When I was a little girl, before I became Théodore Lucas, I entered my first and only beauty pageant. Around fifty girls, ages 1 to 17, would compete for the crown between the casinos and cattle guards of Winnemucca, Nevada, my hometown. Every summer, two of my friends took part in this local beauty pageant-cum-scholarship competition called the Miss Cinderella Pageant and the summer between second and third grade I decided that I desperately wanted to participate too.
I wanted to do the pageant for the same reason that I later wanted the flirty clothes that the other girls wore in middle school, even though I didn’t want to date the boys, for the same reason that I stuffed my bra, even though I didn’t want boobs. I just wanted to fit in. I wanted to do what the other girls were doing. I wanted to be one person in the crowd, a part of and not apart from. I was convinced that if I just played the part right, I would be okay, I would be one of the girls.
I begged my parents to let me do the pageant, but they were not particularly interested. I didn’t understand what I was asking of them. My mom was a feminist before it was cool. Before the Women’s March. Before Roe v Wade. Before the ERA. My dad regularly reminded his three daughters that they could be anything when they grew up; three girls who he saw for their potential and not their gender. To enroll their youngest daughter in a beauty pageant, a competition meant to judge girls on their looks and presentation, went completely against my parents’ deeply-held principles.
I eventually succeeded in persuading them through complex negotiations involving promises of a clean bedroom and exemplary behavior. Besides, my mom saw an opportunity to get me some new dresses, a perennial battle of ours. My preferred outfit in those days involved a sweatshirt over a t-shirt, with baggy jeans and sneakers. My favorite sweatshirt, overlarge and not-so-covertly stolen from an older sister’s closet, featured Tweety Bird in skater-style clothes, arms crossed defiantly, and a skateboard popped up with one foot. There were three parts of the pageant: interview, partywear, and talent, and I would need a different dress for each part. I personally felt that I had plenty of pantsless articles of clothing and there was no need to purchase more items of torture, but this was the only win my mom got out of the whole endeavor, so she didn’t let it go easily.
A month before the pageant, my mother drove us the two and a half hours to Reno so we could browse the closest mall. She tried in vain to draw my interest to the numerous department store offerings.
“What about this one?” she asked, holding up a dress with a princess waistline; it had a white silk top with a black velvet skirt, and small fabric daisies circled the middle.
“What? How do you even know who— never mind.” She pulled out another one, a blue gingham dress with large sunflowers printed on the skirt, “What about this one?”
“Ugh, why does everything have to have flowers?”
Sighing, she put the gingham back on the rack and pulled out a pink one with a skirt that would be perfect for spinning around until I was dizzy, “This one?”
“Grossss, Mooooom. No pink! Come on!”
“We have to get something. You were the one who wanted to do the pageant and you need three dresses for it.”
“I have three dresses!”
“No, you have one sundress made of denim and two party dresses that you grew out of last year.”
This carried on until my mother said, “Fine, no dresses, no pageant. Let’s go home,” and began walking toward the exit. Realistically, my parents had already paid the registration fee; we weren’t backing out now. But I wasn’t familiar with the concept of “bluffing” and I crumbled. Sobbing like someone had just stolen my favorite Legos set, I chased after my mother.
“No, please, I’m sorry, I’ll try on the dresses. I want the dresses. Please, Mommy, no!”
Ten minutes later, I was cringing in a fitting room, trying on several armloads of precious, frilly dresses. It was like every other time I tried on dresses in my life. Everything looked wrong. Everything felt wrong. I didn’t like the feeling of my legs touching each other. I didn’t like the the tulle and taffeta brushing against my skin. I hated what I saw in the mirror. I couldn’t envision what I wanted, and nothing I found fit the bill. Looking at my reflection in each dress, I couldn’t figure out why it all looked wrong. Big skirts, long skirts, puffy sleeves or straps, nothing looked right, nothing felt good.
I finally settled on three tolerable options, if only to end the agony. They were all colorless: blacks and whites, minimal flowers, minimal frills. I was sure to include the Ophelia dress, my subtle protest of the oppressive wardrobe.
The beauty pageant took place in my elementary school cafetorium. The changing area was set up in the room where we normally had our music classes. It had been cleared of the normal nested semi-circles of chairs. Instead, tables had been placed around the walls with mirrors propped on top for primping and preening.
The room was full of the competitors and their hovering mothers, all engulfed in a haze of Aqua Net and glitter. A constant accompaniment of squeaky violins and vocal exercises played the score for the chaotic scene as girls warmed up for their talent. If I felt out of place, I can only imagine how my mother felt with her mid-90’s half-bob, half-buzzed businesswoman haircut surrounded by the feather-banged stay-at-home-moms excitedly swapping stories of pageants-past-present-and-yet-to-come. My father had opted out of the pageant prep, but he did attend the pageant itself, where he was one of few men in an audience made mostly of mothers and grandmothers, sisters and aunts.
The preparations at the competition brought the tension between my mother and I to a fever pitch. While the battle over the outfits had ended at the mall in Reno, the battle on the day of the pageant was about my hair. In addition to my clothes and my dirty room, my hair was the third major point of contention between my mother and me. When well-kept, my hair grew in angelic ringlets. But under my supervision, my hair’s usual state was a rat’s nest paired with an Einstein-poof of frizz. As much as possible, I kept it in a tight ponytail, leading only to the proliferation of my frizz corona through broken baby hairs. To make matters worse, the frizz had a habit of collecting on either side of my head, leading to a look more reminiscent of horns than a halo.
I remember the scene in the dressing room in vivid bursts of distorted time, like one might remember a car crash. My mom trying to brush my hair. Me crying out in somewhat-not-fake pain. Hiding under a table so my mom couldn’t reach my head. Throwing a tantrum until I ran out of energy. Finally emerging when my mom pointed out that I couldn’t compete from under a card table in the dressing room. Tearfully allowing my mother to finish brushing my hair and putting up a final, weak protest as she gathered my hair into what she called a “princess pony,” securing sections of hair pulled from my temples behind my head with a pearlescent barrette.
In the end, I looked…okay. My hair’s frizz was on high alert, but the dresses were nice. I looked the part. The pageant opened with us all walking a marked path around the stage. I placed my feet one in front of the other, following the arrows, pretending like I didn’t feel so uncomfortable. I steeled myself to just get it over with and get away from this pageant as soon as possible.
I was a knockout in the interview portion; at that age, I loved nothing so much as talking with adults, showing them how smart and charming I could be. I strove to hear them praise me, comment to each other on how precocious I was.
After the interview, I waited my turn while girls danced across the stage or sang different selections from Annie. For my talent, I played a stuttered rendition of “Jingle Bells” on an upright piano placed just in front of the stage, curtseying in the spotlight before and after, like my big sisters had taught me to do.
The pageant culminated in the partywear portion, the most directly objectifying part of the event, in which we again walked the marked path in our fanciest dress, smiling and wowing the crowd. The bright lights trained on the stage turned the audience into an indistinguishable dark mass as I followed the girl walking five paces ahead of me. I walked like I wanted to be there, I told myself. I walked like I wanted to win, I thought. In hindsight, I walked like I wanted someone to tell me I was doing it right, to tell me I was better at being a girl than I realized.
After all the girls had walked the stage, it was time for the trophies and crowns. There were trophies for Talent, Personality, Beauty and a crown for Overall. I didn’t win anything for the talent, though I wasn’t disappointed – that meant I was still in the running for Overall Mini Miss. I desperately wanted to win. The Mini Miss Personality trophy went to a girl I didn’t know and I felt a wave of relief. There was no way I wasn’t the best personality in the whole night, so if I hadn’t won Mini Miss Personality I obviously had Overall Mini Miss on lock.
Then I heard my name called for, of all things, “Mini Miss Beauty.” My heart sank. I was happy to win the big trophy, but Beauty seemed like such a lame thing to win. What could I do with “Beauty”? You can’t take “Beauty” to the bank. “Beauty” doesn’t require any talent.
I walked forward to accept my trophy while my parents clapped a little harder than the rest of the audience. The trophy was impressive to my young eyes: silver with a marble base and topped by a crown trimmed with blue velvet. In reality, it was all plastic made to look silver or marble and the velvet was flocked craft paper.
After the all the awards had been distributed, I gripped the silver plastic trophy and milled about on the cafetorium stage with the rest of the girls, waiting for my parents to materialize out of the mass. They waved as they walked up, smiling wide, likely from relief that the whole endeavor was over. Before my dad lifted me down from the stage, my mom took a picture of me with the Miss Teen Cinderella winner, a family friend whose name has been lost to time and memory. In the photo, she takes up most of the frame in a white evening gown, grinning in her crown, holding flowers and a teddy bear. I stand a little to her left, with an anxious smile, clinging to my trophy with both hands.
It seemed like such a pity-trophy. There was no way the judges really thought I was beautiful. I wondered if it was some sort of consolation prize. I was much younger than my two sisters and had grown familiar with my role as the auxiliary sibling, the way I was included in their games because they had to include me, the begrudged addition. This trophy felt the same, like being the dog when we all played house together. I could not believe that it had anything to do with the judges actually believing that I was a beautiful person.
In the decades after the pageant, this became one of my favorite anecdotes to tell people. I always started off with “You know, I once won Most Beautiful in a beauty pageant,” and I always told it with a tone of derision and sarcasm. It wasn’t derision about the pageant. Miss Cinderella – though still admittedly problematic – was nothing like the Toddlers in Tiaras that gave us Honey Boo Boo. It was a scholarship program, offering awards for all age groups as well as mentorship opportunities between the different older and younger participants.
My derision was aimed at myself. I told the story as if to say, “Were those judges blind? Was it a pity trophy? Only an idiot would think I was beautiful, let alone that I deserved a trophy for it.” Anyone could see I wasn’t beautiful. I was an in-between, neither gorgeous, nor unpleasant, just forgettable. After my transition, I played it for another set of laughs: the absurdity of me, a transmasculine person who is read by strangers as a man, dolled up in dress and make-up, hair in beatific curls, with a crown and bouquet, waving at the crowd.
A few years ago, my version of the story became upended. I was helping my parents pack up their house in Ohio as they prepared to retire in Florida. It was a month after my parents finally gave up on calling me by my birth name and six months after I started hormone replacement therapy. While digging through the boxes of ghosts and memories and dust with my dad, I came upon my senior photo from high school and I was genuinely stunned.
I didn’t see the unpleasant geek I remembered. I didn’t see the awkward, unlovely bottom-dweller I’d always believed myself to be. Looking out of the picture was a stunningly beautiful young woman; a truly, objectively good-looking girl.
“Wow, I look really beautiful here,” I remarked quietly, without any conceit, like I was talking about a stranger.
My dad didn’t even pause before responding.
“You always were. You never even had that awkward stage most kids have. You have always been beautiful.”
He said this with no malice or false enthusiasm, simply as fact. I could hear an ache in his voice as he went on.
“I don’t know why you could never see that.”
I stared at the girl in the photo. Soft, shining brown curls framed her narrow face and came to rest just past her shoulders. A simple silver chain adorned her graceful neck; a demure bow-neck shirt revealed her delicate collarbones. Freckles danced across her nose and strong cheekbones, complementing her flawless skin. A gentle smile parted her lips, pink like grapefruit flesh.
By the time I found myself staring at this picture, that girl was gone. I’d buried her. I’d replaced her with the transmasculine person I’d become. That girl had gone through her entire life hating herself and her body. She thought she was worthless and ugly. She had lived through two dozen years feeling unworthy of any physical compliment, resenting her body for not fitting right, for not being right. I was flooded with a deep sorrow for that girl. I felt such a loss for the self-love, or even clear-eyed self-image, she never achieved. My heart ached for that girl that never once was able to look at herself and think, “I am beautiful.” I searched her face. Could that girl ever have been happy as herself? Could I see myself hidden anywhere in her face?
It was only in her eyes, irises like a dark shadow, that I recognized the girl. In her eyes, I could see the pain and self-hatred that I remembered. The smile didn’t reach her eyes. If I covered up the lower half of my face, I saw someone who looked to be on the verge of tears. I remembered that was always how I felt, how she felt: on the verge of tears but unable to cry. The only thing I recognized in this picture were the eyes that held a well of unshed tears. It was then that the person I had become had to leave the room, to not cry in front of the girl who couldn’t.