It wasn't about my seeing those beautiful women on the screen and getting a false expectation of beauty that messed up my confidence. Uh-uh, that wasn't the problem. For reasons that defy logic, I've always been comfortable with the the fact that I am a thick-calved, squinty-eyed, squat little tomboy. All I have to do is look into a mirror for confirmation that I am a cross between Charley from the classic Willy Wonka movie and the Olympian Mary Lou Retton, minus any of her talent, of course.
Which brings us to the rub: it was the talent portion of the Miss America contest that sent my self-esteem on a downward spiral that continues to this day. As I would sit in front of our 10" TV with my fat legs criss-crossed watching the different women compete, I would panic trying to think what my talent could be. I certainly couldn't belt out a tune like Miss Tennesse. (I was one of only three people in my third-grade class who was asked not to join choir after "singing" the scales.) I couldn't play the flute like Miss New Hampshire. (In my defense, renting me a flute when I'm seven without any instruction is not very helpful. I'm looking at you, dead Grandma and Grandpa!) I couldn't even twirl batons like Miss Arizona (though I did try, almost breaking the aforementioned TV in the process).
Imagine losing hope in yourself before you even graduate from elementary school. The Miss America contest made me realize that I had no talent and having no talent made me realize that I could never, ever be Miss America. (Why I didn't understand that being a squat, squinty-eyed, thick-calved tomboy eliminated my chances from ever even stepping on stage is a whole other story.)
You would think as a mature, middle-aged woman this wouldn't bother me anymore, but it does. It even makes its way into my psyche as a I sleep. Just last night I had a dream that my son was performing on an outside stage and I, as a goof, got behind him and started moving around in what could loosely be called "dancing." When the performance was over, it was announced that for some inexplicable reason I was a runner-up and would be moving on to compete in the dancing and singing portion of the contest. In my dream I instantly got the same panicked feeling I used to get watching Miss America, which didn't abate when I woke up. For many minutes I lied in bed trying to figure out what I songs I could talk-sing like Lou Reed so no one would notice I really can't sing-sing.
As my husband and I went for our morning walk, I shared with him my dream, and my concern that I could never enter the "Mrs. America" contest because I have no talent.
There was a really long moment of silence, before he replied "Well, I guess you're pretty good on the hula hoop."
While this might have discouraged most women, I was thrilled. I have a talent afterall. I can hula hoop. Pretty good. Of course not wanting to leave anything to chance after all these years of waiting, I've decided that when it is my time to finally make it on to stage. I will not only hula hoop, I will also talk-sing about world peace. Move over, baton twirlers, this one's mine.
*Given that I found a bunch of Playboys underneath some strategically-placed Teamster picket signs in the backseat of my grandfather's VW Beetle when I was in kindergarten, it's safe to assume his watching may not have been so innocent afterall.