Whitley column: What’s the intent of Strawberry Days fashion show? | PostIndependent.com

Whitley column: What’s the intent of Strawberry Days fashion show?

Carla Jean Whitley
cj@postindependent.com

This is not a column about bikinis.

Yes, they sparked this line of thinking. But frankly, I don’t care what a bunch of teen girls wear. I’m not them. I’m not their parents.

It’s not the appearance of a bikini that’s the problem; it’s participation in a culture that, from a young age, implies a woman’s worth is tied to her appearance.

This month’s Miss Strawberry Days scholarship program awarded $8,000, distributed among four participants. It also included a fashion show component in which the young women modeled clothing and swimwear. The event included audience votes, which factored into the judges’ final scores.

We simply don’t ask young men to compete for scholarships in the same way. How is a woman to believe her body doesn’t dictate her worth after it garners her audience votes?

Miss Strawberry Days aims to do the opposite. Its roots are in a swimsuit-modeling beauty pageant. But today, the competition’s literature claims another purpose: “Miss Strawberry Days is judged on personality, how she connects with others, and her ability to work with and motivate a group.” In recent years, the program updated its rules, which until 2016 deemed ineligible would-be contestants who had been married or given birth. Likewise, the competition’s annual fashion show works against the very end the program means to accomplish.

That’s not to label such events all bad. I built and deepened friendships through my high school pageant — and I suspect that’s a common occurrence. These programs can help girls develop public speaking skills and increase confidence as a result.

It’s equally important to support, not shame, these girls. I can imagine how I’d react to a woman twice my age, a woman I’ve never met, criticizing an event I participated in. I’m sure it happened: I was a high-school cheerleader in an era when my school considered midriff-baring tops too scandalous for the squad (but grinding dance moves perfectly acceptable on the sidelines).

My fellow Miss Mandarin contestants voted me Miss Congeniality in my high-school pageant. The latter event didn’t include swim attire, even in Florida, but it did include a formal wear category.

If this program is really about showing leadership and how contestants carry themselves, consider alternative events. A question-and-answer portion offers that opportunity without requiring special attire. Likewise, my high-school pageant included an interview with judges. We were required to dress in professional attire, and the interview accounted for half of our final score.

Here’s what I’d say to the Miss Strawberry Days contestants, and to my 16-year-old self: I hope you do feel beautiful, regardless of how you’re clothed. I also hope you’ll consider why you feel that way, and whether it matters. Is it because someone praised your body? Or is it because your body is strong? Is it because of your expert makeup application? (Hey — I’m a fan of makeup, too. It’s fun.) Or is it because your smile portrays the vitality you hold inside?

These aren’t simple questions. I wrestle with them, too. This isn’t just a Miss Strawberry Days issue or a pageant issue. It’s a societal challenge. But as women and as a community, we can work together to promote what we believe most valuable. Let’s examine our intentions, and let what we learn lead to action.

Carla Jean Whitley is the Post Independent’s features editor.