Scene4 Magazine: Kathi Wolfe - Life Among The Heffalumps

Bodies, Bathing Beauties, Feminism, Oh My!


October 2013

I sing the body electric, wrote Walt Whitman.

Would "the body" have sung for him as it did for me when I learned that an open lesbian was a contestant this year in the Miss South Carolina pageant?  I ponder this as I, a card-carrying feminist, make sure that my DVR will record the Miss America pageant which this weekend will be broadcast from Atlantic City, N.J. for the first time in years. At press time, I learned that Nina Davuluri, Miss New York, won the Miss America pageant.  She is the first Indian-American Miss America.

Growing up, I'd never have dreamed that I'd have any interest in the Miss America competition other than to denounce it or any other beauty pageant.  As an emerging, self-righteous, emerging lesbian feminist, I (like some others of my cohort) looked down my nose at any hint of fashion, stylishness or attractiveness.  Caring about how you looked was catering to the sexist male chauvinist pigs.  Anyone (male or female) who appreciated pulchritude (especially in a girl or woman) was a pig or sympathy porker.  The world needed to be saved.  Who could waste time enjoying a pretty face, a beautiful dress or handsome tux?  Hell hath no fury (or lack of humor or aesthetic) like beauty scorned.

My younger self would be dismayed to discover that today a growing number of straight and LGBTQ (male and female) feminists have a new found respect for beauty, fashion – even beauty pageants.  Before you start pummeling me with your (deservedly) well-worn copies of MS magazine - chillax.  I haven't jumped the feminist shark into the quicksand of the Valley of the Shallow.  The pageant industry makes  big money for corporations; and beauty pageants, especially those for teens, tweens and tots, can be destructive not only for the contestants but for the girls and women who avidly watch them.  I'm no fan of eating disorders, distorted body image or of judging anyone by how they meet conventional (often sexist, homophobic, racist, ableist or gender-phobic) standards of beauty.  "Little Miss Sunshine," the engagingly satiric yet moving 2006 Academy Award-winning film, shows the ugliness and greed amidst the beauty in the pageant scene.

Yet, this having been said, I'm cheering beauty on.  Why?  Because in some of its current incarnations (even the Miss America festivities) – beauty with all its exclusive hauteur embodies feminism and diversity.  I first began to realize this on discovering that contrary to my derisive images, many beauty pageant contestants aren't dumb bimbos.

I met my first intelligent, decidedly non-bimbo-like beauty pageant competitor, when I interviewed over the phone the Queen of the World for Independence Today (, a disability newspaper.  No kidding.  I spoke with Lissette Garcia, who was Miss Florida in 2010 and later competed in the Miss Universe pageant.  Garcia really had been crowned Queen of the World in a 2007 beauty pageant in Germany. Garcia, who has spina bifida, is a first generation Cuban-American (her parents came to Miami from Cuba in 1980) who now works in TV news and production.  Being in a pageant isn't just being gorgeous and walking down runways, she told me, competing takes discipline, intelligence and hard work. Moreover, not every culture shares the scorn of some feminists and literati toward beauty pageants, Garcia said. "In a Latin household beauty pageants are as big as the Super Bowl!" she told me, "We take it seriously."

Pageant coaches, Garcia added, tell contestants that the point of competing isn't to win – it's to make a difference in the world – in their communities. "You have to be smart to enter a pageant," she said, "they {the judges} want someone...who has ambitions...someone with a career goal in mind."

Garcia is one of several contestants (open about their disabilities)  who have competed (and sometimes won) in beauty pageants since the 1990s.  In 1997, I was in Tuscombia, Ala., the birthplace of Helen Keller, when Heather Whitestone, the first deaf Miss America, spoke to school children there. Whitestone led a parade to celebrate the town's annual production of "The Miracle Worker."  The miracle for me was that the kids matter-of-factly took in Whitestone's deafness.  They were excited by her crown and thrilled when Whitestone let them pass it around and wear it on their heads.

In recent years, there have been Miss America contestants with autism and diabetes. This year, there was a contestant with only one arm.

In 1983 Vanessa Williams became the first black woman to become Miss America. (The first black Miss America contestant was Cheryl Brown who was Miss Iowa in 1970).  Since then, seven other black women and one Asian woman were Miss America, wrote Elwood Watson, professor of history and African-American studies at East Tennessee State University, in the "New York Times.  Since then, he notes, women of color nationwide have competed in the pageant.  "These women, particularly black women, have managed to parlay the opportunities provided by winning the Miss America crown into considerable success in a variety of professions,..."added Watson, author ofThere She Is, Miss America: The Politics of Sex, Beauty and Race in America's Most Famous Pageant.

Nancy Redd, Miss Virginia in 2003, won the bathing suit competition in the 2004 Miss America pageant.  But before you knock Redd as being anti-feminist, consider this:  Redd, author of Body Drama and Diet Drama, was involved with The Vagina Monolgues.  "Being affiliated with the Miss America brand gave me an incredible opportunity to offer youth a different perspective on life from a persona that they admired and respected," Redd, a HuffPost Live host who graduated from Harvard with a degree in women's studies, wrote in the New York Times, "In the same way folks might buy Coco-Cola because it's an official sponsor of American Idol, I believed that a large contingency of young women might be open to exploring feminism 'cause Miss Virginia said so."

I didn't think anything could be more surprising than the Virginia-vagina connection until I learned that last summer, Analouisa Valencia, who is openly lesbian, was a contestant in the Miss South Carolina pageant.  Though Valencia didn't win the contest, she didn't receive blowback for her sexual orientation.  Valencia, who is bi-racial, was the first openly gay contestant, in the pageant's history.  "This is my first year coming out and saying, 'This is me, girls....I'm going to be changing in the same dressing room as you..."she told

There's still much to mock and scorn in beauty pageants, and too many are still mocked and scorned because they don't meet outdated and prejudicial standards of beauty.  Yet, the changing, increasingly diverse, make-up of Miss America contestants reflects the ways in which our culture's view of beauty is changing.  Enough to hum, if not sing, the body electric for me.

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Scene4 Magazine - Kathi Wolfe |
Kathi Wolfe is a writer, poet and a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4. Her reviews and commentary have also appeared in an array of publications. Her most recent Book of Poems, The Green Light, has just been published by Finishing Line Press.
For more of her commentary, articles and poetry check the

©2013 Kathi Wolfe
©2013 Publication Scene4 Magazine


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October 2013

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