More than a year ago, half for validation and half for the promise of financial aid and scholarships, I registered for a well-known beauty pageant: Miss Teen NY USA.
My chances were slim from the beginning, I sent in a blurry selfie and two-word answers when applying, so you can understand my surprise when two weeks later I was called back for a phone interview.
Even before I had the interview, even just the idea of making it to the interview was a psychological turning point for me. Merely just the opportunity of even getting to have that interview was thrilling and romantic and-in a sense, revolutionary.
This was largely due to the current political state of the country, I felt that even just existing was controversial.
That I didn’t deserve to be here-I wasn’t equal.
But this entry? The call back for an interview? The idea that not only could I exist but even be perceived as a beauty icon and represent her whole state?
I needed that reassurance. I was looking for it in my schoolwork and grades and after school extra curriculars and internships-and now in this beauty pageant. Something that would validate my reason for being here-and the idea that it could be beauty and confidence-and independence was incredibly inspiring.
I was going to change the world-the way we perceive beauty! Through rushed interview questions in an expensive evening gown-but it was a change nonetheless.
Until my interview was over.
Don’t get me wrong-my interviewer was kind and undeniable encouraging but she was naively optimistic. Through her encouragement at my short response answers, after my interview it was obvious she had taken a liking to me, and I would have a strong chance for getting accepted and becoming a contestant-but before she could send the scores, she needed me to know the requirements of this pageant-its technicalities.
First, she explained the three rounds of the competition: the in-person interview, the sports gear competition, and the evening gown competition.
She even went in depth about the recent decision to remove the bikini competition and replace it with the sports gear one. What she didn’t mention is you still show the same amount of skin and both competitions are used to visually measure health.
This made my throat dry-I expected a competition about health, but I ingenuously hoped it wasn’t a visual one. But still I listened-how could I change the world if I couldn’t even wear a sports bra without getting nervous? And with that rhetoric, I convinced myself it was a reasonable requirement.
She then explained if I were chosen to be a contestant, within ten days I would have to pay a registration fee of two hundred and ninety-five dollars, which made my stomach flipped at first but still, I listened. I decided it was a small amount for a larger amount of financial aid during college applications, which would be worth it.
And then she told me about the fourteen-thousand-dollar requirement to attend the two nights/three-day competition.
And my heart sank.
I knew right then and there I couldn’t do it. I vaguely remember her saying a string of words, explaining how I could get sponsorships and pay the rest on my own-but I mostly remember blocking her out. I ambiguously remember trying to be kind when we exchanged goodbyes. But mainly, I remember crying.
And I remember forgetting.
I remember getting that confirmation email about becoming an eligible contestant and a link to pay the registration fee-and feeling like a fool.
It took me a long time to be able to even think about that interview without feeling a wave of humiliation.
I remembered thinking about how goddamn stupid I was.
Pretty girls don’t worry about paying registration fees. Pretty girls don’t start squirming at the idea of showing off their stomachs.
Why did I think I could even try out? Jesus Christ-who did I think I was?
So, to pick myself up and piece together whatever dignity I had left, I deleted that email and that was that.
It took me a long time to be able to even think about that interview without feeling a wave of humiliation. And it took me even longer to be able to write this.
Until recently, my friend mentioned her story about applying and it mirrored my own. Her story inspired one from another friend and another-and before long, I learned about a handful of girls in my year who had a story replicating mine. This group of girls was more diverse than all the official contestants of Miss Teen NY USA combined.
Which made me realize I had to write this letter to Miss Teen NY USA and ask for change.
To ask for chance.
For every other hopeful, fat, poor, brown girl who needed it.
You cannot say you want diversity-say you want girls who aren’t conventionally beautiful but offer no aid to the girls who are. You cannot want people of different economic backgrounds and produce this illusion of scholarship money but then create this loophole that only allows young women who can at least pay some of the fourteen thousand dollars on their own. You cannot explicitly state on your website there is no weight requirement or expectation, but create a round in the competition worth one third of a contestant’s accumulative score judging how “healthy” a body looks in swimsuit gear.
What the hell is healthy supposed to even look like?
And I know I’m asking for a lot-I know I’m diminishing your profit and basically allowing girls to get an equal chance-can you imagine!-at being the next Miss Teen NYC USA.
But I am fat. I am poor.
And yet still, I am beautiful.
I am ambition. I am confidence-I am controversy.
I am the heart of this city. I am the symbol of the opportunity granted in this equally lovely and diverse state. I am nothing like the girls in your competition, and yet I am everything like them.
And although not official, I am Miss Teen NYC USA and I deserve that change.
My name is Ishrat Zahan and I'm a 16-year-old Mogul Events Reporter for Brooklyn Technical High School who focuses on both contemporary issues and agential ones that directly affect me. Apart from being an events reporter for Mogul, I am also the president of Current Affairs Awareness Forum, where [...]