Monthly Archives: November 2009

Just Say No to Small Town Beauty Queens

Strolling around Front Royal, you can’t help but notice the profusion of hair salons and beauty parlors. On a side street near my house you can walk by these buildings in quick succession: Sheriff’s office, gun shop, beauty barn. Every commercial building here sits near a salon.

Do the cops stop in for a hair chop every now and then along with the purchasers of handguns and rifles? Will those weapons someday be used in crimes that land their owners in the clink? Let’s face it, whether we are good guys or bad guys, we all want to look attractive.

Yesterday I saw a woman at Martin’s grocery sporting a classic 1960s country grandma bouffant. It really was impressive—good height, evenly teased and shaped, hair-sprayed into a solid but delicate blonde-gray mass. It reminded me of a wasp’s nest. Her lady’s leisure suit and high-heeled sandals clinched the look. I must admit that I admire that kind of sassy style, even if it is 40 years old—this ma-maw was stepping out with pride.

Senior citizens probably make up a huge portion of salon devotees in Front Royal. But there also seem to be a lot of customers at the other end of the age spectrum, too many perhaps. What is it about small towns that keeps so many cosmetologists busy?

I first noticed this phenomenon at the Festival of Leaves parade, where fire trucks, pickups, and convertibles were decorated with more beauty queens than any one town should be able to produce.

Even though I could never condone the crowning of any beauty queen, from Miss Universe on down, I’m willing to accept the usual one or two per small town civic event. Certainly, Winchester would implode without its Miss Apple Blossom Festival.

I tend to combat the unwanted influence of adult beauty queens on my psyche by meditating on images of Carrie at the high school prom. Or I read my husband’s poem about Barbie, which I quote here in its entirety:

          I am Barbie.
          I live in your dollhouse.
          You change my clothes every day.

          If I could get out
          of here I would
          kill you all.

I believe that inside every beauty queen, every Miss Universe, a homicidal Barbie bides her time, waiting to make herself known and take her revenge for all the reductions to which she is subjected daily.

Fighting these reductions (person reduced to object, complex sentient being reduced to a pretty shell), becomes more complicated when the beauty queens are not adults but teens, kids, or even babies.

Though this year’s oddly quiet Festival of Leaves parade needed something—more marching bands and floats, maybe some bagpipes, trick motorcyclists, or Shriners in their funny little cars—what it didn’t lack were beauty queens: big ones, small ones, and really small ones.

As one friend put it, “It’s like they multiply and divide every year. First it was Little Miss Whatever—now it’s little Little Little Miss and Little Little Little Miss.”

Seeing grown-up women graft their beauty obsessions and insecurities onto young girls makes me almost physically ill. I watched those girls in the parade with their curls, in their crowns and frilly dresses, make-up applied artfully to their young skin. What were they trying to be? What did their mothers want them to be? Some kind of living fairy tale, a strange kind of lie.

For some reason, this kind of pimped up kid makes me think of that wonderful horror movie from 1960, Village of the Damned, in which evil-eyed, outwardly perfect, tow-headed children attempt to take over the world. They are truly creepy.

I can almost hear the beauty pageant mothers shouting back at me.

“Lighten up!” they say. “What’s wrong with being pretty?”

Nothing, of course, as long as being pretty is not the goal, or even a goal. Physical beauty is a mirage manufactured for us by culture and commercialism. I’m not immune to it and neither is my six year old daughter. Sometimes I succumb (hair dye) and sometimes I fight it. But I never forget it.

How can I? In America, the emphasis on looks pervades everything. Just when you think you’ve been clever enough to lead your child away from socially proscribed standards of beauty, she comes out with this statement:

“Mommy, I want don’t want to be brown. I want to be white. I want blue eyes and blonde hair.”

Is there no escaping the Aryan ideal? Does my child have to feel inferior because she is brown haired, brown eyed, and not lily white?

In some ways I think she is lucky because she will never come close to the Barbie stereotype. She has to find a more legitimate source of personal power. And if we tell her over and over again that she is beautiful because of who she is and not what she looks like, and that all colors of skin are beautiful, I know it will sink in—eventually.

But it can be a fine line to walk between celebrating femininity and not placing too much emphasis on the physical. One friend has undergone two rounds of liposuction and plastic surgery in her quest to be “hot.” I’m of two minds about this—she has worked hard to lose weight, tone her muscles, and be healthy. She is confident and happy. That’s all good.

But she’s also spent a lot of time and money on surgery and personal trainers—this has been a major focus of her existence and is critical to her role as a wife. When I hear that there’s a new beauty pageant solely for women who have undergone plastic surgery, I think about this friend and wonder how far she will go to try to reach some ad executive’s idea of perfection. I don’t begrudge her her beauty but I’d like to see her focus on it less.

I try not to get too wrapped up in how I look—what clothes I wear, what make-up I have on, how heavy I am—but I’d be lying if I said I never thought about it. I don’t usually wear make-up but sometimes, for a night out on the town, it’s fun to put on. My daughter loves to play dress-up and to shop for clothes. We don’t shop often—who can afford it?—but I can see she cares deeply about what she wears. I’ll have to carefully steer her away from equating clothes and fashion with self-esteem.

Like the funky, stylin granny at Martins, I want my daughter to feel confident but without placing too much value on looks. There’s a big difference between the two.

In 2004, Dove began something it calls the “Campaign for Real Beauty.” This marketing strategy is ingenious because it addresses image head on, defusing any criticism of Dove as a perpetuator of beauty stereotypes. Dove has positioned its products as tools to improve confidence and self-esteem outside narrow definitions of what constitutes pretty.

The campaign is impressive. It makes a point to use images of real women and girls of all colors, shapes, and sizes. It also claims that the images are not altered. They’ve developed workshops and guides for girls and parents on how to develop self-esteem that is not dependent on outward appearance.

But it’s crazy that we need such guides in the first place. Someday I’d like to see all the small town beauty queens throw away their crowns and the mothers of pageant babies give the finger to pageant promoters. Wouldn’t that rock?

Recently, my daughter picked out a brown Barbie at the toy store of her own accord. Jose and I were astounded. Granted, it’s still Barbie, with her insane waist, torpedo breasts, and stiletto-ready feet but at least Maggie didn’t gravitate immediately toward the Nordic-looking doll, like she usually does. Her world is starting to expand.

Jose and I can’t let up though. It’s our job to keep reminding her that every ad she sees has been airbrushed, touched up, and rendered false, that TV and movies construct a beauty ideal that has absolutely nothing to do with reality. Together, I hope she and I can learn to create our own authentic beauty from the inside out with less than perfect hands.

-Heather Lynne Davis


Desegregation Blues: How the Warren County School Board Left 20 Black Children Out in the Cold

I’m strolling down Luray Avenue, walking with other Warren County Democrats in the Festival of Leaves parade, when my friend Kelli points it out.

“That’s it?” I say, “that little bitty street?”

“Yup,” she says. “Right across from where that first group of kids walked up to the school.”

“There’s like one house on that street,” I observe, looking down the street and then at the sign that says “James W. Kilby Lane.”

“Uh, huh,” she says without looking, “it’s actually just part of a street.” Holding my Deeds sign and trying not to lag behind the group, I’m dumbfounded—that tiny strip of asphalt is how we honor one of Front Royal’s most important civil rights heroes?

A few feet ahead, we stroll by the spot where, in 1959, 20 black students, including Mr. Kilby’s children, soldiered up a long curving driveway past a crowd of hecklers to integrate what was then Warren County High School.

On this crisp and bright fall day, how many Front Royal residents will glide past that spot without pause, surrounded by floats, horses, pick-up trucks, kids, bands, and beauty queens, throwing candy to the crowd and waving at friends, not noticing Mr. Kilby’s street?

I try to picture the scene on that day in 1959—the cars are different, the clothes are different but everything else is pretty much the same—the sloping front lawn, the towering trees, the blue-tinged mountains in the distance, and the influence of citizens who don’t like change.

The black students I picture walking up the hill are just ordinary kids. No supporters or bands cheer them on even though what they do is deeply American and completely extraordinary.

I can only begin to imagine the emotions they felt 50 years ago as they asserted their right to attend the same school as white students—were they angry, scared, proud, sad, or all of that?

Mr. Kilby is the reason those children were able to integrate the school. A local janitor and farmer, he filed a law suit that forced the high school to admit black students at a time when Warren County was at the vanguard of the “Massive Resistance” movement, a movement that urged Virginia schools to close rather than integrate.

This past June, the Warren County School Board received a proposal to name the school—soon to be re-opened as a middle school—for Mr. Kilby, who passed away in 2003. In other words, they were handed a wonderful chance to ensure that a critical period of Virginia history is not forgotten. The proposal was submitted by Mr. Kilby’s son, James M. Kilby, who has been trying since 1995 to have the school named for his father. After much debate by the entire Front Royal community, the proposal failed when the school board voted no.

As the parade progresses from Luray Avenue onto Royal, I think about the members of the school board who voted against the proposal. Clearly, they have less courage in their entire bodies than in a single pinky toe of one of those original 20 students.

The Warren County School Board chose to keep the name Warren County Middle School because it was the safe thing to do. According to a Washington Post article of June 11, one school board member said that “choosing one name over another…just leads to too much bad taste.” The folks in his district, “prefer something that will just go with the flow better.”

In other words, they didn’t want to upset any constituents by reminding them about an ugly part of their own past. God forbid we disturb our citizens’ delicate sensibilities.

That’s the same attitude copped by several county school principals who decided not to show President Obama’s education speech to their students. Rather than respect the man we elected to lead us by having our children listen to his words, these administrators chose to avoid the wrath of a few overly vocal conservative parents. I can’t help thinking that if Obama were white, the decision would have been different. I don’t remember the Bushes ever being dissed like that. No one would have dared.

I wish the school board had dared to permanently link Mr. Kilby’s name to the new middle school. I wish they had had the guts. That connection would have served many purposes in our mostly homogenous little town.

In the most constructive way possible, it would have helped keep racial equality and justice at the forefront of our consciousness, where it needs to be. It also would have served as the perfect opening to a lesson about civil rights by teachers within the school. To the students it would have given a sense of pride in what their predecessors accomplished and a sense of what they too can accomplish. But, perhaps most importantly, it would have provided a reminder about the fallibility of our own government and public institutions.

These are lessons I want my daughter to hear about and hear about often because we, as individuals and as a country, are always in danger of repeating our mistakes.

Just a few weeks after the Festival of Leaves, a new and shocking story about race popped up in Louisiana. Justice of the Peace Keith Bardwell refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple because he believes the children of such unions have awful lives and that such marriages can’t last.

When the story broke, Bardwell claimed he is not a racist but defended his beliefs just the same. I’d love to have seen the expression on President Obama’s face as he heard about this one. Our bi-racial president is 1,000 times better adjusted than this guy, and sadly, I’m sure he’s encountered Bardwell’s attitude before.

At first hearing, the Bardwell story seems unbelievable. In 2009, how could anyone believe what Bardwell believes? But then you start to wonder how many other Americans, especially those in positions of power, harbor similar feelings.

Oddly enough, the news out of Louisiana made me think of a poem, one written by my first college English professor, Eric Trethewey.

In 1965, he and his fiancé traveled from Mississippi to Ohio to marry. He was white and she was black. Such a marriage was illegal in Mississippi then, just as it was in Virginia. Soon after, they had a daughter. In an excerpt from a poem called “Her Swing,” the father describes his “crossbreed” daughter:

             At my child’s “Daddy, help me fix it,”
             I recall what is buried in these hours,
             and broach another lesson in her special art,
             the dance of the dialectic, which she has begun
             to practice everywhere in public:
             I show her how to set the board
             to slice a clean arc in the air
             dead-center between the supports
             and half-expect to see my rhetoric of balance
             settle down in her blood, in her flesh.

             And later still, as she pumps up high
             on the edge of a perfect arc,
             a brave girl learning how to use
             what ties her to earth,
             her mother comes silently from the house
             to stand at the swing’s other side,
             watching this lithe child slung in chains
             wheel fiercely under the crossbar
             and out into space, into time,
             into longing halfway between us.

             —from the book Dreaming of Rivers

I’m tempted to send this poem to Keith Bardwell, along with the latest book of poems written by Natasha Trethewey, the girl portrayed in “Her Swing,” who grew up to win the Pulitzer Prize for her own delicate and powerful poems.

Wouldn’t Bardwell see how the girl, “crossbreed” that she is, “pumps up high/on the edge of a perfect arc,” how she is a “brave girl” who wheels “fiercely under the crossbar.” This is a girl whose swinging between one light and one dark parent slices “a clean arc in the air.” She is not a victim; the swinging is her art and a source of strength.

Keith Bardwell and others like him are just one more reason Warren County Middle School should be renamed for Mr. Kilby—we cannot be complacent when it comes to our racist past or to the bigotry that festers right here and now.

I’d really like to think that my bi-racial daughter might someday attend a school where Mr. Kilby’s name appears above the front door, or where a portrait of him hangs in the hallway for every student to contemplate.

Even if the school board never sees fit to do the right thing and honor this hero, my husband and I will make sure our daughter knows what happened just a few generations ago on a pretty stretch of road in a pretty little town called Front Royal, and why it matters.

-Heather Davis