and I mean fierce. Dance-trained, some of them pageant veterans themselves, high achievers, intelligent, ambitious, accustomed to winning, and essentially afraid of nothing. This was no place for a shy, self-sacrificing girl, or a “kitten,” our coach would say while shaking his head derisively. This was competition! He wanted us to become “Tigers!” And I have to admit…I liked the idea of being perceived as a strong tiger.

56 Tigers in Toronto

Competition is always scary, and in this case it meant asserting myself in confidence and leaning heavily on exterior, perceived beauty, as well as surprising some friends who knew me as the young mega nerd from school. That ain’t me, I thought. But hell. Who am I to judge anyone if I haven’t been in their shoes?

No Ass Grabbing 

Seriously, all the people who complain about beauty pageants being what’s wrong with the world? Or the misogynistic jerks who grabbed our asses in that one club we went to, as if our sashes transformed us into walking invitations for harassment, why don’t you take a hike in our 6 inch heels? Would you look at that. I’ve become quite defensive about my pageant experience. I’m not going to lie and say everything was wonderful, because everything has two sides or more, but in my experiences, the pros outweighed the cons when comparison was applicable. When it wasn’t, it made for a good learning experience.

Major cons included one day at rehearsals when I stomped down the mirrored studio and twisted my lower back while executing a high-level power turn for the stage for dramatic effect in heels. Allow me to explain: participating in a pageant means learning all sorts of routines for the show nights. The best way to learn the routines is to draw a diagram of the stage and jot down what your coach tells you to do, since you can’t just walk on and off a stage. There is a precise, choreographed walk to certain spots on the stage complete with turns that one must execute to ensure that everyone walks the same way. And don’t forget hair flips, smiling, and showing some personality! One of the more complicated routines involved shifting weight from one hip to another, and twisting your legs quickly in order to turn around – all while in high heels. That was the one that did it in for me. An audible crack and contorted facial expression followed, and running a half marathon a week after that was akin to getting knifed in my spine every gruelling step that I took. But the pros is that it didn’t kill me and therefore made me stronger, even though my time was pretty awful.

If you close your eyes, you can handle the pain better!