My parents and Roger and Joanne were friends before they had kids, and their older son Justin and I were born twelve days apart. As I pedaled up their driveway in Roanoke, Virginia, I hit the 500-mile mark of the trip.
Sitting on the couch in the evening, I vowed that during my visit I would get a hold of myself. *I'll brainstorm about dogs*, I promised. Through the windows I could see down the valley to the twinkling lights of Roanoke, and beyond the city, I knew, were the mountains in all their purple-blue gloriousness. Next moment I thought, *I do not want to leave.*
It was Roger who suggested the idea of going to school for a day. In all my seventeen years I'd spent only one full day at school, and I figured the experience would at least have socio-anthropological value. So, on the rainy Wednesday after I arrived, I accompanied Justin O'Dell to eleventh grade at Blue Hills High. I felt like I was entering another world. The hall monitors stood like sentries in front of the office, where Justin left me to check in with the principal.
I soon discovered that Dr. Vicky Frederick didn't have much time to spare unless you happened to be an adult. "Be with you in a minute," she'd say to me, proceeding to smile sweetly at the grown-up next in line, who evidently had business more pressing than mine. I sat in the front office for precisely an hour and six minutes.
Finally, Vicky Frederick acknowledged my existence. "What's your name?" she said brusquely.
“Sarabeth...who?” queried Dr. Frederick. "Don't you have more than one name?"
“It's Matilsky,” I answered hurriedly. "Sarabeth Matilsky. Remember, Roger O'Dell called you? I'm here for the day with Justin."
"Well, in order for you to attend the proper grade here, Sarabeth, you will have to take several tests to show us what you know. You can't expect to just walk in and waltz to your classes!"
"Uh—well, no! I mean, I’m not. I mean…"
"…And as I was saying," said Dr. Frederick in a chilly voice, "we really don’t allow visitors to attend regular classes. It's too much of a distraction for our students, and making an exception for one visitor would open the door to anyone who came in."
I wondered how many people were demanding attendance at English Composition and Algebra II. "I’m just visiting the O'Dells'," I said, "and I'll be out of town next week, like Roger said on the phone. I only wanted to see what Justin's English class is like. I'd planned on being perfectly quiet." Dr. Frederick's eyes were on me. I continued nervously. "I won't disrupt anything. I'll leave if it doesn't work out. In fact, I'll leave now if you want me to! But I thought it was okay."
Finally, the indomitable principal relaxed her stare. "Well, it's very irregular." She sniffed. "But as long as you don't cause a disturbance, it should be all right. Only the English class, though. There's an assembly you can go to at nine, and then…" She trailed off, trying to figure out what to do with me before the fifth period English class started. "I know. After assembly, go to the Career Lab." With a sniff of relief, Vicky Frederick pointed me toward the auditorium.
Once inside the cavernous hall, I gazed over a sea of heads to the stage. And that's when I beheld a real, live beauty queen.
In Michelle Kang's senior year of high school she was crowned Miss Cherry Blossom Festival, and the title brought her local fame and scholarship money toward college. But the Cherry Blossom title was also her ticket to the Miss Virginia pageant, where she competed several months later.
Her novice status didn't sit well with some of the other contestants. Hadn't every other girl at the pageant been working on their poise and perfect smile for years? It just wasn't right that some girl from the boonies—whose parents were Korean immigrants, no less—should get to compete when she hadn't done her time.
Michelle won the state pageant in 1996, though, and the girls who'd been Miss America wannabes since pre-school had to cry bitter tears. She didn't get the national title, but during her reign as Miss Virginia, Michelle took her tiara and her cause—drug abuse prevention—on the road. In April 1997, her tour led her to Blue Hills High.
Ms. Kang's presentation was about self-esteem and the hazards of drugs, and despite her teacher-ish tone, the skit was even capturing the attention of the rowdy boys in the last row. From their expressions, the boys seemed to be hoping that after the lecture would be the swimsuit segment. I tried to imagine Ms. Kang performing under the spotlights at the Miss America Pageant. I wondered what this woman was really like.
After the assembly, though, I was destined for the career lab—a drab room filled with college admissions information. I watched the clock. Five minutes later, as I stared impolitely, in walked Michelle Kang. She was followed by Nellie and Anna Lea, two seniors who'd been chosen to usher Miss Virginia around the school all day. They were here for the same reason I was: the school didn't have anything else for them to do in the two hours before Michelle's next presentation.
For the rest of the morning, we peppered Michelle with questions. "What's it like in the pageants? How did you start? Do you do bathing suit competitions? What about eating disorders?"
That last question caused Ms. Kang's perfectly outlined-in-red smile to fade. "There is some. Well, actually, there's a lot of eating disorders, mainly because there's so much competition: 'Who's the thinnest? Who's gained weight?' It's hard to keep your appearance in perspective when you think about it all the time." Michelle looked away momentarily, and under her perfect make-up she was somber. Being a beauty queen didn't make you immune to the world's troubles.
"But I didn't get bulimia and anorexia because of the pageants." Michelle looked up again. "It was from ballet, and it started when I was twelve. I was five-foot-three, and I weighed just over a hundred pounds at the beginning. At the worst point in my dieting, I weighed eighty-two." She paused. "It took seven years before I really got better. I stopped ballet, which helped, but I never would've been able to break the cycle without my friends. I still have bad days, though, when I think about food way too much."
"I know what you mean—exactly," said Anna Lea. I looked up in surprise at the vehemence of the soft-spoken, blond-haired President of the Student Body. How would Anna Lea know about eating disorders? She was so self-assured, and besides, she looked like a model right out of Cosmo. Yet here she was, telling us how she'd been anorexic for two years. "…If it hadn't been for Nellie here, things would've been a lot worse. Do you know, there's more eating disorders here at Blue Hills than at all the other schools in the county combined?"
"The school counselors don't even know about half the cases," Nellie added. "They don't know how to handle it, anyway…"
While Nellie and Anna Lea talked, I made a mental tally of women I knew who either currently had eating disorders or had had one in the past. The list was large. But, as I sat in the career lab on that gray April day, I couldn't think of a single female friend who always—or even almost always—liked her body the way it was.
"Ironically," Michelle was saying, "competing in the pageants actually raised my confidence—I was like, 'Wow, I didn't even know I could do this.' Like I said, though, some of the other girls resented that I was so new; most of them had been going to pageants since before they could walk! I really just wanted the scholarship money. And I wasn't about to go spend thousands of dollars on a gown like some girls did. I figured that sort of defeated the whole purpose of the scholarship prize." Michelle laughed. She said she wouldn't be doing any more pageants. In the fall, she was going back to college.
But even though Michelle seemed down-to-earth, she assured us—just like proponents of the Miss America Pageant always seem to—that pageants aren't about looks. Being Miss America, Michelle said predictably, is about having "personality," talent, and public speaking skills. Obviously, Michelle possessed all those attributes. But she couldn't answer my main question: Why don’t the pageant judges ever pick a winner who is talented and has a great personality but doesn't have a "beautiful" body?
Later, I wondered what the big deal was about being Miss America, anyway. Maybe it wasn't all it was cracked up to be—even a beauty queen would get chased by dogs if she rode through Virginia on her bicycle.