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Fear Factor: A Feminist Fraud

My daughter will parade in a bikini tonight so that strangers can score her physical assets.

She is 15.

I am a hypocrite.

She and I are at the pageant hotel, where 93 teenaged girls will eat and sleep and dream of two plastic combs of a rhinestone tiara scraping hair-stiffening products from their scalps and a title of Number One.

A disproportionate number of blondes pass our luggage cart, anchored in the lobby for three hours. We wait for check-in. Closed-toed heels of taupe and suits in shades of pink, lavender and short whiz by. Each face wears either a contrived smile or a wide-eyed prelude to terror.

I am amid a super-sized middle-school clique—the one with cheerleaders and the slightly less fortunate groupies who fuel their popularity. Ali, my daughter, suddenly says, "Mom, I am so excited! Thank you for letting me come!" She hugs me. My mind reconciles itself.

A wise friend told me years ago, "You don't always have to like what your kids like, but if it's not going to hurt them, support their dreams."

Ali's dream since age three has been to perform on Broadway. Supporting that dream was not the problem. The problem was Ali's shrewd ability to tie a beauty pageant to a "Star Discovered!" headline. "Oh, please! This could be my great chance…for my career!" She knew my button's location.

"No. This is not our thing," I reminded, almost reprimanding. It was then that my friend's advice pushed its way out of dormant to active memory. Within two minutes I capitulated.

Helping with her preparations over the last two months has been enjoyable—even exciting. Nothing treaded against the grain of my beliefs. It has been about Ali.

But today, it's also about 92 other girls, focused excessively on their outsides. To be chosen as better than the others. Better at first impressions during a two minute interview? Better looking in the right swimsuit? A designer gown? I don't know whether to reflect on what now seems minute progress gained by Steinem and Friedan, or whether that reflection is a waste of time.

"You are where you are," I try to Zen. Perhaps the act of guarding $2000 worth of apparel and footwear will grant me an opportunity to be more open-minded.

The woman in charge of orientation looks neither like Kirstie Alley nor Candace Bergen, past-their-prime dictators from two of my favorite pageant movies. Ms. Executive Director could be any professional woman, smartly dressed but comfortable. Her agenda is quick and efficient: Cardinal sins resulting in immediate disqualification are proclaimed. Moms and many dads flank their daughters on red theater seats. I want to compare credit card balances and degrees of cognitive dissonance. Do they feel any qualms about the upcoming skin parade?

That evening, I ruminate in frenzy mode. What if the emcee asks Ali the question about her best moment and she answers, "Meeting the director of my favorite film." She won't remember his name, because I asked her the same question yesterday and she couldn't recall it. What if she is asked the director's name? I have no Internet access! I could call my best friend in Atlanta to surf and call me back. Is my phone charged? I forgot the red lipstick! Will Ali borrow some? Will she get herpes immediately?

My mind has left the building.

The next morning, the parade begins. Contestants look confused, confident, terrified, and awkward, and a few seem to gloat. The diversity of skin, poise, stature and wardrobe is fascinating. One girl pulls her swimsuit bottom out of her crack while doing a slow twirl for the judges. Another looks Ford-agency perfect. I think about my girl, eagerly anticipating hearing her name announced as a semi-finalist.

She doesn't hear it.

I want to think that not winning doesn't matter to me. After all, it's a social-political throwback that should have been retired along with gender segregated want ads and unequal pay for equal work.

But Ali had wanted it. Therefore, I emote, she should have won. Trying to ignore the uncomfortable grain now rubbing vigorously against my values, I capitulate once again: The truth is that the pageant would have been okay, it could have a place in the twenty-first century, had my daughter won. It is an unsettling, yet undeniable stipulation on my ideals of what makes person—female or male—Number One: Courage, creativity, compassion, cognition.

As she exits the stage door, arms full of garment bags and plastic boxes, mascara smeared from sweat and tears, Ali runs to me, kisses my cheek and squeals, "Momma, it was incredible fun. I wanna come back next year!"

Jodi's roles have finally learned to play well together: management professor and consultant, mother, social justice advocate, and writer. She has publications in several academic journals and placed second with the National Library of Poetry in 1995. A photo of Tom Robbins (hugging her!) adorns her writing wall.

Copyright © 2004 Jodi Barnes Nelson.