My mom and Miss America

Somewhere there is a picture of my mother in curlers.

The shot is vivid in my mind. The colors slightly faded, the way old pictures are. She a young woman, dyeing her blonde, with her hair up in big rollers covered in a net. She has the goofy look people give when caught off guard and smiling for the camera. The shot is a bit fuzzy, probably taken in haste. And for some reason, the color yellow is prominent in my memory.

The photo is not part of my stash of family memorabilia. I looked and couldn’t find it. I suspect after describing it, my mother will locate and destroy it.

It, however, is the first visual which comes to mind when it’s Miss America pageant time.

The story goes that the night of the Miss America pageant my mother always received a Toni Home Permanent. I’m not sure how old she was, or how long the tradition lasted, but I know she and my grandmother were involved in the home perm beauty night.

Me? I never had a perm, home or otherwise. My mother cursed my hair as a child as the waves turned to snarls. Oh, there were tears before elementary school when she would comb my hair back into a ponytail. (Dear Mom: There is a head attached to the hair. Love, Amy.) We watched the Miss America pageant every year but I never had much interest in the pageant circuit myself. It wasn’t that I thought badly of beauty pageants or of the people who did them. It was that I didn’t think I belonged anywhere near anything to do with beauty.

This year, I did not watch the Miss America pageant, in part because I don’t have a working television connection but more pressingly because I was working in the sports department newsroom. So I did not see Miss Nebraska win the crown. But I did think of my mom and frizzy hair.

Once upon a time, the Miss American pageant stood as the symbol of all that was wrong with gender stereotyping. And there’s something to be said for perpetuating a limited view of how women should look, of judging outward appearance and of trying to quantify things like beauty and grace.

No, I may not ever have the outward looks of a contestant in a Miss America pageant. But just as I’ve learned to redefine myself as an athlete, I’m learning to redefine myself as beautiful. It’s a slower process than the athletic one, but my athletic journey has taught me just how powerful the stories are which I tell myself — and how capable I am of changing them.

There won’t be any Toni Home Permanents in my future, though some days I have the urge to go a great Sephora spree. Other days, I’m quite content in my post-work out compression socks and messy, sweaty ponytail. And I’m learning that I can feel beautiful either way.

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