“Beauty pageants build girls’ confidence,” the pageant coordinator warbled, a perfect smile plastered on her perfectly made-up face as she wobbled on sky-high floral heels surrounded by a cloud of Chanel 5. It was all I could do not to giggle.

Now I know that many of you may have participated in pageants. Some may have their daughters, step-daughters or grand-daughters (or sons) in pageants. And some swear up-and-down that pageants are wonderful, character building events.

But that’s not what I’ve observed. In fact, I see pageantry as an incubator for narcissism.

Here’s why.

Once Upon A Time…

…back in 2012, I had the opportunity to sorta’ be a pageant mom.

Now, they say that “clothes don’t make the woman” but that is not true in pageants. Unfortunately, the girl I was helping didn’t have her diamanté pageant dress along. So we were working at a disavantage right from the start. The best we had was a gray bridesmaids dress, the skirt covered in small stains. I spent the afternoon before the pageant plying Tide pen and wet washcloth on the stains, but it was hopeless. As long as she kept moving, we hoped the judges wouldn’t notice. And surely, if the claptrap about pageants were actually true, her smile, her performance, her beauty, her innate glibness, her poise and her confidence would trump any defect in costuming. Right!?

Finally, evening came and it was time for the pageant. Oh, but you weren’t allowed into the audience unless you paid up…even if you were family. Pay up or ship out. We paid…and it was spendy. 

The audience was full of pageant moms, pageant dads, siblings, friends and past beauty queens. Well past, by the look of some of them. But they were still strutting their crepey, over-tanned stuff. Perhaps “strutting” is an exaggeration. “Shuffling their stuff” might be more accurate because they could barely walk in their 5″ Jimmy Choo knock-offs. My ears popped just watching them wobble along.

As the pageant started, the air was thick with perfume. My husband sneezed and made an embarrassingly loud comment about people who “spray on an entire bottle of shit after their shower.” I nudged him, waffling between embarrassment and total agreement. I would’ve liked to take a sniff of pure air from his oxygen bottle.

Our contestant did great! She had the choreography for the group performance down cold. She spoke eloquently off-the-cuff during her introduction. She smiled sweetly. She applauded gracefully. She nailed it!

Unfortunately, she didn’t have a prayer. We watched in disbelief as the homeliest girl on the stage was crowned, accepting the tiara perched high atop yards and yards of greasy, pimply forehead, with an un-excited “of course” attitude. And we watched as a catty girl snagged “Miss Congeniality.” The stage was clogged with much prettier, much nicer girls…all of them “losers.” Later, the truth came out.

After it was all over, our girl cried and cried. Absolutely devastated. Distraught. Not only had she lost, but the other girls had been nasty to her backstage. “And pageants are supposed to build confidence!?!” I thought with disgust. We took her out to dinner, but food can’t heal a broken heart.

“It was a funny thing,” she said later. “We rehearsed all afternoon in jeans. And during rehearsal they crowned the same girls who were crowned after we competed in ballgowns.”

Funny, indeed. Rigged is the word we’re looking for. And at the expense of sensitive, sweet teenage girls’ self-esteem. It was absolutely unconscionable.

Mom or Daughter?

After that dreadful experience, I watched a lot of Toddlers and Tiaras, trying to figure out the unspoken, hidden dynamic behind pageantry.

In the case of small children, the mother is nearly always the driving force. Sometimes, she’s an ex pageant girl herself. More often, she couldn’t win a pageant if her life depended on it and she’s living vicariously through her children. Their win, is her win. Their loss wreaks havoc on the mom’s self-esteem.

It’s the mother’s self-esteem that needs boosting, not the child’s. The fact that she’s willing for her child to suffer the agony of hours of practice plus shaving, waxing, plucking, curling, making-up, false eyelashes, acrylic nails, a flipper (false teeth), etc. when all they really want to do is make mud pies, shows the extent of the mother’s neediness, the mother’s selfishness, the mother’s low self-esteem. That’s why the sparkle and vivacity is missing when the child performs on stage. They’re miserable…and too often yelled at afterwards for “not trying hard enough.” How cruel!

Sometimes girls choose to go into pageantry of their own volition. But why? The tiaras, crowns, sashes and even scholarships are secondary. No, they choose to compete to boost their self-esteem. It’s natural for teens to need a boost to their confidence. But it seems to me that pageantry is the worst possible way to get it. If there’s a lot of competition, there’s a good chance you won’t win…further destroying what little confidence you have.

But if you do win, it’s almost worse. For all their talk about being “beautiful inside,” c’mon! We all know it’s about the clothes, make-up, hair, figure and facial beauty of the contestant. (If it weren’t, the test would be to write an essay…not parade in a skimpy two-piece bathing suit!) The winner knows it’s her outer appearance that won. She can never let her hair down. Never go make-up free. Never gain a pound. Her self-worth is completely visual…and that is a hard cross to bear. She’s only “loved” for how she looks. As fragile as a sugar sculpture, the whole foundation of her self-esteem can crack at any time. How terribly sad!

Worse still, if Daddy isn’t rich enough to fund her pageant dream, then all the monies come from fund-raising. That’s a fancy word for “begging.” Too often, the mother pushes her daughter into pageantry, full well knowing she can help herself to the pot o’ gold. But it gets worse. I’ve heard pageant girls bragging, “So, I was fundraising at this car dealership. I only needed $1,000 for my dress, so I asked the owner for $2,000 and he forked it over. Ha, ha, ha.” Hardly a lesson I’d want a daughter of mine to learn!! I want her to earn money by working hard and using her brain…not her beauty!

Narcissism in Pageantry

However you slice and dice it, beauty pageants are a hotbed for sowing and growing narcissism. It’s natural that those who need a “boost” to their self-esteem gravitate towards them. But there can be only one winner…a shallow, surface boost to ye olde self-esteem at best. And for the majority of contestants who don’t win? Losing, yet again, is just a further blow to their already fragile self-esteem.

Surely there must be a better way to build confidence in the young woman of today and tomorrow!

Photo by mealmakeovermoms