01/01/2014 11:19 EST | Updated 03/03/2014 05:59 EST

I Could Have Been a Honey Boo-Boo (or Why I'm Glad My Mother Saved Me from Pageants)

When I was five years old, a woman in a mall told my mother that she should put me in a beauty pageant. I had abnormally large eyes at the time, a thing that the woman considered to be a great asset in the epic battle for a glittering, plastic tiara. She identified herself as a pageant agent and told my mother that if she received permission, she could put me up on stage as the newest edition in her lace-ridden, sequined freak show.

Being a woman of sound reason, my mother declined. She didn't feel right about her daughter being displayed in one of the strangest national traditions since the traveling side shows of the 1930s. Nevertheless, I don't mind saying that my five-year-old self wanted that attention. I longed for the moment when I could step out on stage and have a group of strangers tell me how truly adorable I was, regardless of the amount of make-up and glitter I would have to wear. But my mother put her foot down, and lacking the necessary vocabulary to create a coherent, winning argument, I decided that it would be best to let my mother have her way.

As I was growing up, I had a few friends who entered the pageant circuit. Some of them started competing as children, while others waited until adulthood to blossom into the home grown Beauty Queens that the media eats up for breakfast. I watched them move through the inevitable cycle of preparation, performance, trial, and error. Some saw victory, while most of them saw disappointment. At the end of the day, each contestant found their way back to Planet Earth where their disenchantment met reality.

There were a few eerie similarities between my pageant friends. First and foremost, they were all incredibly insecure. Though we all suffer from insecurities, these transcended the regular level of human doubt. These were the type that veered into complete self-hatred if they skipped a gym day or put a little bit too much fat-free margarine on their toast in the morning.

In time, all of my pageant friends became so obsessed with their appearances that they made every woman who walked down the street into a comparison, celebrating when they discovered that they were still the "fairest of them all" and reaching a near breakdown when a long-legged stranger made them feel as though there was more work to be done. A petite blond at a cafe immediately made them "fat." A girl with acne made them scoff and cackle like hens. In time, the side show of pageantry bled off into their every day lives with such vehemence that each moment became a graceless performance.

The final similarity was the most disturbing to me. I watched them lose their sense of self. All of their personality, their idiosyncrasies, their ideals, and even morals blanched into a finely veneered caricature of their former selves. They were motivated by "world peace" in name alone. The only thing that pushed them to help others or "be their best self" was the thought of a crown.

My view on pageants was not helped by the gong shows that I witnessed on TV. I'm talking about the pageant contestants that have been blasted over the media with their incoherent and frequently offensive ramblings. I can't forget the former Miss California 2009, Carrie Prejean, who told blogger Perez Hilton that "marriage should be between a man and a woman," botching her chances of support from anyone with a brain.

I'd also like to take the opportunity to reflect on the former Miss South Carolina 2007, Caitlin Upton, who in the most spectacular display of non-language told us that "our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S., uh, or, uh, should help South Africa and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries, so we will be able to build up our future." She was trying to tell us why some Americans can't point out their own country on a map. I'm sure that Miss Upton wasn't the only pageant contestant with such unique skill in their mother tongue.

Though the summation may not be true with all pageant contestants, more times than not, the math adds up. Pageantry breeds a race of girls who believe from a very young age than in order to change the world, you must be thin, perfect, and sparkling. Your shot at inspiring the masses lies in the possession of a trophy or crown that is born from the minds of cut-throat billionaires like Donald Trump instead of the hearts of vibrant leaders like Nelson Mandela. Pageantry serves as nothing more than a platform for the perpetuation of body hatred in young women and a misplaced value on the physical appearance as a viable bargaining chip in their self-worth. It is feeding children with the notion that it is acceptable to be vapid, ignorant, and ruthless as long as you are considered to be beautiful.

We can argue that it's the parents and not the pageants to be blamed, and there could be something to that. You can't have a funeral if there isn't a body, so perhaps the problem is with the individual and not with the organization. Yet, a lot of the parents like to create a rebuttal by saying that their children want to be involved in pageants. Although the kids may show that they want to fight for the crown, let's be reasonable. Self-awareness is rarely developed enough at the age of 20, so how can we know what we want for ourselves at the age of five? These children are not prepared mentally, emotionally, or socially to understand the scope of their own desires, so the parents need to come up with a better argument.

As for the adult contestants who do have a choice to compete in pageants, I don't get it. Maybe it has something to do with being raised with my mother's sensibilities, but I don't see the use in going through grueling physical contests and insecurities just to have a group of people tell me that I'm oh-so pretty. If any of these adult contenders really want to save the children, feed the hungry, or inspire world peace, they can start a foundation or contribute to an existing one. You must admit, those options take a lot more effort and courage than it does to just be "beautiful."

My heart goes out to Honey Boo-Boo, the Toddlers in Tiaras, and even to the former Miss South Carolina. Bless them all for shooting for something, but I believe that it's high time for us to let go of our prized, antiquated circus attraction. I would rather have a conversation with my future children about how to boost their confidence in becoming global innovators without a tiara weighing down their judgment. I urge all future mothers to do the same.


Miss America 2014