|The Spirit of Houston County
| Essay by J. W. Young
My neighbor, Pageant Mom to a two-time Little Miss state champion, asked
if I’d be a judge in a pageant she’d decided to host. “It’s a new show,” she said,
“and I’m not sure how many girls there’ll be, but I’d like you to judge. I need
someone who won’t know who the girls are, since they’re all local. Sometimes,
people ask for the same judges and they give awards to the same girls over and
“Is that allowed?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “but it happens. So will you do it?”
Put on the spot, I’m liable to donate both kidneys if asked. “Sure. I’ll do
it,” I said, beads of sweat instantly running down my back.
We were standing in my driveway; I’d just finished weeding and watering
my flowerbeds, and my frumpy overalls were covered in grime. My neighbor
was posh and polished—her earrings matched her belt.
That night at dinner, I said to my husband, “How do I get out of this? Could
I fake a migraine?”
He let out a sigh. He’s familiar with my constant fiascoes, my overwhelming
need to make strangers happy.
As a child, I was led to believe that people were constantly judging me—
what I said, what I wore, whether or not my homework had eraser marks—any
of these things could be used against me at any time, to exclude me from certain
groups. I believed that for the most part, all people really cared about was if my
socks matched my shirt. It was a necessity to look perfect, pristine, so as to
avoid judgment. This was the only way to gain acceptance. “Always take a bath
and put on clean underwear before you leave the house,” my grandmother would
say. “If you die in a car accident you don’t want some doctor to see your dirty
drawers.” It was understood that in life and in death, one should always try to
This knowledge did not leave me content. To the contrary, it made me
wonder if I’d ever feel comfortable outside of my own home. So at age twenty-
two I escaped my childhood homeland in Southern California and moved to a
place I thought would be less shallow—Mississippi. Little did I know that the
University of Mississippi, where I was to attend graduate school, was patria to
an entire group of women whose main tasks in life were being Sorority Presidents,
Blood Drive Gold-Star Donors, and parading the town square every weekend in
airbrushed makeup and couture clothing. Every freshman co-ed seemed to have
been given an instruction manual on how to present herself in public—streaked,
board-straight hair, tanned body, French-manicured nails, jewel-toned dress, and
gold or silver heels. They had also received standard-issue white SUVs and
Platinum credit cards.
On the weekends, my fellow grungy graduate students and I would sit at the
local bars and mock the clone-girls. We turned their mundane attempts at flirting
with the fraternity boys into a drinking game. “That one just batted her eyelashes
again,” one of us might say, “time to buy another round.” When the bars closed
we’d walk to our cars, laughing as they puked into the gutters while trying not to
stain their five-hundred-dollar dresses with vomit.
Still, I was often worried into panic attacks over the way I was perceived,
and occasionally I’d wake up a half-hour early just so I could experiment with a
new shade of eye shadow. It was nearly impossible to detach myself completely
from my upbringing, especially when I looked at myself in the mirror. What I saw
was a woman who had too many flaws with no instruction manual to show me
how to conceal them all. And so I didn’t try; it would be much worse to be seen
as someone who was trying to be beautiful and failing, than someone who just
The Miss Spirit of Houston County pageant was held on a Saturday at the
local Methodist church. I was waiting inside the Usher’s Room with Pageant
Mom for the other judges to arrive. I worried that my limited understanding of
beauty wouldn’t get me through the day. I’d never fit a standard-of-beauty mold
and I was not fit to judge those who did. I’d have to declare winners and losers
based only on looks. I’d have to reject someone. I was sweating.
A massive wooden table carved with the words “Do this in remembrance
of me” sat before us, topped with water bottles, a plate of fruit and cheese,
several large trophies, crowns, and blank award certificates. If I were a
contestant, I’d be given a certificate—You’re brave for signing up for this
Beauty Pageant, those pieces of paper said, but just not pretty enough.
Sweat rolled down my back. A few more hours and I knew I’d be drenched if
I couldn’t relax.
The other two judges arrived and introduced themselves. One had three
daughters who’d been competing since they could walk. “My oldest has been
the grand marshal in eight parades. Half her competitors are in this pageant,”
she said, sitting with her legs crossed in one of the carved chairs, twitching her
foot so her black sandal clicked against her heel. She was dressed for the high
school’s evening football game—black blouse and capris, a scarf belt stamped
with the school’s logo in red and black, and manicured nails with tiny bulldogs,
the mascot, painted onto her thumbs. Her makeup was flawless, her tan perfectly
bronze, her hair expertly highlighted. The third judge was male, also dressed for
the game in a logoed polo shirt and khakis. He was the wrestling coach at the
local middle school and when Bulldog Nails asked how he got wrangled into
judging he said, “They needed a guy.”
I wasn’t dressed for the football game. I’d come in black cotton gauchos
and a gray T-shirt. I’d put on some make-up and slipped on clogs. My curly
hair protruded wildly from my head. Bulldog Nails looked me over and asked
how I became a judge. “I’m her neighbor,” I said, nodding toward Pageant
Bulldog Nails looked me up and down again, then turned toward Pageant
Mom, who’d begun assigning our first tasks. During the pageant we were each
to assign a separate award to the girl who had Best Gown, Best Smile, and Best
Hair. Bulldog Nails would determine Best Gown, Wrestling Coach would
award Best Smile, and I would determine Best Hair. “Remember,” Pageant
Mom had told us, “any girl that has on mascara and lipstick under the age of
twelve is immediately given a zero. They know they can’t use that.”
“What about glitter?” Bulldog Nails asked.
“If it’s in their hair it’s okay, but not on the face.”
Then Pageant Mom handed us a thick binder and explained, “These are
photos of all the girls. They’re separated by age and we’ll choose the most
photogenic of each group before the pageant starts. They’ll get their award
during the crowning.”
In the binder were everyday snapshots, some black and whites, some
obviously professional headshots. The girls looked much older than the age
categories claimed, probably because of their make-up and hairspray, not to
mention the revealing clothing. One eleven-year-old was actually wearing
stilettos and a floor-length gown, the nearly sheer fabric cut startlingly low.
We managed to choose Most Photogenic in each age group, giggling at a
few of the photos. I was a bit relieved by this levity, especially from Bulldog
Nails, whom I had been sure would’ve taken this task all too seriously. But
once the book was closed, she said, “My word, I really can’t believe what some
of these parents think passes for beauty. I mean, how can they win with a photo
of their kid sitting on the couch?”
Was she serious? I started to laugh, but she wasn’t smiling. I thought,
Wouldn’t I be more likely to find a kid sitting on a couch on a Saturday in
March rather than posed, hands on hips, standing on one leg while the
other is acting like a prop against the large oak tree behind her? Wouldn’t
I, on any given day, be more likely to see a girl in cut offs and a tank top,
rather than in sequined pleather and fringed vest? I looked down at my
feet, shifted my weight and started picking at my cuticles. I did this whenever I
was nervous and sometimes—like watching a scary movie—I picked them until
At the front of the sanctuary, the dais was decorated with silver, red, and
blue balloons with a silver backdrop. The pulpit was situated in the corner of
the stage where Pageant Mom stood behind a microphone. The girls would
come from a door stage left, stand before the silver backdrop, and exit stage
There were two huge stained-glass windows on either side of the
sanctuary. One depicted a pair of hands holding a dove, the other an open
bible. I wondered what the Methodist Jesus would think of what we were
about to do.
What I knew about beauty pageants couldn’t fill a shoe box, yet there I sat
at a long table in front of the dais, pen in hand, judging the first group of girls:
Baby Miss. They ranged in age from ten months to two years and were brought
on stage by their mothers. The first little baby—African-American with tight
black curls, a cherubic face, and a gold satin dress—had few teeth, but when her
name was announced, she smiled at the judges and practiced her bye-bye wave.
It was with this first girl I learned how to fill out the five categories on my
scorecards—Beauty, Poise, Personality, Enthusiasm, and Overall, each worth
five points. Beauty was a given, and the next three were linked to the statements
made by Pageant Mom when the baby took the stage: “Abigail Patrice Barton
likes playing peek-a-boo and Link-a-doos. Her favorite TV show is The
Wiggles and her favorite foods are puréed carrots and chicken noodle soup.”
Because of the carrots, she won twenty points. But what was I to do with
Overall? Was it the average of the others? I glanced at the cards of Bulldog
Nails and Wrestling Coach, who were no longer marking scores. I quickly
awarded another five points and Best Hair for fear I was taking too much time.
When the crowning occurred, Abigail Patrice Barton was not only the
Baby Miss Queen, but took home Best Hair, Best Gown, and Best Smile.
Although I was relieved that the other little girls were too young to notice she’d
gotten all the shiny awards, I had to avert my gaze from the disappointed
mothers on stage. I was new to the pageant world, but could tell this was
grossly unfair. One part of me said, Yes, it’s unfair. Beauty is not fair, while
the other side, the side that saw the world as a place where people should be
awarded for hard work not looks, said, Be fair. Everyone should get
something. And not just a certificate. So I made up my mind to award Best
Hair only after I’d peeked at the other judges’ scorecards.
I made it through Toddler Miss and Little Miss without being noticed. I
pretended to scratch my ankle, rub my temple, sneeze, and look through my
purse in order to be just and fair with my Best Hair award. But at the Junior
Miss category, I was outed. Six of the seven girls were obviously pros, but the
seventh was a novice. While the others were miniature versions of twenty-
somethings in cocktail gowns with prom-style hairdos, this little outsider wore a
homemade satin dress, white bobby socks, and patent leather shoes. Her hair
was mousy blonde and combed straight down the sides of her face, but
compared to her shellacked, glittered, braided, and twisted rivals it was naturally
beautiful. I easily gave her Best Hair.
At the crowning, Sara Marie Gattie was poised to win. She wore a hot
pink gown with intricate lacing up the back—best of show—and her hair was a
complex network of curls, braids, and clips. She must have been up at the
crack of dawn to get each strand so perfect. Because she smiled oddly, too
wide, she almost looked like she was straining on the toilet. She was crowned
Junior Miss Spirit to the nods of Bulldog Nails and Wrestling Coach. The
clapping from the congregation-audience made it clear she was the favorite all
But when Best Hair was announced, her smile changed to a frown before
she caught herself and started straining again. She couldn’t believe she’d lost
to the simple girl in flats with board-straight hair. Neither could Pageant Mom,
who eyeballed me. I glanced away and caught Bulldog Nails raising an
eyebrow. Wrestling Coach took his Blackberry from his pocket. The audience
was quiet except for a few claps from people who must’ve been the girl’s family.
Too obviously wrong in my choice, I picked my cuticles raw. My knees
began to sweat, but I swallowed my fears and told myself that I’d rightfully
sabotaged Sara Marie Gattie’s tedious hair and revealed her true nature. I
was tempted to snatch the Junior Miss crown right off her head and give her a
lecture on the meaning of poise and beauty. My speech might’ve gone
something like this: When you’re my age you’ll realize that you’re judged
in real life and that’s the judgment that will keep you up nights, not this.
Quit tormenting yourself. Wipe that ridiculous smile off your face and go
eat an entire pizza.
The next group on stage was the largest—nine girls were competing for
the title of Young Miss. They all looked alike to me—fake tan, fake nails, fake
smile. I couldn’t keep them straight since they all seemed to eat sushi and salad.
Then a darkly tanned girl walked out from the wrong door and took her place
on stage. She wore a light green dress with her hair combed back in a black
velvet headband. She stood with her hands behind her back, one eye floating
wildly in its socket while the other stared at the dove in the stained-glass. She
was wearing sneakers.
She was mentally handicapped.
The sanctuary became abnormally hot and quiet. The soles of my feet
began to itch. Now what do I do? Shouldn’t we have been told about
this? I thought. I glanced at Bulldog Nails, trying to take a cue from her, but
she was looking right through the girl.
I gave her three points each for poise and enthusiasm because although
she was incapable of looking at me, she was vacantly smiling. I gave her a four
for beauty and a five for personality because she was the only young woman
who admitted to eating Cheetos. Overall, she was a three, although my hands
were sweating so badly I may have slipped and made the three look like an
The girl was escorted offstage by Pageant Mom, and when all the girls
came back onstage for the crowning, I couldn’t watch. I doodled on my
scorecards and the only time I looked up she was ogling the trophies of the
others. Pageant Mom gave her a participation certificate, the congregation-
audience clapped, then the girls exited—the handicapped girl led along by the
girls in front and in back of her.
When it was all over and the Spirit of Houston County Queens were called
out onto stage for photos, the congregation clapped wildly. I wasn’t sure what I
should do. Wrestling Coach removed his Blackberry again and checked the
kickoff time for the football game. I took a cue from Bulldog Nails and walked
toward Pageant Mom. She seemed happy that the pageant had gone well, with
each beautiful, sparkling, poised girl smiling brightly for the camera.
None of the parents approached me to shake my hand as they did with the
other judges. It was clear that they blamed me for some of the upsets. I
couldn’t give any girl lower than a twenty on their scorecards and this threw off
the accepted pageant order. There were probably dozens of girls in their
cubicles saying to each other, “It was the curly-haired judge! Where did they
I walked through the sanctuary and vestibule to the parking lot and
suddenly was hit with the notion that I was in a church, putting beauty above all
else. I’m not a churchgoer, nor do I pretend to be righteous, and I don’t know
a thing about Methodists. Still, I felt like their notion of Christianity couldn’t be
too different from the mainstream ideas of humanity and acceptance. But I’d
handed out crowns of glory, singled out the ugly because they liked to wear flats
and eat French fries. Yet the next day, the building would be filled with the idea
of unconditional love. As I made my way to my car, I felt an enormous weight
pressing down on me. I shouldn’t have done this, I told myself.
Some of the losing girls emerged from the church and were packing their
belongings into the backs of minivans. They carried their Caboodles of make-
up, their pageant gowns secured in air-tight zippered bags. Their faces were
clean and shiny and their extravagant hairstyles starkly contrasted the
mismatched shorts and tees they were wearing.
I was incapable of returning to such normalcy. After putting myself on
stage—revealing my flaws, confessing to a group of strangers that I’m as
ordinary as every other girl who likes chicken nuggets—and losing, I would be
ready to crawl into bed and lick my wounds. Because I was raised to believe
that people were always judging me, either by what I looked like or by what I
said or didn’t say, social activity was a minefield, a place where at any moment
someone could criticize me. Some things are stained so deeply in the grain it’s
hard to scour them away; my grandmother believed that if I was content to
accept myself as below average—as looking fine without lip-gloss and curled
bangs—I should stay home with the windows drawn and never answer the
door. But if I was determined to go to school, to see the light of day, my pants
had to be pressed, every hair hot-rolled and sprayed into place, shoulders
thrown back in perfect posture. This was not an easy task for a ten-year-old.
Eventually, I developed an ulcer that was chalked up to being too smart—and
too perfect—for my peers.
As I got older I rejected this idea of perfection, not because it was
obviously absurd but because it was too time-consuming. If I wanted to be
anywhere on time, something had to give. I showered, but didn’t always wear
make-up. I’d wash and dry my hair, but put on a grease-stained shirt. I tried
my best, but often felt inadequate. Eventually, I realized that I could never
escape judgment because life didn’t come with a set standard for beauty or
perfection. Someone could always find fault with me because my hair was
curly and unruly, my walk was an awkward head-down shuffle instead of a
delicate glide, my ass was too big, my legs like tree trunks. I would always
have a flaw and I’d never be beautiful. If I’d been on stage and lost, I
would’ve retreated into a misanthropic depression. Parental comfort or a trip
to McDonald’s wouldn’t have quelled my overwhelming feelings of smallness.
Of ugliness. Even at nearly thirty, the thought of rejection was crushing.
So I shuffled across the asphalt with my head down, afraid of backlash
and angry stares. But they weren’t the crying, depressed group I thought they
should be. They chirped and squealed; there was hope in their tones even
though they weren’t queens. I heard one of them ask a group of three girls,
“So are y’all gonna be at the Miss Vidalia pageant next weekend?” The girls
answered at the same time, “Yeeeeeeessss!” Obviously, I know nothing of
I drove away from the Miss Spirit of Houston County pageant feeling
amazed that for most of these girls, their only hope was not that they’d win it all
but that they’d pageant again, parade in front of a bunch of judges who’d
nitpick over every detail. For them, pageants were like board games—they
knew the rules, played by them, and if they didn’t win they could always play
again next time. Maybe I had been too quick to judge them.
It wasn’t until I got home that I noticed the sticky scabs forming on my
cuticles and the dampness on the back of my T-shirt. I took a deep breath and
tried to shake off my insecurities. I closed the garage door, sure that if I left it
open Pageant Mom would come over and harangue me about complaints she’d
had from angry parents whose daughters didn’t win Best Hair.
Days passed. She saw me gardening out front and waved, but she never
mentioned the pageant. I took this as her silent admission that I was probably
a poor choice as the wild card judge. Just in case I was wrong, though, I
practiced what I would say if she ever asked me to do it again. Oh, no, sorry.
I’m going in for my yearly physical, I’d say. Or No, that Saturday I’m
planning on cleaning my andirons. I came up with dozens of excuses,
anything to keep me off of that panel ever again. I just couldn’t handle the
J. W. Young has published short stories, poetry, and nonfiction. Her essays
have been anthologized in two works—Best of the Web 2008 (Dzanc Books)
and Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers (Random
House). She lives with her husband and daughter in central Georgia, where
she teaches writing at Middle Georgia College. Currently, she is at work on
a memoir about her childhood, which she spent estranged from her mother
and criminal father.
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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Volume 4, Number 2
Copyright © 2009
by Leah Browning, Editor.
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