Jeff Ward: What if They Gave a Beauty Pageant, But No Contestants Showed Up?

Oh, that's right! Now they call 'em "scholarship" pageants.

When we aren’t discussing road biking or running, my good friend Rob Kelley and I frequently end up talking about our children. It’s what boring middle-aged white men do. But what makes our ongoing discussion so fascinating is that Rob has two young girls, while I have two boys. And those conversations almost always end with the same old line, “Thank God I have boys.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to have a daughter. It’s just that, given a choice between the challenges of parenting boys or girls, it’s no contest. I’ll take the boys every time. I know raising sons is no picnic, but what this culture consistently throws at young girls truly boggles the mind.

Every time I walk my dog past that middle-school bus stop, I cringe. Can we really call those things shorts? Considering the lack of leg, I think “exterior panties” might be a better term. Before you know it, volleyball shorts will be the new fashion statement. (They don’t make the boys team wear those “shorts,” do they!)

The cooler days are equally as frightening. Do sixth-grade girls really need to wear jeans that look like they’re airbrushed on? One false move and it’s gonna look a lot like a semi losing an overinflated tire on I-90.

If they’re not wafer thin, if they’re not blonde, if they’re not tall, if they’re not dressed like everyone else, if they’re not classically beautiful, if they’re not “showing what they got,” if they’re not feminine enough … Barbie is supposed to be a toy, not an ideal.

The really sad thing is, we invite that constant claptrap right into our own family rooms. TV shows, magazines, clothing catalogs and web site commercials all contribute to the creation of an utterly unrealistic body image that’s supposed to be far more important than who these girls are.

Is it any wonder that eating disorders are at epidemic levels among teenage girls? And it’s understanding the enormity of the task involved in counteracting that media onslaught that makes me feel so sorry for Rob. Never one to throw in the towel, he tells me the key is to teach his girls self respect from the start.

And he’s right. Throwing our hands up and screaming “the sky is falling” won’t get us anywhere, nor will half-hearted, piecemeal attempts to combat these self-esteem attacks. It’s only when, from the beginning, we teach our daughters that they’re more than just an assembly of body parts that we’ll get anywhere.

I’ve certainly seen the cost of failing to teach them that kind of self respect.

You’ve seen the commercials. A buxom young woman in a low-cut plaid bra “busting” out of her half white blouse accompanied by a kilt slung so low that the male clientele are fervently praying for the slightest wardrobe malfunction.

Yes! We have a Tilted Kilt right here in Oakbrook Terrace, and its predecessor, Hooters, exists in Downers Grove. I can only imagine how those job interviews must go. “Young lady! Please tell me: What two qualities make you a Hooters girl?”

I wouldn’t go as far as Evanston in essentially banning these patronizing establishments, but I’d like to think that any young woman who came across one of those waitress want-ads would dismiss it just as quickly as last year’s fashions.

But aside from some half-hearted attempts, at least these "strip clubs lite" abandon all pretext. It’s another pretentious farce that takes place every year in St. Charles that really annoys the crud out of me.

These folks think that by replacing the word “beauty” with “scholarship,” it fixes everything. But it doesn’t. The fact that the Sept. 4 through 5 Miss Illinois “Scholarship” Pageant tries to legitimize itself in that way belies the fact that even they don’t believe their own press releases.

They’ll tell you it’s all about a college education, that each of these young women espouses a cause, that it teaches them poise and confidence and that talent plays a significant role. But in the end, they make ‘em parade around on stage in high-heeled shoes and a skimpy bikini.

There certainly aren’t any full-size young women with “great personalities” in the Miss Illinois Pageant. And let me tell you, when you challenge the “pretty ladies” and their “organization,” it ain’t pretty. It’s always amusing to get those poignant e-mails from former contestants. I’m surprised they manage to find even one Miss Congeniality in the entire bunch.

And that’s what really drives me nuts. Aside from the fact it’s worse than Hooters, I don’t understand how any self-respecting young woman would choose to participate in such a travesty, much less defend it. If Gloria Steinem were dead, she’d be spinning in her grave.

Having already come under online attack from one particularly excitable pageant participant, Mokena Patch editor Paul Dailing offered this defense, “When you were standing on stage in your bikini and high heels, did you ever think to yourself, ‘What does this have to do with college?’ ”

Despite all the excuses and propaganda, in the end, the Miss Illinois folks may as well have someone on stage stamping USDA Prime on each contestant’s bikini-clad butt, because that’s what it really is.

We need to teach young girls to forgo the ridiculous fashions that objectify them. Trust me. Clothing manufactures will catch on quicker than you think. We need to tell women’s magazine editors they’re not helping. We need to turn off the TV. We need to teach young women to shoot just a little higher than the Tilted Kilt.

As the mother of a remarkable young woman I know once told her, “Don’t stand on the sidelines and cheer for someone. Be the one they cheer for.”

But most of all, we need to instill in our daughters the kind of self esteem that wouldn’t permit them to even consider participating in an absurd anachronism like a beauty pageant.

In the meantime, I’ll keep praying for Rob.

Samantha Liss September 16, 2011 at 07:34 PM
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Joseph R. Martan September 16, 2011 at 07:52 PM
Jeff: Really, you sound like a fellow who years ago asked some pageant participant out on a date and she shot you down unmercifully. Don't like pageants - don't follow them, don't go to them. Personally, I lost any respect for them years ago after a Miss America pageant. The very pretty - and obviously brainy - redhead from, I think, Alabama was asked a rather suggestive and inappropriate question by one of the male judges during the final five competition. She put him in his place oh-so-nicely with such a sweet smile - and she ended up fourth runner-up. Unfortunately, we still live in a society that places too much emphasis on what a minority deems physically attractive - and it cuts across both sexes. There are plenty of us males who could point out the hypocrisy practiced by many females when it comes to choosing between an average fellow with brains or talent in a particular field versus some pretty-boy jock who has difficulty putting two sentences together. Don't get me started.
Roger September 17, 2011 at 02:55 PM
Jeff, I have to agree with you on this one. It's saddened me over the years to see how little effect the Women's Lib movement has had on the bulk of our society. No doubt there are more opportunities for girls than there ever were (tho they still make less than a man at most jobs) but this seems to make little difference for so many of our young ladies. Obviously it starts at home. It's beyond my understanding what mothers are thinking of when they encourage their daughter's involvement in some of these activities. I won't go to another youth football game after seeing sub-teen girls bumping and grinding their way through cheerleader routines. They were far more explicit than I've seen on any high school or college level. (I suspect someone will eventually come up with a way to incorporate poles into the routines.) No doubt I'll be called the dirty old man instead of admitting that this is innately lascivious behavior.
Chicagobluesgirl September 17, 2011 at 05:09 PM
Jeff: I believe your comment: "I think there are better ways of building poise and confidence than by sending young women up on stage to be judged primarily on their looks." sums it up. And yes, parents have an important role to make sure our daughters understand that being appreciated or noticed for what is on one's inside is what matters (and what lasts a lifetime!) rather than to focus on outer appearances which, without heavy monetary investment, lasts only a few short years.
Stephanie Norberte September 23, 2011 at 06:30 AM
Jeff, Please do your research before posting about pageants in general. You have made an incredible amount of generalizations with this article and your responses to other posters who have made good points and have attempted to challenge your close-minded and outdated view on pageantry. Bottom line: not all pageants showcase facial and physical beauty as the main factor in choosing their titleholder. You are mainly referring to the MAO and MUO pageant systems without any regard to the Collegiate, NAM systems etc. I see you have clarified that you are referring to the Miss America Organization in your response to Rich, but he is definitely not referring to the same system you are talking about.


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