Growing up in the South, there were a few things that my hometown took very seriously—football, hunting season, prom, and beauty pageants. Pageants were a sort of rite of passage for anyone who wanted official, irrefutable recognition of their beauty. If a glittering, precipitous tiara graced your trophy shelf, outshining tennis medals and extracurricular participation plaques, the verdict was in—you were undeniably beautiful.
Anyone who exemplified even the slightest glimmer of charm was goaded to participate. If you were pretty, why wouldn’t you want the title and the silky sash to prove it?
One year, my dance class was scheduled to perform a tap number during a break at a beauty pageant in the area. I arrived at a local high school with my mom by my side and a costume that flaunted decorative safety pins tucked eagerly away in my dance bag. Through the doors I could see a flutter of pastel; a lineup of nearly identical tiny babies adorned in candy colored layers of fluffy fabric were being paraded about by beaming mothers before a panel of judges. As we approached the front desk, I smiled explaining that I was performing. “You have such a pretty smile!” The woman behind the desk cooed. “You should do pageants!” Admittedly I was flattered that someone thought a mere fleeting flash of teeth made me worthy of vying for a sparkly crown and the revered title of Miss-something-or other-of-someplace. Shy and gawky, it was something I had never considered. The idea of concrete validation was, in the gloomy high school halls, at least somewhat alluring. But later, I wondered, even if I were pretty, why was all the ceremony and formality necessary to solidify it simply because someone found my nervous smile pleasant?
The whole glittery charade was foreign to me. I couldn’t fathom grooming myself to such perfection, down to a calculated walk that glided flawlessly across shiny stage floors.
I began to see beauty as something you wore, not something you were.
Those who dexterously wielded makeup brushes, or were wizards with the curling wand had a substantial advantage over those who sorted through cosmetic cases with less finesse. When I no longer felt satisfied with simply throwing my hair in a low ponytail and slapping on copious coats of disgustingly glittery lipgloss, I looked to elevate my routine to the next level. My mother, who has always been a makeup minimalist, was not the overflowing fountain of makeup knowledge that I wanted her to be. I was unfairly annoyed with her because that was something that I had come to believe that a woman should be able to do. Shouldn’t that be part of her womanly duties? A skill that should be mastered and passed on to her daughter like a valuable heirloom? From spectating sporting events to attending church services, I saw that getting properly dolled up was a crucial component of the preparation process.
Where the hair is higher than the heels and the smiles are sweeter than the tea, glamour shots are more important than freshman yearbook photos and beautiful Southern belles are expected to groom themselves to pristine perfection. Women in the South are often expected to appear charming and beautiful yet in some calculated, practiced way, with beauty pageants presenting a lineup of the purest female specimens—poised and polished, immaculately glossy, executing every portion of the performance with tailored perfection. The Southern belle archetype and this pageant ideal go hand in hand, each inspiring an antique pursuit of beautiful delicacy and frilly refinement intrinsically linked with enduring romanticized notions of southern beauty and femininity.
I knew married women who went to bed as beautiful and as unchanging (yet a trifle less natural) as the surrounding mountains, an unwavering monolith of powder and contour, they admitted in hushed tones to sleeping still sporting full faces of makeup so as not to shatter the polished image of themselves that they had crafted. Even the husbands who slept by their sides were not allowed to see beyond the walls of the manicured masquerade.
Such a carefully constructed facade creates a barrier, an impenetrable emotional screen. Pretty is an important and practiced trade. Paper-doll girls that I had known-but-not-really-known for years greeted me during smalltown run-ins with lines like, “You look sooo pretty,” even when I was harridly shopping for groceries with my mother in my ugly brown church pants with the lazily taped hems. I never knew what it meant. It seemed like it had to mean something else because such rehearsed pleasantries always felt too stiff and well-polished, like a favorite phrase routinely dusted off to banish the silence of casual market encounters, a more flattering stand-in for comments on the weather or maybe some kind of shiny secret code that I wasn’t getting.
As someone who’s naturally guarded, someone whose instinct is to believe that the less you tell the safer you are, I have to allow myself—sometimes force myself—to be vulnerable. For me. And though I’ve certainly come to appreciate the empowering qualities of the perfect deep berry lip shade, I have also come to embrace the sheer power of a bare face, a raw unpolished honesty, and the freedom and peace of mind that comes with it. It is a jarring ideal in contrast with the ever present, sometimes archaic portrait of the carefully preened damsel that I grew up with.
Still influenced by rustically enchanting Southern belle ideals, beauty pageants remain an unwavering column in the wrap-around porch of Southern culture. It is a mastered artistry that pervades the daily way of life.