Sarah Palin’s conservative views would prevent me from voting for her, but at the same time, I am intrigued by her meteoric rise from small, frontier-town mayor to vice presidential candidate. The phenomenon that is Sarah Palin has struck a chord with a segment of the population. Her rise to fame made me wonder about her background, and how she came to be the woman that she is today. Palin is quick to play up her “equal opportunity” upbringing, where her parents encouraged her enthusiasm for fishing and hunting. She uses sports metaphors ad nauseam to emphasize her athleticism and her passion for competition. Palin’s competitive spirit was cultivated through another type of contest that she doesn’t acknowledge as often as her days on the Wasilla High basketball team, too. Yes, Sarah Palin competed in beauty pageants, and that is something that the two of us have in common.
Unlike Palin, I am proud to have competed in pageants. Many aspects of my pageant training have prepared me for life as a young professional. Following college, when most recent graduates nervously practiced mock interviews, I already had award-winning interview and public speaking skills. As a title holder, I regularly met people from diverse backgrounds with different perspectives; there are many parallels between my experiences in pageants and my present position with the New York City Council. Both pageants and politics seem much easier than they are from the outside looking in. And just in case you think those modeling skills are not practical, I can walk — or run, for that matter — in high heels on most terrains.
I openly acknowledge the positive impact that pageants have had on my life. Therefore, it bothers me when women like Sarah Palin, who have benefited from being in pageants, disavow themselves from them as though pageants are some sort of youthful indiscretion. Palin admits that she received needed college scholarship money as a result of her participation in the Miss America program. She even recorded a video address for the contestants at the 2008 Miss Alaska pageant, telling them that they could be like her one day. The Miss America Pageant is the largest provider of scholarships for young women in the United States. So why is Palin, the self-proclaimed maverick leader, so afraid to embrace her pageant past?
I admit it; beauty pageants have had some embarrassing moments. Unfortunately, for the institutions and the women who have benefited from them, pageants are only discussed in the mainstream media in the aftermath of a scandal. The only recent winners that most Americans can sort of recall are recovering addicts and party girls. With all of the one-dimensional images out there I understand why people do not “get” pageants. Without first-hand experience, it would be easy to think that all pageants are sexist and demeaning to women. In reality, some pageants are a training ground for female leaders who are proud of their femininity.
There is nothing wrong with a woman wanting to be respected and admired for both her intelligence and her beauty. The two should not be mutually exclusive for women in the 21st century. Unfortunately, many women have been made to feel that they have to make a choice, as though having or working toward both is an affront to the natural order of society. Pageants showcase femininity, something that many professional women tend to shy away from. As long as we allow femininity to be treated as a distraction or some sort of an insult to professionalism, women will continue to bang their heads on the glass ceiling.
I do not believe that Palin did not enjoy her old pageant days. She seems to savor the limelight and recognition too much. Out of convenience she decided to distance herself from pageants, out of convenience she has decided to step down from her position as governor of Alaska. Savvy pageant contestants know how to leverage their experiences in order to launch themselves into the careers of their dreams. Palin may never admit it, but like that wink during her debate with Joe Biden, the strategy behind her latest move is straight out of the pageant girl’s handbook. So farewell for now Ms. Wasilla, I know we will be hearing from you in the future.