In the library we often have unexpected visitors, but for some reason I found this particular visit a bit off-putting. Our visitor, a recently crowned beauty pageant winner, had just finished reading to a fourth grade class and wanted to donate books to our library. Perhaps it was her youth and statuesque beauty that evoked envy in me. However, I am in my mid-sixties and hope that I am well beyond such foolish thoughts. It certainly wasn’t the way she spoke or interacted with the sweet fourth grade girls that accompanied her. She was kind, gracious, and even spoke encouragingly to the girls about their leadership role on Student Council.
So what was it about this visit that troubled me? I think it was the way the students reacted to our visitor. The girls clearly delighted, giggled and gushed over her every comment. Yet, these were the very same girls I have watched express themselves eloquently in class discussions, work diligently on projects, and show compassion to their friends. I couldn’t help but worry that they were drinking in our visitor’s appearance more than her words or demeanor. Would these same girls one day measure themselves against her Barbie doll perfection? More worryingly, would they find or lose their self-worth in an unrealistic standard of outward beauty.
Clearly, I am not a fan of beauty pageants and feel they are deeply rooted in sexism. However, I do not want my words to be construed as a feminist tirade against pageantry or the lovely young woman who came to our school. The question I ask is how do we raise our daughters and granddaughters to appreciate their self-worth and recognize their own sometimes hidden beauty? How do we replace unrealistic standards of beauty with real self-confidence?
First, I believe that change must begin with women, because ultimately we are the role models for the young girls in our lives. We might begin by monitoring our self-talk and staying away from depreciating comments about our weight and appearance. If we ourselves lead lives that include healthy self-care, we give young girls a realistic and sustainable model to follow.
“Girls on the Run”, a nonprofit organization, provides just such a model for young girls on the cusp of adolescence. Research states that adolescence is a time when young girls often develop an unhealthy body image foisted upon them by media and cultural influences. “Girls on the Run” has developed a curriculum which promotes healthy self-esteem built around the challenge of participating in a 5K run. Girls have emerged from the program with comments like these:
“Girls on the Run made me realize that I am the boss of my brain.”
“I know that whatever I set my mind to do, I can do.”
“At Girls on the Run I learned how to be comfortable in my own skin!”
Of course, all of us should share the amazing achievements of women who have come before us. In February, my fellow librarian and I shared the stories of Ruby Bridges, Harriet Tubman, Coretta Scott King, and Rosa Parks. It is likely that none of these brave women would have won a beauty pageant, but all lived remarkable lives of courage and strength.
It is also important to share the stories of lesser known women such as Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician whose story is told in the movie, “Hidden Figures.” Meredith Zepf, a teacher at Kipp Academy in Nashville, thought Johnson’s story was so important that she raised one thousand dollars to take her inner city 4th graders to see the film. Afterwards, one of her students said, “The movie is about three girls who are smart. They did what they wanted to do, and they worked hard." Telling the stories of amazing women like Katherine Johnson reminds young girls of the possibility and beauty that rests in each of them.
As much as I would like beauty pageants to disappear, it will probably not happen in my lifetime. Nor will young girls easily turn away from the princess trappings that pageants offer. However, I am encouraged daily by women who model their own hidden beauty each day. Especially those who teach, parent, and show us all that lasting beauty can be found in a caring heart, a bright mind, and a fierce determination to make the world a better place. Maybe one day we will crown these women for nurturing the hidden beauty found in all our girls. As Ms. Zepf said, “You’ve got to shoot for the moon.” Indeed we do!
© Catherine Hause 2017