Previously by this author: Highlights from the Apocalypse.
I don’t know why my mother told me I was born on the day Vanessa Williams resigned her Miss America crown. Except that I do: She foresaw my future beauty and/or power coming at the cost of another woman’s, projected sashes, crowns, and glory, if only because Vanessa Williams lost them. My mother is no fortune-teller, no temple-rubbing psychic, so she’s gotten a few things wrong. I am not a pageant beauty, and I certainly couldn’t be the second first black Miss America because 1) I am white, and 2) the largely forgotten Suzette Charles, 1984’s runner-up, finished William’s remaining two-and-a-half month reign as the first (second first) black Miss America before passing the crown to another blonde white girl who matched me in palette but was also not me.
My mother is no psychic, and she’s also not very detail-oriented. Vanessa Williams resigned her crown on July twenty-third, which was my due-date. I was born on July twenty-first, early enough for my dad to be out drinking instead of waiting or helping. I was named after his bartender, Samantha.
Ignoring technicalities, mom saved a “First African-American Miss America Resigns!” clipping from the newspaper and put it in a Baby’s Firsts photo album. This was her insistence, despite us: on welfare, in a trailer with the linoleum coming up off the floor, exposing a rickety frame below. The only pageantry I ever did was around the age of four, a pageant for one—wherein I was the sole contestant and winner—held in front of a TV showing the real thing in all its antennaed, low-quality-reception, too-many-runner-ups glory. We did our own photo shoot in front of the portraiture rug (featuring a woodland scene with a bear), hung on our faux-wood-paneled living room wall, fake wood on fake wood. I wore a patriotic BORN IN THE USA sweatshirt, sported K-mart blue eye shadow and blood red lips, stiffly posed one hand to my hip and the other in my yellow hair. For casual wear, I kept the same star-spangled sweatshirt, added a page-boy cap, and someone scrubbed the glamour from my face. My grin was not quite as large as the rifle I leaned against, the gun running the length of my tiny frame, the butt of it rested beside my filthy white moccasins, here she is, Miss America.
“Mom, did you know the dates are wrong?” My cell phone is wedged between my shoulder and cheek because I need two hands to Google every article I can find for Miss America 1984. I can hear water running and glasses clinking as mom does the dishes on her end, her hands tied as well.
She’s a bit defensive in her response. I didn’t expect investment in this situation. “No, they couldn’t be. I cut it from the paper. I cut because of the day.” I explain that perhaps the nude photos came to light on the day I was born, but that Vanessa Williams did not resign her post until the twenty-third.
She sighs because I’m always questioning things, and I’ve interrupted her domestic reverie. My mother still washes dishes by hand though she has a dishwasher now. Before she remarried and bought a house with neat appliances, back when she was still the single mother of three kids by the age of twenty-three, she meditated in the kitchen. She found it relaxing, gazed upon our dirt-lot backyard through the window over the sink, the last of the sun lingering over a garden of plastic toys and destroyed Barbie Dolls. She swayed her too-thin frame, her hips sharp and puncturing the air as she scrubbed the inherited plates, hummed or howled Luther Vandross, and for a moment became her own person instead of a twenty-something mother of three.
“I really don’t think I got it wrong,” she says. “Why would I cut the article out if she didn’t resign on your birthday?”
I’ve tried hard to dissect the correlation my mom made between Vanessa William’s resignation and my own future. I have strange and maybe inapplicable feminist concerns. (“Mom, are you a feminist?” “No, Sam. Well, I mean—I guess so—but not as extreme as you.”) What mother doesn’t want her daughter to be beautiful, whatever the conventional standard? Did it matter that the power and achievement my mother foresaw (“You’re it, Sam. You’re going to make something of yourself, somehow”) may arrive through the Vaseline-ing of my teeth and double-side taping a bikini (red, it would have been red) to a cellulite-free (fiction, this is fiction now) ass?
I was a Chiclet-toothed pre-teen, sporting lay-awayed K-mart clothes and digging in old photo albums for proof I wasn’t always as awkward or unfortunate looking. Instead of proof I found that old newspaper clipping. I wanted, needed clarification on the meaning—the pressure and promise—of the headline. “Why?” I asked, and she shrugged and replied, “Maybe you’ll be Miss America some day?” The answer was a sorry one, and we both knew it. Maybe I’d be Miss America someday? I had talents, to be sure. (Jeopardy-theme saxophonist and Skate City Fastest Speed Skater Female Ages Eight-to-Ten in the non-competitive speed skate song of the night.) But in all I just was a kid who read an alarming amount of V.C. Andrews, terribly frightened of shaving my legs, counting on beauty coming quite naturally post-puberty (it would not).
I sought a light at the end of the tunnel that is an awkward and economically unstable adolescence. Was it at the Scholarship Opportunities Fair, held in some dank warehouse across town?
Their central booth glittered under grisly fluorescents. MISS AMERICA! THE LARGEST PROVIDER OF SCHOLARSHIPS FOR WOMEN IN THE WORLD! The banner had a font that just wouldn’t quit. I made my fifth stealthy pass of the table littered with crowns and scepters, set out like an offering or a sacrifice, but I couldn’t bring myself to grab a pamphlet from the impeccable young lady manning the booth. My bangs could have been disheveled and I wasn’t dressed for the occasion. I was wearing an in-hindsight horrific shirt designed, by me, in some eighth grade, hybrid computer lab/art class, a silk-screened tee with colorful-if-intolerable bubble letters proclaiming “Hook’d on Fonix werked fur mi!” I found myself hilarious; and yet, per a very minimal amount of self-awareness, I concluded I wasn’t quite “pageant material,” and I forced my darling little sister to snatch some reading materials from the table for me. The pageant queen asked my sister her name while I looked on from between the Army! Enlist today! and Pikes Peak Community College booths (our mother lingered at PPCC). “Daisy Jane,” my sister giggled, and batted her lush lashes, which was all a little too perfect for my tastes, to be honest.
Isn’t something better earned when you have to struggle for it?
“She posed for Playboy,” my mom explains, but she gets the narrative incorrect again. Vanessa Williams posed for nude photos, yes, but as a freshman in in college. “Well, whatever, she took naked pictures,” Mom adds. Penthouse got a hold of the pictures, published them without permission, and Williams was forced to resign her crown. Except that’s incorrect as well. Williams was allowed to keep the crown and title, but not allowed endorsement deals, and could not participate in the 1985 Miss America crowning ceremony. Both Vanessa Williams and her runner-up/successor, Suzette Charles, are technically Miss America 1984. They are Miss America 1984 (A), and Miss America 1984 (B), the first black Miss America(s).
My urge is to email my mother several articles at once, to “get all academic on her,” as she calls it. I want to give her a feminist makeover. Here are some, Mom, on the sexualizing and resulting demonization of black bodies; here are others on Williams being made a representative of her race as the first black winner of the crown, and how racism may have led to the uproar of over stolen naked pictures. I am late to the game on being attractive; I am late to the game on deconstructing beauty. Not only do I have to play catch up, I feel I must bring my mother up to speed as well.
Mom, I want to say, here is a quote from a PBS article! “Do women of color need to fit the idealized white version of femininity of that is the legacy of the pageant?” I want to send my mother articles on intersections of race and gender, on victim-blaming and objectification of women, but all this deconstruction hangs on what, for her, may have simply been a coinciding news story, a tiny concrete if misappropriated hope for a very young new mother’s wailing baby.
I send nothing. My suspicion is Mom will say she has bigger fish to fry, and always has. But who is she kidding? She never once bought fish with food stamps.
The truth is I do have a crown. And a sash. I was the Homecoming Queen of Fountain Fort-Carson High School, 2001. My first year in college (on a full academic scholarship, I’d want my mother to remind you) I would wear them both with a faux fur coat and red thrift store heels while I vacuumed my dorm room because it made my floor mates laugh. It gave me an audience. I’d bellow the song over the vroom vroom on the rug: “There she is! Miss America! There she is, Your Ideal! The dreams of a million girls who are more than pretty may come true in Atlantic City…” I was at once creating a commonality (isn’t this all so ridiculous? I’m ridiculous!) and establishing power (I don’t look like it, but I was the most popular girl in school).
Once, a little ballerina lab partner came to my dorm to study and found a picture of me, smiling and waving a pageant queen hand underneath the Friday night lights. “You were the Homecoming Queen?” she asked, incredulous. “You NEVER would have been the Homecoming Queen at my school.”
“Oh, really?” I answered her like the fraud that I was—Oh really, I’m so shocked you would say that to me!—but in some ways, she’d said what I’d secretly always wanted to hear. That I wasn’t pretty enough, and that I won anyway.
I like being right—I like being told I’m right better. The ballerina validated me in a way I dared everyone to. I wanted them to say, “Oh, you’re different! You’re different but also special, or special because you’re different.” I wanted to be an individual as good as the group, only better, the poor persevering smart kid and the golden most popular girl in school. I wanted (want?) to be the ugly duckling and the swan.
Apparently this essay is just a running “list of hang-ups.” Several female peers in a writing class question my credibility in writing about concepts like lack of beauty. One asks: “Aren’t you misrepresenting your looks? Don’t you think readers will check your author photo and scoff?” I suppose I should thank them for considering me attractive (and publishable?), but instead I feel very confused and defensive about being ugly. I was an unfortunate-looking child, I want to say. I’ve only recently been made conventionally attractive. I was well into my twenties before the Ugly Duckling narrative took a swan dive. I’ve got pictures I can bring in as proof! You won’t even recognize me! I have agency here, I promise! Instead, I nod and say, “Yes, I understand what you mean.”
“Well, maybe when they grow out of their own ugly duckling phases, they’ll understand,” is my mother’s pointed, loving response, to which I giggle.
I’m on my second graduate degree and I am surrounded by terrifyingly smart women. They went to Ivy’s or sub-Ivy’s. Some don’t get my jokes about my mother putting a bowl filled with water and credit cards into the freezer. Some aren’t sure why a person might literally freeze a credit card. As most women, they seem to wriggle under definitions of attractiveness, under that good ole male gaze, under their standing in regards to either. Few, often none of us, are black.
Per the academy, per the brilliant women in my classes, per my own relentless tilt towards social justice, here is where I should focus this running list: “Do women of color need to fit the idealized white version of femininity that is the legacy of the pageant?”
But the hang-ups insist; my world view is my own. I am a white woman who understands the depth of privilege. I am a white woman from a working-poor family in constant struggle against my beginnings and the trappings of them and I am also deeply concerned about/ashamed of my privilege. I am a white woman and I was a white child and the teachers paid attention to my brain and my ambitions and now I am a white graduate student. I am a white woman and I was a white child and for many years I had a black best friend (I’m not racist I have black friends) and we did each other’s hair until the day I asked, “What’s wrong with your hair? Why is your hair different than mine?”
What could I possibly have to say to anyone about women and race and class and beauty?
To enter at the state level with the potential to compete nationally, you must be between the ages of 17-24, a United States citizen, meet character criteria and in “reasonably good health to meet the job requirements,” both “as set forth by the Miss America Organization.” I suspect “good health” is intimately linked to the ability to rock minimalistic bathing attire. Though not listed, it is widely known that contestants should also not be, or have ever been, married; must not be, or have ever been, pregnant; cannot have children. These are not listed on the website, but on the paperwork a contestant would fill out in order to participate at the state level.
I remember Mom coming home from community college one day, her face drained of color. She worked so damn hard all the time. She had credit cards frozen in bowls of water in the freezer and three loud-mouth teenagers and shifts at Wal-mart and a pretty spectacular head of hair and the grade point average of a much less burdened person and all that fucking tweed-sporting, assistant-professor-at-a-community college could say to her was, “Whoa, three kids? That close in age? You must have spent a lot of time on your back.”
That was many years ago. These days my mom says the word misogyny like it’s a pile of dog shit she’s stepped in. “She kept saying that word, this feminist on the news. She said misAWgynyyyy.” Mom draws out the syllables so that her disdain for the word cannot be separated from it.
I am tempted to ask my mother if she truly knows what the word means, but I suspect her appropriate response to condescension would be dial tone. Instead, I offer to email her several articles. I tell her about walking downtown where men shouted at me, insisted that my friends and I smile. Men like girls who smile! Smile, like this! Mom, I say. Mom! It’s a thing that happens! Objectification! Infantilization! I don’t know if that’s a word, Mom, but gender! But power disparities! Patriarchy! Miss America! Your Ideal!
We aren’t speaking the same language. My single-mother-who-raised-three-kids-on-her-own says, “I guess that misogyny, misAWgynyyyy, just isn’t a part of my world.”
I wasn’t a kid contemplating gender-stereotypes, let’s be honest here. I was scrounging up change to buy a treat at the 7-11. I was hell-bent on escaping Fountain, Colorado, and turning one narrative into another, turning pennies into a fortune. It’s exhausting to look back on who I was from where I now stand; all the critical theory and academic deconstruction and adult baggage can’t change the fact that I was just another (white) kid moving to rewrite history, hustling for her own glittery version of the American Dream.
Still—Bazooka Job Bubblegum was only a nickel per individually-wrapped piece. Tiny, barely readable fortunes could be found on the bottom of each comic by those with perfect vision or a need for a brighter future. Because it was easy to gather five pennies, around the age of thirteen I started collecting the bubblegum comics hugging the gum just beneath the wrapper. I kept on chewing upon the realization that one out of every three pieces of gum predicted, “Someday you will be Miss America. A good fortune if you are a girl; a bad fortune if you are a boy.” I began to wonder if my mother-as-seer had been on to something, Bazooka Joe-reinforcing-gender-stereotypes be damned.
At some point I realized I would never be Miss America, but I was the ultimate editor, the champion of my own misfortune: Who wanted to be a beauty queen anyways? I reigned over my growing clique of girlfriends. Some boys threatened to kick my ass for being the President of Student Council (and National Honor Society and Science Club and Drama Club, I got a bit carried away), and one even slapped toward my face and missed, ha ha, but all of the ladies, every color and creed, rallied around me. I may not have been cute, but I was in charge. I may have had a very weak chin, but no one questioned my character. I could quote Gloria Steinem and pretend like I knew what I was talking about and the ladies would cheer.
In the end, I am my mother’s mirror. I don’t mean that in some heartwarming, Lifetime Movie way, their eyes were the same as their love for each, deep and true. We look nothing alike. My mother is tall and lithe—lovely—dark-eyed, dark-curled, all sharp angles, while I am pale and soft and light-eyed, lacking brows and lashes, lacking protection from too much bright. In another time my able-bodied mother would have been forced to leave me, a jaundiced-bodied baby, swaddled under a tree. Poor little yellow baby, too big a potential burden, too useless to be anywhere but under the shade of a reluctant tree.
No, I mean I am my mother’s mirror: I am, have always been, the window pane, the reflective glass in which she checks her appearance, the place where her gaze finally lands.
“Do I have anything in my eye?”
“Something in my teeth?”
“How’s my hair?”
“Is my foundation rubbed in?”
I learned the potentials for err in physical appearance were endless, and to compensate I developed several preteen ticks to right wrongs. I walked down the street: head slightly bent forward and down, torso at a forty-five degree downward angle hinging from my waist, constant, acute awareness of whether or not my blonde bangs hung straight across my brow. I walked forward as if fighting hurricane-like gusts. I taught myself to know the feeling of bang correctness: each centimeter of forehead must not be exposed to air. If a slight breeze (real or imagined) shifted the bangs, I would give a manic, seizure-like nod to the left or the right to re-order my yellow bangs. I suppose I was a one-way mirror; if I asked my mother how I looked, she’d roll her eyes and say, “Sam! Sam. You look fine. Stop worrying about that shit!”
I tell my mother it was hard to grow up with two extremely good-looking parents, and she scoffs and says, “No, no, no. I was good-looking, not your dad.” We cackle together, loud enough for us both to hold the phones away from our ears.
“I’m writing this essay on beauty, Mom,” I tell her. I read a few parts aloud, reassure her (myself) that I am secure in who I am now, but I know I didn’t grow up as some beacon of the “conventional standards of beauty” (this time she snorts). I say I don’t want her to feel blamed in any way, or defensive as she often does about the way she raised us—as best she could. I expect a bit of anger from her, a smart remark, but she apologizes. “I’m sorry you didn’t feel beautiful,” she says. “It was probably all that Ramen and spaghetti we ate.”
I laugh, tell her no, it’s more complicated than all of that—it’s cultural, it’s about gender and race and cl…too many things. I trail off because I want this conversation to continue. I don’t want to hear her check out on the other end, her silences longer, the click of computer Solitaire louder.
“I got it from my friends too, you know, and they got it from their parents,” I say, though I can’t pinpoint what it is. “Like Carrie. I resented her for looking that way, a live-action Barbie dating every single boy I ever loved. So I made her feel bad for not being as smart as I’d decided I was.”
“What did you do?”
“Which time? Once, she had to read aloud in class and she said ‘clitch-uh” when the word was ‘cliché’. I never let her forget it.”
“Well, maybe you should call her and talk to her about that?”
“We have. I apologized for acting smarter, for making her feel stupid.”
“And what did she say?”
“Well, she never apologized for being so pretty, for making me feel ugly,” I say, and we cackle some more.
“I always thought you were beautiful. My babies were always good-looking and the best dressed.”
“Did you think you were beautiful, Mom?”
“No—I don’t know. Probably not. I had three kids. I look at pictures now and think about how much time I wasted worrying. I think, daaaaaamn—she looks good. All that youth, wasted.”
“You never really thought I could be Miss America, did you Mom?”
She sighs then. “Why not you?”
On his show “Last Week Tonight,” (“Mom! You should watch this!” “I don’t have time, I’m busy, I’m tired.”) John Oliver reported that The Miss America Foundation’s claim to offer “more than 45 million in cash and tuition assistance” yearly is fiction. The organization counts the scholarship earning potentials of all women who participate, though only winners receive funding; it also counts the tuition of every school the winner(s) could potentially attend—though the winner will only end up attending one of those schools, and thus the organization will only pay one of those tuitions.
I am not smug or satisfied at this, that the dreams of a million girls rest upon something made-up, re-vamped, empty but glossed over. John Oliver is not only concerned with Miss America’s fictive numbers, but at how “even their lowest number is more than any other women-only scholarship that we could find. More than the Society of Women Engineers…more than the Patsy Mink Foundation…and more than the Jeannette Rankin Women’s Scholarship fund.” He urges his audience to donate to the latter foundations if they “want to change the fact that currently, the biggest scholarship program exclusively for women in America, requires you to be unmarried, with a mint-condition uterus, and also rewards working knowledge of buttock-adhesive technology,” which makes it all so simple, so funny, so undeniable and true. How easy for him, to wrap it up in a bow, just like that.
I am a white woman with a self-described unconventional late-bloomed beauty and I was the Homecoming Queen and my mother found inspiration for my future through an American institution. I am an over-educated white woman from an under-served background examining magical thinking, cultural implications, privileged paths, the restraints or rewards of beauty, and I am wondering what I could have possibly gained from a black woman’s loss of a title.
This year Mom turned fifty and I turned thirty. “I’m fifty!” she screeched into the phone. “I’m thirty!” I screeched back. I’m sure she was kicking her legs into the air just then as I was, both of us Molly Shannon with pants hiked up to our throats, both of us aging, defiant, drunken Rockettes. She turned fifty and I turned thirty and we both finished our Master’s degrees this very same year, hers in Spanish, mine in English, different languages but both of us Masters, forever and ever, Amen.
Of course I was the Homecoming Queen.
Just ask my mother, who stood beside me that night on the field. They announced the queen last, after the rest of the court, and the king. I waited for Carrie’s name to be called, her long platinum hair swinging in a well-timed Autumnal breeze. I fussed with my self-identified “F-the-man” pixie cut and prepared the whole “Isn’t it great just to be nominated?” speech the loser ought to give. The drums rolled and the bulbs flashed and the JROTC kids raised the glinting sword tunnel the queen would be escorted through by a football-uniformed king and I made myself think, “Isn’t this all so ridiculous?” That’s why I didn’t hear my own name called. I remember Carrie’s gracious smile, the slight nod of her gorgeous blonde head; maybe she knew I needed this more than she did. I remember the trumpets, the jazz band playing the fight song, the stadium lights blinding, the crisp air breezing through my bangs, the feeling of my mother patting my butt in front of a whole stadium of clapping, roaring people. I remember her pushing me forward like the road was long-since-paved and waiting. She whispered in my ear, “It’s you, it’s you! I knew it was going to be you.”