There are probably very few of us who don't know the old Miss America song, even if we didn't annually watch all those lovely women competing for the title of most beautiful woman in the United States. I remember sitting cross legged on the floor, eyes glued to the television set, picking and choosing who was the most beautiful of them all and waiting to see if the judges agreed. There was just something glamorous and exotic about beauty pageants.
In the decades since my childhood, watching pageants became a guilty pleasure, as they were often reviled as exploitive and anti-feminist. Only recently have pageants gained a reputation as being a wonderful experience for young women along with the bonus of offering some very hefty scholarships.
Dreams Come True
When Tami Farrell from Oregon won the 2003 title of Miss Teen USA, it was a dream come true for a very self-confident and savvy young woman. Farrell, who turned 18 this year, was one of those young girls glued to the television and is now the personification of dreams come true for a lot of aspiring girls.
"Ever since I was a little girl, I remember watching the pageant on TV and dreaming of someday being up there on that stage," says Farrell. "It wasn't until my freshman year of high school that the pageant was really introduced to me."
Farrell's dance coach at her high school, who was also a family friend, once won the Miss Oregon USA pageant and encouraged her to try for the teen competition. Farrell participated in the Teen USA system for the next two years and each time placed in the top 10. She won the Miss Teen Oregon Pageant on her third try.
Farrell recommends the experience for other teens and young girls because of the opportunities you have to speak out on issues important to you. "It can be a way to really get to know yourself," says Farrell. "Not only do I get to spend the next year supporting and encouraging my peers, but I have also found and made new lifelong friendships during my two weeks in Palm Springs."
Through the Eyes of the Judges
Though Farrell only participated in a few pageants before winning her title, there are other girls who spend their childhood performing. By the time they're teenagers many are long-time veterans. Whether this is good or not depends largely on how the parents treat the experience and the personality of the girls involved. Some girls are adversely affected by being judged, while others seem to thrive on it.
"I think the issue of being judged can make anyone feel a little uncomfortable, but I realized that a different day, a different set of judges there can be a totally different outcome," says Farrell. "I just participated in the competition to have a good time and I was myself."
Some girls are natural-born performers and treat pageants as one big performance. Mary Dixon Lebeau, mother of five, from West Deptford, N.J., allowed her daughter to participate in pageants when she was a preteen.
"She had always been a performer type," says Lebeau. Her daughter was simultaneously involved in theater, dance and gymnastics. "I think the pageants were enjoyable for her because she was able to perform her tap routine in front of a lot of people."
Lebeau was very careful of the pageants she allowed her daughter participate in. She wanted the experience to be positive for her even if it wasn't something she was personally interested in.
"Personally, I am not a pageant 'type,'" says Lebeau. "But then again, I'm not Courtney. She enjoys the look-at-me aspects of things, while I've always been a behind-the-scenes player."
If your preteen or teenage daughter is interested in pageants, Lebeau suggests that you make sure the pageants you enter are friendly ones. "Not all pageants are positive experiences, and even if your daughter wins, it may not be a good thing, because sometimes they may only reinforce feminine stereotypes," says Lebeau. "There are red flags everywhere. If you have to spend too much money on clothes, lessons or hairdos, then it's probably not a just-for-fun situation. I know women who invest a lot in these pageants. My daughter won in a borrowed gown and a sportswear outfit bought at a consignment shop ... but I know there are some pageants where this attire would be frowned upon."
- Your attitude about it is everything. Have an attitude of fun and your daughter will too.
- Be supportive, but not overbearing. Teens, especially, enjoy encouragement, but dislike feeling manhandled. Allow them to make some choices about what they will wear and what they will perform in the talent competition.
- Don't bankrupt the family. The more money your child sees you spending on the pageant, the more pressure they will feel to perform well. This subtracts from their enjoyment of the experience.
- Help them to feel comfortable with their makeup, hairstyle and clothes – you can find low-cost or free experts in department stores. By helping your teen feel more confident in how she looks, the more likely she is to be herself and have a positive experience.
- Steer your daughter clear of piranhas. Most pageants have a stage mom or two that need to be avoided at all costs. Most moms in pageants are very nice, but one piranha can ruin the experience for your child.
"I believe that the title of being Miss Teen USA is going to be a
wonderful experience that not only gives me a microphone to be heard, but a
platform to spread the issues that we, as teens, face everyday," says
Farrell. With a little care, caution and a sense of fun, you and your teen can
both enjoy the pageant experience. She may get to travel, meet some
wonderful people and try different things. And isn't that a part of growing
"I believe that the title of being Miss Teen USA is going to be a wonderful experience that not only gives me a microphone to be heard, but a platform to spread the issues that we, as teens, face everyday," says Farrell.
With a little care, caution and a sense of fun, you and your teen can both enjoy the pageant experience. She may get to travel, meet some wonderful people and try different things. And isn't that a part of growing up?