Miss Michigan Recap and Debrief – what the heck happened to me

The following is a long overdue word-vomit on my Miss Michigan experience:

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I’ve never been speechless before. Talking and writing are some of my favorite hobbies, and I don’t usually struggle to put my ideas into words. But the reason I’ve put off this update post for so long is because I honestly do not know how I feel about Miss Michigan week.

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I need to begin by saying that the girls were incredible, out of this world, outstanding, amazing, absolutely indescribable. Starting the day with sleepy smiles and ending with candid conversations in the suite (WHAT HAPPENS IN THE SUITE STAYS IN THE SUITE), these girls were the highlight of the experience. Yes, they were kind, letting me borrow fake eyelashes, sharing butt glue in dressing rooms, and always helping zip each other in and out of dresses. But there’s so much more. Bonding over hundreds of cups of coffee, painfully honest conversations on awful boyfriends (CLIP EM LADIES), twirling a Tahitian dancer’s props in the hallway (but mostly getting hit in the face)… somewhere between the brutally early mornings and late nights, somewhere over the trays of room service, and between quick changes in the basement of the theater, magic happened with the 34 contestants. I made dozens of new friends, strengthened old bonds, and learned about life and myself through these young women.

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I also need to say that I love pageants for teaching me how to be me. I’m the best, most polished version of myself when I’m in pageant mode. As exhausting as that may be, it was great to feel “on” for a full week.

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Okay, I can’t keep going without touching on the exhaustion. Everyone told me Miss Michigan week would be tiring, but I had no idea. I barely slept, barely ate, and could barely move at the end of the week. The physical exhaustion, however, was nothing compared to the emotional and mental depletion. There were nights (especially at the afterglow) when all I could do was sit and cry because I was absolutely drained, like I had run out of smiles during the day. And I’m annoyed with myself for not being able to describe that any better, but I can’t put a week’s worth of fatigue into words.

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The rest of the week was stained with something I still don’t know how to put in words. I’ve been trying to describe it as “a bad vibe” or “darkness” or just “really really weird.” Whatever it is, I didn’t like it, and I don’t know where it came from. Maybe it was the culmination of the most difficult year of my life coming out during pageant week, a year of stress finally manifesting itself? I can’t put it into words, and it’s infuriating because I need to talk about it. Not just for myself, but for others who may feel the same.

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The week was incredible. I had a great time. I made friends, made memories, got a $500 scholarship just for showing up, was treated like a celebrity all week, volunteered in the local community, and truly lived an adventure of a lifetime. But somehow, I came back feeling… I don’t know. Not myself.  I “lost my sparkle” at Miss Michigan – the glittery bit of my personality that defines me. I don’t know how or why, but I came back different.

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None of this saying “oh, the pageant was awful and now I’m depressed and not myself and I blame the pageant and the girls wah wah.” Exactly the opposite. I’m trying to figure out how to say that 1) I had a spectacular experience and 2) I returned changed and don’t know how or why.

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Have I loved my time with pageantry? Yes. Have pageants shaped me into the person I am today? Yes. Do I love them, regardless of their absurdity, for what they’ve taught me? Yes. Will I be competing again in locals in pursuit of another week at Miss Michigan in 2016? I don’t know.

I’m still processing.

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Real talk guys. Real talk.

In twelve short days, I’ll be crammed into a car with 15 lb. of makeup, 87 pairs of earrings, enough “dressy casual” attire to last a lifetime (or at least a week… and can someone please define that phrase for me?) on my way to Muskegon to compete for the title of Miss Michigan.

My most honest and truly “Danielle” moments happen at the gym. If you’ve had the immense (dis)pleasure of working out with me before, you know that I explode sass or tears. During a particularly sassy day, after delivering a particularly sassy face to a particularly sassy coach, I was told that “frowning won’t help you win Miss Michigan.” Mid-pull-up, I replied, “I’m not trying to win Miss Michigan.”

“Oh?”

We need to go back further.

The other day at the gym (of course) between squat sets, I confessed to my friend that I had been feeling a lot of pressure leading up to Miss Michigan. Peers and respected adults said to me that lifting and pageants were not compatible, especially on the state level. Those opinions, plus a few statements from others that week, made me feel like my body was no longer pageant appropriate. I am by no means large or muscular, and I’m abolishing the word “fat” from my vocabulary, but it was made clear to me that weightlifting pageant contestants are not the norm. My wonderful friend replied to those fears, as she unracked her bar that weighed more than five full grown bears, “just be true to yourself.”

Be true to yourself. That was always my goal in pageants – as the 18 year old nerdy girl who was “too smart for pageants” or “too mature” to be a teen competitor, or the 20 year old who was “too manly looking” to wear a bikini on a stage – my goal was always to be my own self. But I lost sight of that goal, and forgot where my intentions began.

So to what am I being true? This time around, I am being true to my passions.

I am in love with barbells, with the physical and mental growth they provide. I love the long hours in the gym, the sweat and chalk permanently stained into my clothes, the calloused hands and bruised… well, everything is bruised. I love being free to eat what I need to fuel my body, and I am probably the only contestant who is trying to gain weight leading up to her pageant (this girl needs two kilos worth of quads, asap). I refuse to sacrifice my happiness and health, and if that costs me a crown, that is okay.

I am in love with ballet, and threw away the predictability and safety of a lyrical routine for my talent, instead opting for a classical ballet variation en pointe. I refuse to sacrifice my training and technique for tricks, and if that costs me a crown, that is okay.

I am in love with learning, and put academics and my future career as a physician before almost everything. I’ve turned down dozens of appearances to study for the MCAT, missed glamorous events because I had an exam the next morning, and hid pageant prep in the back of my brain to focus on the MCAT. I refuse to be shamed for putting my education first, and if that costs me a crown, that is okay.

So I am not trying to win. I am trying to be Danielle – the girl who eats Cheetos in her evening gown before modeling it at her send-off party; the girl who came to said send-off party straight from the gym, sweaty hair and chalky hands and all; the girl who acknowledges the absurdity of pageants but loves them for what they taught her, and is always ready to discuss said absurdity (wait, why am I in a bikini and heels onstage?); the girl who has gained twenty pounds since her pageant debut three years ago and could not be happier about it. And if that costs me a crown, that is okay.

“Pretty________”

Between my pageant work with my sparkly four-pointed hat, dance, and working at a museum, I’m around young kids a lot. Especially young girls. And every day, I try my hardest not to call any girl “pretty.” I believe in being “pretty ___fill in the blank___,” but not simply pretty.

“But Danielle, people tell you you’re pretty all the time, so that doesn’t make any sense. What’s wrong with pretty?” Okay, call me “beautiful” and you’ll have my heart (female weakness). And nothing is wrong with the word “pretty.” The issue lies in how we use it, how we smother young girls with it. What does “pretty” teach people?

Let’s start from the beginning: my siblings are incredible. My older brother is charismatic, brilliant, athletic, and fun to be around. My younger sister, too, is brilliant, athletic, and a musical genius (with a killer sense of fashion). My not-so-baby-anymore of a baby brother is also great at sports and music, and armed with a maturity and command over words that most adults don’t reach. And I’m… well, I’m the pretty one.

So what kind of space does that give someone? As a child, when your siblings and peers are being praised for their hard work and you’re being praised for your face, how do you see your role? Why push yourself at school when you can be pretty? Why pursue STEM fields when engineering could get your hands dirty, or thinking too hard over a calculus problem might give you wrinkles, when you can just be pretty? Why work hard to get a degree and get into medical school when you’re pretty enough to find a rich husband? You fear change, and you fear the idea of pushing yourself past your prettily defined boundaries. You don’t want to do anything wrong, because wrong isn’t pretty. So how does being “pretty” shape you? You become scared.  You settle. You hold yourself back because all you know how to be is pretty, and you’ve never heard how to be anything else. But your face doesn’t get grades, or degrees, or accomplishments. You can’t put your face on a resume. My face won’t be taking the MCAT or applying to medical schools for me. Does my face do my homework, or lift barbells for me? Nope. That’s all hard work. Telling girls they’re pretty enforces ideas and stereotypes that harm them for the rest of their lives. **

So I stopped being “pretty,” and I decided to be “pretty ____.”

Five days a week, no matter how tired I am, I wake up at 6 am to bike (uphill, often through snow) to my brother’s house in the dark, then drive to a neighboring city where I throw around barbells that weigh more than me for a few hours. It’s not pretty. It’s full of blood, sweat, and tears (especially if wallballs are involved). That’s not pretty. But the sacrifices I make to get to the gym mean that I am pretty disciplined, and I am pretty dedicated. And how many girls do you know who can lift things that weigh twice as much as them? Looks like I am pretty strong.

Gym memberships aren’t cheap, especially on a college student’s budget. So, I work two jobs during the school year. Instead of socializing on Friday nights, I pick up extra shifts at the Museum. Instead of watching Netflix or shopping with my friends after class, I lead study groups through the University. Trust me, workaholicism is anything but pretty (coffee stains and dark circles?), but I am pretty hardworking. 

I also have a habit of falling in love with things I’m bad at. Fun fact: I didn’t have any proper, classical, technique based dance training until I was 12, which is ancient in the dance world. By then, I was a decade behind my peers. But thankfully, I am pretty stubborn, so in addition to taking every single class possible, I spent hours at home and in the library researching dance history and ballet technique. Are bruised knees and toenails, bleeding blisters, and floorburns pretty? No, but thanks to my hard work, I am pretty talented (or at least my mom says I am. Thanks Mom. That’s pretty great).

I’m also terrible at biology, which is hilarious because I’m a biology and evolutionary anthropology double major. Thankfully, I am pretty motivated. I spent my childhood (and my workdays now) in museums, falling in love with science. I spent my high school lunch hours in my biology and math teachers’ classrooms, asking question after question until I understood the material. Even today, when I know it’ll be a miracle if I score above average on my biochemistry exam, I am studying all day long to fight for every single point. Ink stained hands aren’t pretty, but I am pretty driven.

And despite all this hard work, good GPAs and MCAT scores are difficult to come by. And then there’s medical school, which will be exponentially harder than my intro biochemistry course. And then there’s The Real World, where I have to figure out what the heck a mortgage is and how student loans work and when I should get my tires rotated. And then I’ll be in a career where people’s lives are in my hands on a daily basis. Obviously, The Real World is scary, but I think that my excitement to tackle it (and anyone who has the guts to get out of bed and face it every day) is pretty brave.

So I’m pretty sick of using the word “pretty,” and I’m pretty tired of watching another generation of girls fall into the same traps. We didn’t ask for “pretty” faces, but we worked our tails off for everything else, despite knowing it may not be acknowledged because our faces are more interesting. But regardless, we are pretty incredible. Let young girls know that. Recognize and praise how hard they work, and teach them to value their work ethic more than their faces.

 

**Note: for further reading into how the words you use to describe children change their self perceptions, motivation, and work ethics,  I suggest Mueller and Dweck, Kamins and Dweck, and Wood and Bandura.

Why Pageants?

If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me, “but… why pageants?” I could finally buy those fancy Nike weightlifting shoes I’ve been drooling over (but customized. Pink. Obviously).

But really, why pageants?

When I was 18 years old, during the spring of my senior year of high school, I received a letter from a national pageant system geared at building the confidence, poise, and speaking/interview skills of girls ages 4-20. The letter encouraged me to attend an open call to learn more about the system and interview to become a state finalist. At the open call, I stood out awkwardly as one of the few teenagers among a sea of children and preteens. I stayed and stood my ground, mesmerized by the fact that I could dress up while learning real world skills and potentially winning scholarship money. I realized that it would not only be a fun way to push myself out of my comfort zone, but a chance to win scholarships as well.

I came home armed with a few brochures and asked my mom if I could give it a shot. She practically screamed NO, saying that 1) I would be competing against experienced girls who had been doing this for years, and 2) I would make a fool out of myself. So naturally, I decided to compete. I made a powerpoint describing how I would personally benefit from the pageant, and why I was a good investment in my hometown’s present and future. Then, I met with managers of local businesses, presented my case, and raised over $600 to pay for the entire competition. My mom was still reluctant, but couldn’t say no.

From there, I spent weeks preparing, trying to make the unknown as predictable as possible. I read blogs and articles, researched the system and past winners, and studied pageant videos on YouTube. I believe that hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. A few weeks later, I packed my prom dress, second hand interview suit, and hairspray, and headed to my first pageant.

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I. Was. SO AWKWARD.

And I won. At my very first pageant, against a field of 111 girls, several of whom were previous titleholders and seasoned veterans, I walked away with the title of Miss Michigan Teen. On top of that, I won the academic scholarship which had drawn me to compete in the first place (I later won the academic scholarship competition at nationals as well).

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When they called my name, I stood and stared at the judges to make sure I wasn’t being punked.

Since then, it’s been a whirlwind. I’ve co-founded a national nonprofit, started my own platform based foundation, driven and flown thousands of miles to competitions and appearances, volunteered at countless events, used social media to reach out to and inspire girls across the country, and competed in two (and placed 6th overall!) national pageants. I’ve also taken the scary first steps (swimsuit competition. trust me) towards my goal of becoming Miss America by competing in Miss Michigan/Miss America local preliminaries. Between now and Miss Michigan in June, it’s yet another crazy year of appearances, practicing, training, and studying.

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Bring cookies to all the firefighters in my hometown to thank them for being awesome

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After being interviewed at an auto show

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Visiting and speaking with campers at the Midland Center for the Arts

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After hosting a drive in my freshman year dorm, I delivered several boxes of donations to the local Ronald McDonald House

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Sometimes this happens too

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Supporting the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals… by eating ice cream


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But why pageants?

In the short term, being successful in pageantry will help me financially. As a premedical student, I will be in school for the majority of the next decade, so scholarships are particularly meaningful. I’ve won over $5000 in scholarships through pageants, which pays for my textbooks and a chunk of tuition (yes, pageants can be expensive, but if you’re smart and budget properly, you’ll make a net profit).

In the long term, though, pageants help me by teaching real-world skills. For example, the interview and onstage question competitions refine my speaking as I approach medical school interviews. Further, service work and appearances deepen my passion for helping others, while sharpening my interpersonal skills. Both of these skills will be helpful in my career as a doctor.

Even further, the types of girls that pageantry attracts have changed my life – who I am, who I strive to be, and my standards. Pageant girls are beautiful, obviously, but the truth is that we radiate that beauty from the inside out. We have service driven hearts of gold. We work tirelessly at – school, dance classes, music lessons – to better ourselves and refine our gifts. When I think of the typical “pageant girl,” I think a girl who knows who she is, what she wants, and how to get there without compromising what she believes in.

Moreover, pageantry teaches girls to never settle for just one option, but rather, to seek the best of all worlds. Young women today often feel that they can be intelligent, talented, internally beautiful, or externally beautiful, but never all four at once. However, pageantry taught me that it is acceptable to pursue excellence in all aspects that I chose, and that I may do so unapologetically. Pageants nurtured me to pursue my variety of passions, but also shut me down and challenged me to defy odds in the quest for these passions.

So why pageants? Because pageantry breeds a special type of young woman, one who unrelenting in her quest for success and fulfillment in all aspects of her life.

(and hey, the dresses are fun too)