Feminism, Pageantry, and You: Part 3

Betsy Leimbigler

You simply can’t judge anyone – least of all Miss Universe Canada finalists – without being an insider.

I know, because I was an outsider for 20 years of my life, and then just like that I became an insider.

The stereotypical outsider view sees pageant girls as fake girls, and may see the organization as generally anti-feminist. The girls must think they’re “all that”. They must be rather superficial, and overconfident to want to show themselves on a stage like that.  Some may even call it degrading. Some outsides might say, “I could do that if I wanted to.”

This bright young law graduate and I, en route to an event in Toronto.

My insider view now takes offense to those assumptions. I remember thinking, “what have I gotten myself into? I learned a lot of dance moves recently as well as how to smile even when my feet are killing me, all for this stage production. Now heavens to Betsy, don’t trip! This is actually fun! And absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.” The organizers were extremely respectful and their coaching on how to walk on a stage was meant to emphasize beauty and class, not mock or humiliate women in any way, shape or form.

The girls were wonderful, many of them. I met some of my very good friends through this pageant, when we realized we had a lot in common. I met some ladies who were feisty, racy, and full of personality. We learned to stick together and support each other. We learned to help each other in rehearsals. This one girl, a gorgeous math whiz, called me “the overachiever;” I smiled and called it right back to her, because it was true.

Some of the participants had done pageants before, and some of us were new. We were hoping to get picked, curious how this would all work out, we were on our best behaviour – no smoking or drinking in public, no texting at the dinners because it was rude. Tension increased. Some of us fell ill. I caught a terrible bug near the end, but stuck through the green phlegm coming out of my facial orifices. Rehearsals were mind-numbingly boring for me – dance steps. Step pause turn pause shimmy step pause. We frustrated our poor dance instructor, because we talked too much and sometimes we screwed up the dance moves.

I don’t know if anyone has ever called choreographed dancing easy, but it’s definitely not.

Winning Best Hair: Beyond Vanity 

I got a surprise at the end of the competition – while I didn’t win the crown or make it to the top 5 for that matter, I got the award for best hair. This goes beyond vanity: I’d been asked to cut my hair so many times in modeling, and I even had some of it lopped off at several shoots, until I decided to stay firm in my resolve that if I wanted to change my looks, it would be because I wanted to, not because someone else wanted me to. A victory had been won: by not changing myself for someone else, I received recognition.

The crowning happened that night on the stage; I don’t know the winner super well, but I know she’ll love it, and I was truly happy for her, if not completely deluded because of the exhaustion. We went to the coronation ball on our big party bus. I couldn’t wait to get back to my hotel room – I felt drunk, although I was totally sober – I was high on emotions and the atmosphere made my head spin. Back to the hotel from the party bus which was quieter than it usually was, after what felt like an eternity, I was shaking with illness, cold, starved literally for food, and figuratively for the freedom of experiencing going out without chaperones for a change. We went to the penthouse in our colourful pageants gowns and scarfed pizza at 1am, grateful to the organizers who provided us with the carbs, exhausted after so many days of rehearsals and so many shows.

I remember looking around the stage after the theatrical crowning and seeing all these tired, smiling, stage-makeup-covered, accomplished women. 55 of us hadn’t won a crown, but what we had won was in the long and arduous journey, as clichéd as that sounds. We changed our lives without even realizing it. We worked hard. Our friends and coworkers don’t really seem to care whether we got a crown or not in the end – we were finalists. We journeyed together and took on Toronto together, we faced our fears, and pulled through.

Look Beyond The Stereotype

To those who claim to be representing all feminists and who sneer at the concept of pageantry or something like Miss Universe Canada: This pageant helped me achieve my goal of becoming more involved in my community. I found amazing support in ottawa’s fashion community along with lots of other sponsors who helped me organize a charity fundraiser for SOS Children’s Villages. It also helped many of us boost our self-confidence as young women. It certainly got me thinking about societal perceptions and feminism. We all have rational choices in life, and I chose to do this. Some women use this as a basis to launch or enhance a modeling career. Some are superstars in acting, or award-winning dancers, or journalists, or successful in other parts of life. Some of us use it to advance charity work. We each have our own thing. But in the end, trying something new, opening my mind and challenging my own preconceived notions allowed me to learn a lot about people and about myself, and that’s more than enough reason.

Look beyond the stereotype. Think past what society or mass media has told you about pageants. It’s frustrating to have people make assumptions about your brain or to have to work twice as hard as everyone else to prove that you are, in fact, not just a ditz. It’s frustrating to hear criticism of the action of having participated in a pageant, it’s shocking to realize that some people are narrow-minded enough to lose respect or a sense of legitimacy towards another person for having done something they label as a meat market. Doing a pageant does not have to totally constrain a girl to a specific category in the world; it is rather a learning experience that can help round out a person and make them stronger.

Face Your Fears 

If there is a young girl out there who is curious, I would suggest challenging your fears and consulting people you admire regarding feminism and then to make a choice regarding whether or not to participate. You must know what you are getting into as well as the time and commitment a pageant entails. There is nothing wrong with women wanting to look presentable while equipping themselves with the tools of professionalism for later in life. Training for a pageant is hard-core and it’s showbusiness. I believe what that professor I asked told me – you can be a feminist and do a lot of things. The fact that I participated did not, as I had initially and ignorantly feared, suddenly transform me into an anti-feminist. In fact, it made me more interested in feminism and women’s studies.

What we did was learn to embrace and own our power and stage presence and put on a show that involved evening gowns, answering questions on the spot, and providing an entertaining show for mostly friends and family, pageant enthusiasts, and judges. We did this together. We harmed no one, but we improved ourselves and we all became filled with a bit more love and a bit less judgement. One night I will always vividly remember was spent discussing some very personal experiences with my favourite contestants. We bonded over tears at dinnertime recounting the horrors of a few bad experiences in modeling, and realized how similar we were.

Yes, a woman can be both pretty and smart. No, it’s not a grown-up version of toddlers and tiaras. Learn what it’s really all about before judging someone and applying one’s rhetoric to something one may only know superficially, and do not go by what the mass media tells you. It’s so important to learn to contextualize the meaning of something that can be labelled as a relic of the past. Pageants aren’t perfect, but if you enter one for the right reasons, then they can definitely be a good experience. In the context of feminism, it is important to re-think, do one’s research and be wary of not imposing ideals on another, but to rather try and understand from an insider’s point of view.

Amen, sisters.