I was asked to judge a beauty pageant. Actually, it was Miss New Jersey's Outstanding Teen Pageant (you'll note that the word "beauty" is no longer included in the title).
My first response was... really? It's 2014. Isn't this concept a bit dated, not to mention anti-feminist?
My second response was... why me? I'd never been in a beauty pageant, and the only contest I'd ever participated in was the Teen Miss Dance of New England competition in the mid-1970s. I assumed no one really remembered that except for my parents and my former dance teacher, Charlotte Klein, from my days growing up in Worcester, Massachusetts.
When I received the phone call asking me to be a judge, I thought that maybe it was meant for someone else. It was not. Apparently, a producer of one of the major TV networks had recommended me because of my consulting work as a presentation skills and media coach. So, in the spirit of trying new things, I decided to go for it.
What I'd assumed was going to be an exercise in mindless frivolity turned out to be serious business. I was surprised at the level of professionalism that went into the preparation for this pageant. These young women aged 13-17 were required to create extensive bios, hone their talents, and then engage in rigorous individual interviews before appearing onstage to perform in front of hundreds.
So much for my preconceived notion that pageantry was anti-feminist. In fact, it seemed to be quite the opposite. These young women were developing life skills that would serve them well as they entered their professional lives, whether in business, arts, technology or academics.
Let me share with you some of the general misconceptions about pageants that were shattered during my day as a pageant judge.
Myths of Teen (Beauty) Pageants:
1. Pageants are for the pretty but not-so-smart.
Yes, the winner of Miss New Jersey's Outstanding Teen Pageant 2014 is pretty, and she plans to attend M.I.T. She also promotes a program called STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) to encourage young women to enter fields that are typically dominated by men.
2. Pageants promote eating disorders.
It was made clear to both the contestants and judges that Miss New Jersey's Outstanding Teen would need to be a role model for a healthy, strong body. Instead of stick-thin contestants parading around the stage in bathing suits, these teens each jogged onto the stage in work-out clothes that consisted of a t-shirt and shorts, and had to demonstrate their fitness level by performing a routine that included aerobics, sit-ups and push-ups.
3. Pageants are just so shallow.
Contestants were required to have a "platform" that demonstrated their commitment to community service. Each chose a cause that she felt personally connected to; one had a sister with autism, another had family members with skin cancer, others took on bullying and teen drinking. These young women organized walkathons, community gatherings, and school awareness programs to promote their causes.
4. There are no real world skills that can be learned from being a pageant contestant.
When was the last time you had to stand up in front of seven judges and answer a barrage of questions ranging from your future goals to your thoughts on political matters such as the controversial lane closures on the George Washington Bridge? (This was New Jersey, after all...). These teens had to demonstrate their ability to think on their feet and present their thoughts in an articulate and concise manner. They also exhibited self-motivation, determination, organizational skills, and public speaking skills.
5. Pageants are anti-feminist.
In addition to offering significant life skills to young women, Miss America's Outstanding Teen Inc. is one of the top scholarship providers for young teens in the United States. Founded in 2005 with a strong commitment to higher education, they have made available approximately $5,000,000 in cash and in-kind scholarships that have allowed pageant winners to attend such prestigious schools as Harvard University, Brown University, Cornell University, and more.
6. Pageant winners don't go on to be successful in life.
Really? Tell that to Oprah Winfrey (Miss Black Tennessee 1986), Halle Berry (Miss Ohio USA 1986), Sharon Stone (Miss Crawford County 1976), Michelle Pfeffier (Miss Orange County 1978), Vanessa Williams (Miss America 1984), and Diane Sawyer (American's Junior Miss 1963).
So the next time you judge a pageant, even if it's as you're sitting on your sofa in your living room watching TV, think twice before you judge too harshly.