How I Lost the Junior Miss Pageant Cindy Bosley

Most people have never participated in a beauty pageant. But nearly everyone has experienced the angst associated with the quiet pageantry of everyday life—the constant pressure to perform well in
public, to look the part of a happy, stable, well-to-do member of society. Cindy Bosley, a teacher and published poet, is brave enough to share her early attempts at dealing with this pressure. On
one hand, this essay is an exami- nation of beauty pageants and the awkward system of values and beliefs that surround them; on the other, it is an intimate look at a mother/daughter relationship
defined by the social goings-on of a small city in the middle of America.
Every evening of the annual broadcast of the Miss America Pageant, I, from the age of seven or so, carefully laid out an elaborate chart so that I might also participate as an independent judge of
the most important beauty contest in the world. From my viewing seat on a green striped couch in my parents’ smoky living room where the carpet, a collage of white, brown, and black mixed-shag,
contrasted so loudly with the cheap 70s furnishings that it threatened my attention to the television set, I sat with popcorn and soda, pen in hand, thrilled at the oncoming parade of the most
beautiful women in the world. In the hours before the show began, I’d carefully written out in ink, sometimes over and over, names of all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico along the y
axis of my paper. And my categories of evaluation of the contestants ribbed themselves along the x axis—beauty, poise, swimsuit, evening gown—plus categories of my own—hair, likability, teeth. Over
the years, an increasingly complex system of points and penalties evolved: an extra point for being tan, a loss of points for sucking up, more points for breasts, more points for unpainted nails,
fewer points for big noses, fewer points for skinny lips, an extra point for smartness, subtraction of a point for playing the piano. Who wants to hear a sonata? Dance for me, bounce your bootie.
My mother had secret hopes. Finally divorced for the second time from the same man, my father, she sat with me and gave her own running commentary about who was cute, who smiled too much, who would
find a handsome husband. My mother, having always been a little to a lot overweight, excelled at swimming, and she told me much later that she chose swimming because she didn’t feel fat in the
water. Her sister was the cheerleader, but she was a swimmer, too heavy for a short skirt of her own, she said. My mother’s secret was that she wanted the winner to be her daughter. Sitting with me
on the couch at 137 North Willard Street, she already knew I wasn’t tall enough or pretty enough in the way of models and movie stars to ever stand a chance, but her real fear, which I only became
aware of as an older teen, was that I would always be too chubby and too backward and too different and too poor, for which she blamed herself, to win a beauty pageant. Still, there were always
those surprises of the contests—Miss Utah? She was no good! Why did she win? What were those judges thinking! It should have been Miss Alabama, anyone can see that. Who would have guessed Miss
Utah, with that mole on her shoulder? After my mother’s never-subtle hints that if I’d just lose 20 pounds boys would like me and I might even win a beauty contest, it was my friend Bridget who
wanted us to enter the Ottumwa (pronounced Uh-TUM-wuh) Junior Miss Pageant together. I secretly believed that I stood a better chance than Bridget did, though she had the right name and the right
body, though she wore the right clothes and was more magazine-beautiful than I. I had some hope for the contest: I had some talents and a kind of baby-cute innocence complete with blond hair and
blue eyes that I was sure the judges would find “charming and fresh.” Yeah, okay, so I was already engaged to be married—so what—I was still on my way to college, and Bridget was not. And Judy was
funny but had a flat face. Marcy was smart but had no breasts or hips. Carol was pretty but totally uncoordinated and her knees came together when she jumped. Desirea had enviable boobs, almost as
nice as mine and probably firmer, but her chin did weird things when she smiled and her eyes were brown. We practiced, all of us together, several times a week with a lithe woman—somebody’s mom
with good hair and body—getting us into form for the stage. This was the era of Flashdance, so we all wore our own leg warmers and torn sweatclothes and fancy headband scarves. If you were one of
the north-side girls (that meant your daddy was a businessman or doctor), you had gotten your leg warmers from Marshall Field’s in Chicago. If you were Bridget, your dad worked at John Deere like
mine but was in management and not out in the factory threading bolts on a greasy, noisy machine, so you got your leg warmers from the mall in Des Moines. If you were me, with a factory dad who
didn’t even live in the same house, you got your leg warmers from Kmart down the road because Target was all the way across town and too expensive, and Wal-Mart hadn’t yet been born as far as we
knew. The fancy mom-lady made sure everyone had a brochure about her charm school (this is small-town Iowa, mind you, so anyone operating a charm school and modeling agency in this town was kidding
themselves. But making lots of money.). So 14 of us, nervous, jealous, ears ringing with Mirror-Mirror-on-the-Wall, met daily for two weeks prior to the pageant to go over our choreographed group
fitness routine to be performed, not in swimsuits, but in short-shorts and white T-shirts, Hooters-style (also not invented yet as far as we knew), and to discuss such techniques as Vaseline along
the teeth and gum lines to promote smooth smiles, lest our lips dry out and get stuck in a grin during discussions with the judges of the agonies of world hunger. We were each responsible for our
own talent routines and props, and each one of us had to provide a 537 black-and-white photo for the spread in the town paper. The photographs were a problem. My father did not believe in such
things for girls as shoes, clothes, haircuts, college, or photographs for Junior Miss, and so there was no way he was going to give a penny for a pageant-worthy dress or a professional
photographer’s 10-minutes-plus-proofs. I believe my mother even humiliated herself enough to ask. This was hard for her, since he’d admitted before leaving to a five-year affair with a woman who
looked surprisingly like my mother but heavier. So Mom and I tried some Polaroid headshots against the side of the house, but me dressed up in my prettiest sailor blouse couldn’t counteract the
hospital green of the aluminum siding. We moved up to our only other option, which was my mother’s flash camera with Instamatic film, and still nothing suitable (I could have agreed on one of the
Polaroid shots, but my mother knew it would knock me out of the contest for sure even before the night itself). I don’t know who she borrowed the money from or what she did to get the favor, but my
mother had me down at Lee’s Photography the very next afternoon, and he took one shot and offered us the one proof. Abracadabra, there was my face among all the other faces as a contestant in the
Uh-TUM-wuh Junior Miss Pageant. From the layout in the paper, it looked to me, and to my flushed mother, as though I had as good a shot as any. The contest night went quickly: my foot, couched,
pinched, and Band-Aided uncomfort- ably in a neighbor’s hand-me-down high heels, slipped (hear the auditorium’s quick and loud intake of breath in horror!) as I walked forward to say my name with a
strong, vibrant hello just like I’d been coached by the fancy-mom; my dress was last year’s prom dress, which earned me no cool points with my peers but didn’t lose me any either since I had none
to subtract; I managed not to land on my bottom (as I had in every practice before the contest) in my gymnastics routine, self-choreographed with my own robot-style moves to the synthesizer- heavy
tune “Electricity,” by a band that was popular in Sacramento, California, in that year, 1985, but not yet in my hometown. (The cassette tape had been given to me by my Hispanic, juvenile
delinquent, just-released-from-young-boy-prison-in-California ex-boyfriend Jim.) My exercise routine went off very well in front of the crowd, and I don’t think anyone could even tell that my
shorts were soaking wet from having been dropped by me into the toilet just an hour before as I arranged my items for quick-change. My mother and fiancé were actually sitting together, their mutual
hatred of each other squeezed like a child between them. I’d even kept myself from leaving my mother behind when, backstage after the contest as I hugged and cried in joy for the co-winners and out
of desperate relief that it was over now, my mother, beside herself with embarrassment for me and disappointment for herself, and misunderstanding my tears, hissed loudly enough for the benefit of
everyone, “STOP your crying, they’ll think you’re not a nice LOSER!” So I had done it: I had been a contestant in the Junior Miss Pageant and my mother had the snapshots to prove it. I’d lost the
contest because I didn’t yet know how to tell people what they wanted to hear. The small girl that boys secretly liked but wouldn’t date doesn’t win Miss America. The girl hiding in her room
reading and writing poetry doesn’t win Miss America. The girl playing violin despite her mother’s anxiousness that other people will think she’s weird doesn’t win Miss America. The girl on Willard
Street doesn’t ever win Miss America. But the truth is that I’d lost the contest when I told the judges, when they asked, that my most personal concern was my mother’s loneliness, and if I could
change anything at all, I would give her something—a man, God, anything to free her from that loneliness.
Clearly, I lacked the save-the-whales-and-rainforest civic-mindedness required not only of Miss America, but of Junior Miss America, too. Even, although one wouldn’t think it, in Ottumwa, Iowa,
where my mother would go on to work in a bathtub factory, and then a glue factory, and then an electrical connectors factory (the factory worker’s version of upward mobility), and finally, a watch
factory where they shipped and received not just watches but cocaine in our town that at that time had more FBI agents in it than railroad engineers. And even in this town where my sister would go
to work the kill floor of the pork plant where, for fun, the workers shot inspection dye at each other and threatened each other’s throats with hack-knives. And even in this town where my cousin,
age 13, would bring a bomb to seventh grade for show-and-tell, and get caught and evacuated, and be given community service to do because the public-school-as-terrorist-ground phenom- ena hadn’t
yet been born. And even in this town where if you want to go to college, you better know someone who knows how to get you there because otherwise it’s too far away and too much money and too much
trouble and way, way, way beyond your own intellect and sense of self to do it alone. How scary (get married). How wasteful (get married). How expensive (get married). How strange (get married).
How pretentious (get married). How escapist (get married). If your parents are crazy and poor, and if you can’t win the Junior Miss Pageant, and if it’s the kind of town where you stay or they
don’t ever want you coming back, you get married, you move to Texas where your husband sells drugs, you hide away from the world until your self grows enough to break you out, and then you leave
and you pray for your mother’s loneli- ness and you spend your life learning to come to terms with your own, and you are smart and willful and strong, and you don’t ever have to draw another chart
before the pageant begins. My mother told me later that she was just sure I would have won the Junior Miss contest if I hadn’t made that awful mistake in my gymnastics routine (I don’t know what
mistake she was talking about—it was the least flawed part of the evening), but I knew the truth about why I’d lost, and I knew I’d lost even before the contest or the practices began. I’d lost
this con- test at birth, probably, to be born to my father who had a date that night, and to my mother who believed some girls—girls like me, and girls like her—had to try very hard to catch and
keep a boy’s attention. I’d lost the contest in borrowed shoes and an out-of-date dress. I’d lost the contest with the engagement ring on my seventeen-year-old finger. I’d lost the contest with wet
shorts and too funky music. I’d lost the contest with a bargain photograph and Kmart leg warmers. I’d lost the contest with an orange Honda Express moped parked between the other girls’ cars. I’d
lost the contest in a falling-down green house. I’d lost the contest in the grease on my father’s hands and hair and the taste of grease in his lunchbox leftovers. I’d lost the contest in my
growingly cynical evaluation of Miss America as I’d gotten older—“chubby thighs touching, minus five points,” “big hair, minus three points,” “too small nipples, minus two,” “flabby arms, minus
five,” and subtract and subtract and subtract. It’s a contest no one should want to win. Our mothers should not have such dreams for us. Our mothers should not have such loneliness.

Give your opinion about the article

Divide Bosley’s essay into at least four parts and briefly summarize the purpose of each part. Exploring Ideas 1. What basic value or belief drives the way Bosley now thinks about pageants? 2.
Explain how Bosley’s point about pageants speaks to one of the following issues: competition, class, tradi- tion, media. To what other issue does the essay speak? What point does it make about the
issue? 3. Interview several people to find out how they view pageants. Record their responses, then explain what viewpoints are the most common, most unusual, and most thought provoking. Ideas for
Writing 1. Discover the significance of an experience or activity in which you participated with disappointing results. 2. Discover the significance of an experience or activity at which you
exceeded your own expectations.


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