I grew up with a beauty queen as a mother. She was Miss Arkansas, a Miss America finalist and frequent beauty pageant judge. What did all this exposure to beauty pageant wisdom teach me, her daughter? That my body and my entire worth came down to one thing: how pretty I was and that you are only as valuable as you look.
Here are some lessons from my beauty queen mother that I won’t be passing along to my daughter.
1. Pretty is all that matters
Don’t waste your time reading books or getting an education. Spend that time getting highlights or working on your wardrobe instead. No one gives a crap what’s inside your head, silly girl. How your hair looks is what really matters.
2. Your body is your enemy
From my earliest memories, my mother’s body was her enemy, something that constantly betrayed her. I remember her pinching her stomach, grabbing her thighs, berating herself and her body for not being thinner. (She weighed about 120 pounds.) I never remember my mother saying anything nice about her body — no mention of how strong she was or how fast or how far she could run.
The day was dependent on the scale. She weighed herself every morning without fail, and the rest of the day would be good or bad depending on those three numbers she saw on the scale.
3. Eating is about feast or famine
My sister and I grew up having dinners based on my mother’s latest diet. If she was a few pounds up, dinner consisted of half a grapefruit and popcorn for everyone — or you’d blow your diet and visit the drive thru at McDonald’s only to hate yourself later. Food and eating were a seesaw of all or nothing. No mention of food as fuel or nutrition. No lessons on the importance of fruits and vegetables. My mother was even diagnosed with malnutrition after her gums started bleeding. It seemed living on popcorn, pink grapefruits and Tab doesn’t do a body good.
4. Fat is the ultimate F word
The worst insult you could sling at someone was calling her “fat,” which she often did. My mother routinely labeled women as “that fat neighbor” or “your fat friend.” It didn’t matter if you were working as a doctor, saving the world or rescuing people from burning buildings. If you didn’t have a trim waistline, you were nothing.
5. You are being judged
Life was a beauty pageant every single day, and you had to be ready to compete. You were being judged no matter where you went. Remember your lipstick before you go to the grocery store. Fix your hair. The judges were out there, and you had to measure up.
6. It’s never too early to start hating your body
I went on my first diet in junior high. This, of course, led to wild swings: binges of tortilla chips and entire pies one day, Slimfast chocolate shakes the next. At 13 years old, I ran in 105 degree heat during an Arkansas summer wrapped in plastic wrap and sweatshirts to try and burn off fat from my 110 pound frame.
I even tried over-the-counter diet pills, which triggered panic attacks and anxiety. At least I only tried them a few times because the side effects and anxiety scared the hell out of me.
It’s taken me years, almost my entire life, to erase those messages berating me inside my head. I don’t discuss diets or use the word “fat.” I try to teach my daughter that I work out not to please others but to stay strong and healthy. Keeping those demons of self-hate at bay is still sometimes a struggle.
I’m not sure that everyone who went through pageants internalized those messages. Some women can use pageants as a way to empower themselves or to complete a personal goal, but my mother internalized the wrong messages. She wrongly believed her only value was her beauty, and that’s so sad.
These toxic messages of appearance and beauty stop with me. These messages of self-hate will not be passed down to my daughter.