A judgement call

Republished with permission from the Idaho Business Review

at work 1I was asked to be a judge in the 2013 Miss Idaho competition. Flattered? Of course. But I am not unfamiliar with such requests and, in fact, over the years, because of what I do for a living, I have been asked to judge various competitions, from barbecue to Christmas tree decorations. And as one of the co-founders of the Boise poetry slam competitions, I know a little about how hard it can be to get someone to do the judging – we had to coerce five people from “off the street” to be judges every month.

So, right away, after I was asked to judge for Miss Idaho, I was sympathetic. Plus, I knew a little about the scholarships the organization provides for young women. According to the website: “The Miss America Program and its 1,500 local and state pageants comprise the largest single source of scholarship funds available to young women in the world. Annually, an estimated $40 million is offered to more than 30,000 young women who participate in the Miss America programs.”

Another plus.

To top it off, all contestants are required to raise money for the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. Over the past five years, the Miss America Program has raised about $75 million.

Ding, ding, ding – ladies and gentlemen, I think we have a winner. How could I turn this down?

I decided to toss my hat into the judging ring – or at least to hear more about what my role as a judge would be. I met with Tim Wold, whose day job is operations manager for the Owyhee District for Intermountain Gas. He’s been helping coordinate the state contest for years. He extolled the organization’s virtues, waxed poetic about how, in addition to the scholarships and charitable work, young women learn so much from the experience – communication skills, self-confidence, public speaking, stage presence, to think and speak eloquently under pressure.

The competition is judged in the areas of interview, talent and physical fitness. In the initial email sent by Wold, he asked me “to offer your expertise and service and join the 2013 panel as the interview specialty judge of the Miss Idaho Scholarship Program.” During our face-to-face meeting, we also discussed the time commitment. It is a three-day stint – July 11, 12, 13 – including orientation, daytime interviews and two evening pageants. Before he left my office, he dropped off the forms so I could take a look at how the young women were to be judged.

As I fanned through the papers, I noted that there were forms for all categories, including “on-stage evening wear, talent competition and lifestyle and fitness in swimsuit competition.” I stopped Wold, said I had gotten all the forms by mistake. He said, no mistake – even though I was purportedly representing the interview portion, which, as a professional journalist I felt qualified to do and was comfortable with – I also would be judging in all other areas.

Gulp.

Now, I was a little uncomfortable.

Because “physical fitness” in this instance could be more aptly called “walking across the stage in high heels while wearing a swimsuit.”

Wold left me with my “packet,” and my soul searching began. It was a squirmy affair.

And just when I had talked myself into swallowing the bad – judging a young woman on her physical appearance (attractiveness and presence are criteria on the judge’s form as well as physical fitness, walk, posture, carriage and grace) with the good (scholarships, charitable work and communication skills), I had a conversation with a colleague that made me look a little deeper.

I thought back to how vehemently I had opposed the idea of judging any person based on their appearance all my life. One of my father’s favorite sayings: “Beauty is as beauty does.” I denounced beauty pageants and all the fashion magazines and models that told us: beauty is all-important, the thinner the better. I proudly considered myself a feminist – still do. My heroes: Gloria Steinem. Betty Friedan. I once burned a bra. When my children were growing up, I did not allow pageant watching. I wanted my children to grow up recognizing that women and men could be anyone, go anywhere, do anything.

Finally, I had this thought: I could never. Ever. Post about being a Miss Idaho judge on Facebook. Just thinking about all of my friends, my family, my college roommate, my mom and grammy friends – just the thought of them reading that I was judging a contest that required young, intelligent, future business professionals, teachers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, presidents, that judged them on the act of walking across a stage in high heels – it made my cheeks burn. The shame.

I am not going to be a Miss Idaho judge this year. I sent my resignation letter explaining my departure to Mr. Wold. I said: “I cannot in good conscience judge, or justify, the swimsuit category. It goes against my personal principles.” I ended with a plea to put the kibosh on judging by appearance and asked that he send my “whys and wherefores” up the chain of command.

Miss Idaho Executive Director Tami Urquhart and Field Director Karen Carpenter responded. Carpenter defended the swimsuit competition, saying that being able to be comfortable in this category demonstrates confidence and charisma. “With so many young girls looking to celebrity role models for what physical beauty should be, I would much rather my daughter or granddaughter look up to these young women as role models,” Carpenter wrote.

Urquhart wanted me to understand how valuable the scholarships provided by the Miss America organization are to young women in Idaho. She wrote: “As I am sure you know Idaho is one of the lowest ranked in students who ‘go on’ to higher education, unfortunately economics is one of the number one reasons why our youth are not achieving their scholastic goals.” She also wanted me to know about the contestants’ charitable work. “At a national level the Miss America contestants volunteer more than 150,000 hours of community service to over 12,000 different projects. These young ladies are making a difference in today’s society, they are not ‘exploited’ by our program but empowered by the opportunities this organization provides to them.”

I commend the good work and the scholarships. And, who knows? If the organization could just look around and do a little revamping – how about instead of “evening wear,” women dressed in their career choice clothes: power suits, scrubs, astronaut gear? And instead of swimsuits and high heels, have a true physical fitness competition, with an obstacle course and fitness challenges?

Just a few tweaks here and there to bring the thing into the 21st century, that’s all I’m saying. Keep the good works, chuck the beauty pageant part and I’m all in.

Judge in 2014? I’ll be waiting for my letter.

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