Monday, May 1, 2017

The Beginning of the End

This past weekend the Miss New Jersey Class of 2017 gathered for their orientation.  Saturday morning they teased their hair and glued on eyelashes, all while fighting the butterflies in their stomachs.  Maybe the butterflies were excitement to see their friends and maybe they were nervous butterflies- which number will I be?  Will I mess up my talent?  Will I fit in?  Maybe the butterflies were a result of too much caffeine in their morning coffee.

For four years, I felt those familiar butterflies as I woke up on orientation day.  This year was not a whole lot different.  As an almost-has-been, my stomach was not void of butterflies.  I have spent (almost) an entire year speaking off the cuff, giving advice, and meeting strangers in the hopes of making a good impression.  I kept wondering why, with all of this experience under my belt, was I still nervous?  Upon further consideration, I've decided that nervousness exists, not for a lack of preparation, but for an understanding of importance.  I knew that there was so much I wanted to say to these women- so many stories I could tell and so much advice to give.  How could I possibly explain to them what this year has been like and how could I help them best prepare to take over my job?  The truth is, no one can prepare for becoming Miss New Jersey.
As amazingly talented, intelligent, and articulate all of the contestants are, none of them are fully prepared to be Miss New Jersey.  That sounds harsh- let me explain.

I say this, not as an insult, but as a fact.  That is, because there are days when I'm still not fully prepared to be Miss New Jersey.  No one can prepare for the unpredictability and the pressure that comes with being a state titleholder.  Each day brings a new challenge and the reality is that even after 315 days of service, I'm still striving to be a better Miss New Jersey every day.  
One of the greatest lessons I've learned this year was understanding that you can't please everyone.  Being someone who is simultaneously a perfectionist, control freak, people pleaser, justice seeker, and peace keeper, makes for quite the internal struggle.  I'm the type of person who yells at someone for not using their turn signal and then feels guilty because they might have already been having a bad day.

This type of internal conflict has come up often throughout my reign.  I struggle to be the Miss New Jersey that everyone likes and the Miss New Jersey that makes a difference- I used to think that you could be both.  I know now that making a difference sometimes requires a bit of discomfort and a lot of courage.  Every time I decide that I'm going to stand my ground and appease the justice seeker in me, I have to accept the fact that the people pleaser in me won't be happy.  So where is the happy medium?  As one of my Miss America Class of 2017 sisters said, you must be 100% fire and 100% at peace...fighting for what you want and what you deem "right," but understanding that the mere fact that you've done that is enough and you can't please everyone.  I think no one can prepare for being a state titleholder because every new obstacle gives you new insight that helps you evolve and exceed your own 100%.
That being said, I looked out at a crowd of women on Saturday knowing that they have the determination and grit to take on the unpredictability, the internal conflict, and the unforgettable experiences.  I saw difference makers, people pleasers, justice seekers, perfectionists, comedians,  introverts, and everyone in between.  The truth is, you cannot prepare to be Miss New Jersey, but you can strive each day to be your best self.  To me, accepting and nurturing all of the aspects of your personality is the only way to do that.  While closing this chapter of my life will be nostalgic and scary, I know with absolute certainty that it has had an irrevocable impact on my life.  Here's to another month and a half of discovery and learning!

Monday, January 30, 2017

Confidently Beautiful (& so much more)

       At last night’s Miss Universe pageant, Miss Canada secured a spot in the “top 9,” which allowed her to compete in both swimsuit and eveningwear.  She modeled a hot pink bikini, smiling all the while.
       The emcee enlightened both the live and television audiences about Siera Bearchell, announcing that her family suffered a tragic house fire years ago and that she is currently in her final year of law school.  Despite Siera’s obvious ability to overcome obstacles, her clear intelligence, and the mere fact that she is competing on an International stage, some still found it appropriate to criticize her physique (criticize seems too polite a word- let’s go with verbally attack).  They berated her, calling her “lazy,” “underprepared,” and claimed she had no business on the Miss Universe stage.  Besides what I see as a clear violation of human decency, these comments are a direct attack on the progress the pageant community has made in the last 100 (ish) years. 
       For most of my life, I have defended my involvement in pageantry, citing women empowerment, increases in confidence, scholarship opportunity, speaking experience, friendship, and overall self-betterment.  I feel offended by folks (including former and current titleholders) who claim that because Siera chose to enter a “beauty pageant,” she should expect the aforementioned criticism.  While I can’t speak to why Siera personally chose to compete in the Miss Universe Organization, I like to think that most (if not all) of my fellow pageant competitors participate for reasons that transcend the acknowledgment of physical perfection.  To assert that someone deserves to be publically shamed for her appearance (which by the way is healthy and in my opinion, gorgeous) simply because she chose to partake in the pageant is narrow-minded and presumptuous.  To believe that she cannot be "spectacular" or "inspiring" because she is not "unattainably beautiful," is actually heartbreaking.
       Yes- I realize that swimsuit is a portion of the competition and therefore, should be taken seriously by all contestants.  I have donned a bikini and modeled for more than ten separate panels of judges in the last few years.  
Photo: Richard Krauss Photography
       I understand that physical fitness and personal health is an important aspect of leading a successful life.  That being said, I argue that psychological and emotional health is equally as important.  Finding a balance between an appealing physical appearance and a positive mental state is not easy.  I have been there.  I have struggled to find equilibrium.  It is not my place to critique the choices one makes to achieve their ideal balance.  Pageant judges in the Miss America Organization are instructed to objectively observe and make conclusions about a contestant’s swimsuit presentation using the following instructions:

"The Lifestyle and Fitness in Swimsuit competition is designed to see how well the contestant maintains a lifestyle of good physical, emotional and intellectual health.  The contestant’s sense of confidence and presence, as well as her drive, energy, charisma and composure are to be likewise considered."

       Please note that the Miss America Organization script in no way posits that a contestant should achieve any particular shape nor should she subscribe to a socially accepted version of the female figure.
     While I have never competed in the Miss Universe Organization myself, I did some digging to find this response to the frequently asked question, “What is the Miss Universe Organization looking for in a contestant?”  Their answer is as follows: “A contestant much be confident.  She must be able to demonstrate authenticity and articulate her ambitions as a titleholder.  The competitions showcase and evaluate the contestant’s aspirations and are judged by accomplished business leaders, philanthropists, and public figures.”
       Where does the MUO itself suggest that their titleholder must meet some pre-conceived notions of beauty?  I’m not denying that there isn’t an unwritten understanding that beauty impacts the competition results.  I just cannot comprehend how anyone defends hurtful comments with the argument that a person's physique determines how beautiful they are.  Don’t we want more for our society and our fellow females?  I’m proud of how far the MUO has come in promoting their contestants’ accomplishments and goals, independent of their body types.  Miss Canada’s placement as a semi-finalist means that judges took into account that not all of her bones were visible, and still saw her as a "top 9" contestant.  Perhaps they took into account that Siera tailored her health regimen for what best suits her desires- mentally and physically. 
       During my interview at Miss America I was asked how I felt about a “plus-size model,” Ashley Graham, gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Edition.  I explained that I’m glad SI is promoting another body image and letting women know that all shapes and sizes are beautiful.  My answer was followed up with another question asking something to the effect of, “but don’t you think she promotes a negative idea of health to young girls?”  I replied that because I cannot accurately predict her personal diet and workout regimen by simply looking at her body in a magazine, I had no business in commenting on her health.  I could eat the same food and participate in the same workouts as 10 other women and we would all look different.  She promotes an image of acceptance and self-love and I can get on board with that.  Was this an answer the judges wanted to hear?  Perhaps not.  I still stand by it.  If Miss Canada feels confident in her swimsuit and found her personal balance of maintaining psychological well being while striving for physical health, who are we to comment?  The judges at Miss Universe saw her beauty and her positive light and they rewarded her for it.  It doesn’t mean that the public should feel free to call her “lazy” or “undeserving,” just like it doesn’t mean the contestants of smaller stature shouldn’t be labeled “anorexic,” and muscular contestants shouldn’t be deemed “too bulky.”  
       We are all fighting an internal battle- pageant girls are not immune.  Think before you type.  It’s a simple phrase that I teach to schoolchildren.  Treat others the way you wish to be treated- regardless of whether you’re speaking out loud or typing on a keyboard.  Understand that the women on your television screen are living, breathing human beings.  They deserve to be treated with compassion; regardless of what competition they join.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Lessons Learned

       Tomorrow, we crown a new Miss New Jersey's Outstanding Teen.  This is significant and exciting to me for various reasons.  First and foremost, I'm elated to have the opportunity to form a relationship with a new "little sister!"  I've always taken the mentorship aspect of the Miss America Organization very seriously and look forward to getting to know our new titleholder- her strengths, talents, thoughts, quirks, sense of humor, favorite ice cream flavor (obviously), and so much more.  I feel so strongly about bonding with my teen counterpart because so many others did the same for me.  This brings me to the other reason for my excitement- 8 years ago, I was that young impressionable girl.  I won Miss NJOT when I was just 15 years old.  I looked to local, state, and national MAO titleholders for inspiration and advice.  I was guided through some extremely difficult years by women who were confident, poised, and kind.  Crowning a new teen reminds me of the journey I went on so many years ago.
       My years in the MAOTeen and MAO pageant world have shaped me.  The people I have met and experiences I've had gave me a solid foundation on which to build my adult life.  I was recently reminded just how much the NJOTeen title prepared me for the Miss New Jersey title when I saw this picture photographed and posted by Richard Krauss:
       I realized that while my ability to tease my hair (thankfully) improved, my core values and ambitions have remained.  Below are just a few of the things I've learned in my experiences as both Miss New Jersey's Outstanding Teen and Miss New Jersey.

Your fan club will grow- sometimes exponentially.  Remember those who have stuck with you through it all and appreciate those who join along the way.

White shorts are probably a bad choice, but you will inevitably wear them for the toe dip.  I can remember how honored I felt to actually participate in the Miss New Jersey tradition- I never imagined that I might someday get to do it again.  Keep your hopes high and dreams big.

Packing never changes.  Packing is always impossible and stressful.  Learn to accept over-packing and carry heavy luggage ;)

 Always take the opportunity to chat with Miss America- she will leave you feeling awe-inspired and proud to be part of such a prestigious organization.

It's never too early to start visualizing your dreams- don't let anything discourage you from pursuing your goal.

Adventure.  Experience.  Laugh in between.

Never take for granted the people who stay by your side.  Realize how much they add to your life and appreciate all they do to keep you sane (and in Sally's case, laughing).

Never let go of the post you're meant to hold on a float- it isn't there for decoration.  Also, realize how  cool it is that you get to take part in such an historic event.

Learn how wonderful it is to represent the community that raised you.  I was asked multiple times if I planned to compete in North Carolina once I became eligible for the "Miss" division and began attending High Point University.  I knew I was a Jersey girl at heart and am forever grateful I stuck around.

 For goodness sake, learn to love your body.  Do push-ups because you like a challenge or because opening the pickle jar by yourself is pretty cool.  I don't care why - just take care of yourself mentally and physically.  The older you get, the harder and more important it is.  Abs may fade, but self love will never get old.

Never (I repeat) NEVER let competition distract you from the most important aspect of the MAO- sisterhood.  I have some of the fondest memories from Miss America's Outstanding Teen 2010 with Savvy girl.......she's Miss America now.......and I saw it happen on stage at Boardwalk Hall.  These friendships that began when were just such babies will last a lifetime.  Cherish them.

Learn how to lose.  Understand that you can perform at 100% and still go home without a crown.  Be happy for the woman who represents you and lift her up.  You'll never know what it truly means to win if you can't first learn to lose with grace.

Soak in every moment.  Before you know it, your competitive pageant career will be over.  The memories and friendships will last forever- nurture them and be grateful.