Imagine walking into a horribly fluorescent-lit room wearing nothing but a tiny black bikini and six-inch heels. Now imagine standing in this room while your legs shake in front of a panel of six judges whispering to each other and asking you to turn around so that they can, and I quote, “take a look at your cute little butt.” That was me at the ripe age of 20 at my first ever National Miss Israel Beauty Pageant audition, and even though it was seven years ago and I totally wouldn’t say no to having that cute butt again without having to ever do a single squat, I still cringe at the thought of that moment.
Let me first make something very clear. I had no idea my mom signed me up for the pageant. I was having lunch with a friend like a normal 20-year-old with nothing to worry about besides what to order for dinner that night, when I got a text message from an unknown number: Thank you for submitting your pictures to the National Miss Israel Beauty Pageant. Please arrive at the Israel Woman’s Magazine headquarters at 6 am tomorrow for the first in-person audition. No makeup please.
I called my mom to tell her about it, because I call my mom to tell her about everything, and she confessed that she was the one who sent in my pictures. I wasn’t happy with her, but I also wasn’t as annoyed as you’d expect. That’s because deep down, I knew it had been a dream of hers to be a beauty queen since she was young, and I couldn’t blame her for wanting to fulfill that dream through me. What else do you have kids for? Still, I didn’t think beauty pageants were up my alley and was actually against the idea of women prancing around like puppets in their underwear on a stage in front of thousands of people. My mom was so deeply disappointed – the kind of McDonalds-is-closed-at-3am-when-you’re-drunk disappointment – that I agreed to give it a shot, repeating in my mind the one mantra that calmed me down: There are a thousand other girls trying out, what was the chance that the judges would choose me?
But a month and a dozen auditions later, they surprisingly did, and I became 1 of 20 official contestants in the National Miss Israel Beauty Pageant. I decided that since I had made it that far already, I should at least see where this competition could take me. Plus, a small voice inside wanted to know if I was good enough.
When Pageant Boot Camp started, I saw a side of the competition I wasn’t expecting. The girls were sweet—we laughed at the judges behind their backs, gave each other advice on boys—and to my surprise, some of them were actually smart. There were girls of every type—tan, black, white, redheaded, short, tall—but I remember wondering why they were all so thin. One complimented my wavy hair and summer tan, another offered me half of her banana. I couldn’t believe my competition didn’t treat me like competition at all. Maybe this beauty pageant thing wasn’t so bad after all?
At first, once I let myself get into it, pre-pageant life was amazing. Three times a week, I brushed aside the idea that I was being constantly judged for my looks, the snide remarks from our pageant director when I ate a bagel one morning, the ridiculous rule of having to wear six-inch heels to every meeting, even if that meeting was literally on the beach. Instead, my new friends and I tilted our heads back in laughter as club owners welcomed us into the hottest parties with open arms, as fully booked restaurants somehow had a table waiting for us, as every pair of jeans I ever slipped on seemed to be made for me. I remember thinking one evening as I was applying red lipstick, If I don’t have this anymore, what will I have left? What a sad young woman I must have been to think that youth is power, that I had nothing else to offer. But back then, when the pageant was just beginning, I wasn’t sad. I felt strong. I felt unstoppable. I felt irresistible and powerful, like I had control.
Until everything started spinning out of control. As the day of the competition was getting closer, I was growing father from the girl I used to be. Instead of barely making it onto the elliptical and watching the Kardashians on my phone as I gradually turned down the resistance like I used to do, I threw on my sports bra and leggings twice a day, grabbed a coffee ,and drove to the high-end aerobics studio the other pageant girls went to. Transform your body, the sign on the door of the studio promised. Every morning I took the one-hour Body Pump class, and in the evenings I did half an hour of cardio before my one-hour Pilates for Beginners workout. I glanced over the girls in my classes, comparing my legs to theirs. I had never previously worried too much about my weight besides being mildly alarmed one time after inhaling nine Krispy Crème donuts and thinking I probably shouldn’t do that again for a while. Yet as each day passed, I squinted into the aerobics class mirror and watched my body shrink. I cut out carbs completely, ate small portions, and weighed myself before and after every class.
Three times a week, we spent hours with pageant directors practicing our walks, changing in and out of designer clothes, posing for photoshoots. I remember wondering if the hairdresser thought I was a real-life doll when he styled my hair aggressively, pulling it back as if my scalp couldn’t possibly feel the tug of the brush. They measured our body fat weekly, the inches on our arms and legs, stomach, ankles (did you know that’s a thing? Neither did I). I felt so insecure, never pretty enough or thin enough, and always judged by people that didn’t care about me as a person, only about me as a body.
One night, when we were at pageant rehearsal, I was changing into my second dress when one of the male stylists kept calling me to come out and show him what it looked like on. The problem was that I couldn’t get the stupid thing up over my head because it was literally a toddler’s size and full of sparkly silver sequins. The stylist grew impatient and all of a sudden, he barged into my dressing room! Frantically, he helped pull the dress over my naked body, and although he barely looked at me, I had never felt so violated. I wanted to scream at him, to tell him I was a human, not a Barbie. I wanted to tell him that he couldn’t just open the door to my privacy whenever he wanted to. But instead, I didn’t say anything at all.
I had lost myself. The competition drained the innocent cheeriness out of me and instead filled me with anxiety and insecurity. Being considered one of twenty of the most beautiful girls in Israel is supposed to be a confidence booster, right? Wrong. I was totally losing it, comparing myself to the women around me and constantly feeling like I wasn’t enough.
The day of the competition, 19 other contestants and I stood in a black bikinis and six-inch heels, this time in front of 5,000 people. The tiny hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up, and looking out into the audience wanting nothing more than to run backstage, I realized that this competition had ruined my self-confidence. In three months, I went from a girl with deep aspirations like going to college and writing a book, to a young woman who doubted her own value. I didn’t win a single title, let alone pageant queen, and at that moment I decided to cut the pageant world out of my life for good.
Today, our culture has opened its doors to untouched ad campaigns (thank you, Aerie!) plus size models, and body positivity. But there is no doubt that we have a long way to go. If you scroll through Instagram, you’ll still see Victoria’s Secret models in lingerie smiling seductively, Instagram influencers making kissy faces, some of the most amazing celebrities butchering their bodies with FaceTune. I’ll let you in on a little secret I learned from experience: they’re more insecure than you think.
I miss the girl I was before the pageant. The carefree way she’d laugh and throw her hair up in a messy bun. It’s taken years, but I finally feel like I’m slowly getting her back. If there’s one lesson I’ve learned from showcasing my half naked body on a pageant stage, it’s this: the only one that can validate your beauty is you.