08/17/2012 01:13 pm ET Updated Oct 17, 2012

Pleasantries and Pageantry

When I would tell people I was in a pageant, their knee-jerk reaction was to laugh and keep laughing until they realized I was serious. I'm awkward, too much attention makes me forget how to breathe, and I believe sequins are the root of all evil. Yet, I did one.

I knew I was going mute. I'd get nervous or go blank trying to answer a question or explain myself in class. I didn't know where it was coming from and I hated it. I've always been shy but never socially inept. I missed my old self and I was trying desperately to get her back.
After much encouragement from friends I presented myself as a candidate for the Student Organization of Caribbean Awareness' pageant. I interviewed in front of a panel who were once my peers five minutes ago but now became a group of circling vultures. Asking question after question as I sweated, stuttered, mumbled and of course went blank. A few weeks later I got the e-mail that I was chosen to represent the island of Jamaica. I closed my laptop, left my dorm room, and got on the nearest treadmill.

I met my pageant sisters and we spent months practicing, two girls quit, and each of us all had our moments where we'd just break down. We smiled until it hurt, danced until we were sore, and studied everything there was to know about the Caribbean to prepare ourselves for any question the judges were going to sling at us. However, it didn't matter how long it took me to perfect my talent, or my introduction speech because all my efforts would be diluted and sucked dry by one common question: Don't you just walk around and model?

Pageants have a horrible reputation and have become the anti-thesis to female empowerment, and shows like Toddlers and Tiaras make it very hard to defend. It doesn't help that there hasn't been a successful male pageant, that the purpose of a swimsuit portion has yet to yield any justified reasoning, and that every less-than-bright contestant has gained some sort of YouTube infamy. I'll admit whenever someone would even mention a pageant to me all I saw were fake smiles, robotic waves, and world peace. Yet, a lot of these women hold master's degrees and sometimes their doctorate, the pageant is usually used as a platform to further their professions.

I didn't realize how much it was taking over my life until I did a whole presentation in front of my class in the pageant t-stance. When it came time for me to look for a dress, I was having no luck. It was hard to find a dress that flattered my body and it was getting to me. I remember being in a dressing room staring in the mirror dressed in pink, thinking I looked like a bottle of Pepto-Bismal when I heard crying from the stall across from me.

I saw this girl before I came in; she was probably about 15, in a pageant, and there wasn't an ounce of fat on her body.

Yet she kept crying and complaining about her body, she went as far as asking her mom for liposuction. Her mom responded, "Well I can't you're underage."

That was when I had to sit down. Her daughter was silent and then just cried. The mom was confused, but I understood. When your daughter asks for liposuction in the middle of a self-esteem crisis you tell her she doesn't need liposuction and that she's fine the way she is. The girl cried more and her mom was confused and began offering to cook healthier meals, and to buy a few diet pills I'm pretty sure aren't legal anywhere in the western hemisphere.

"I can't help it because I get so hungry so I binge and do you know what I do after that mom?! Huh?! Do you know?!"

She said something in a vicious whisper and her mom burst into tears. I looked at myself in the mirror and I decided that no pageant, or dress, was worth all of that. I decided that no matter what I looked like I would love my body and own it.

Pageants are not one-size fits all; it's great if you view it as a way of building yourself up but it can be painfully detrimental when you make it tear you down. I had to decide how I was going to leave this experience and I chose up... after I peeled off that awful dress.

The week of the big day we had to wear our sash to every class, at every hour, every day of that week. At first I was extremely nervous, but it felt good literally wearing my country on my chest for everyone to see and I got used to the stares. In fact, it made me raise my head a little bit higher. I didn't have to tell people anymore. When they looked at me they saw my culture, my family, they saw me. A pageant in its purest form is supposed to allow you to appreciate yourself for who you are and showcase that appreciation. It's us that makes it about the judging.

I left the experience with the friendship of four beautiful ladies, a platform to express my culture, a healthier lifestyle, one foot into my womanhood, and I regained my voice.

Oh yeah, and the crown.

I said I would be appreciative either way... I didn't say I didn't want to win.