Fifteen-year-old Ivee Walker really likes getting her hair and makeup done, and that's exactly what's happening right now. She's sitting in a padded swivel chair at Eureka's Linden and Company Salon & Spa, a black drape cinched around her neck while owner Linden Tyler Glavich curls her hair. He meticulously glides two extended fingers down a shimmering caramel lock, and when he nears the tips he pinches them in the beak of his curling iron. As he rolls it toward Ivee's scalp, she looks at her reflection in the white-framed mirror -- shy but happy. "I love it," she says. "I could spend hours sitting here and letting somebody play with my hair."
Diminutive and classically pretty, Ivee also loves dressing up in fancy clothes. Getting all girlie, she calls it. The makeup, the hair, flowing gowns and flowery corsages -- it's just fun, she says. When she was a child in Palm Desert her parents entered her in beauty pageants, starting when she was 3. "I wasn't in it very long because my parents couldn't afford it," she says. "But it was lots of fun."
Today's makeover is a sort of test run in preparation for an upcoming pageant, Ivee's first since she was a toddler. A few months ago, she and her family moved to Humboldt County, in part to spend more time with Ivee's grandma. Shortly after arriving Ivee started volunteering at the nonprofit Ink People Center for the Arts. One day in the Ink People offices, now located on the third floor of the Carson Block Building in Old Town Eureka, Ivee saw a flier featuring a diamond-studded tiara on a jet-black background.
"American Beauty Pageant," the poster read. "Girls (14-19 years of age) are going to compete for the first ever American Beauty title. They are going to present their finest eveningwear, talent, intelligence & swimwear on July 4." The winner gets the title, a six-month spokesmodeling gig for a new clothing boutique and $200. For Ivee, this was a perfect opportunity to "get all girlie" and maybe make some friends in the process.
Also in the salon today is Holley Russell, a tall, thin, 17-year-old cheerleader who will be a senior at McKinleyville High in the fall. She, too, is excited to be a contestant in the pageant, which will be held on Independence Day from noon to 2 p.m. at the Eagle House ballroom in Old Town. Holley, wearing a full-length emerald green gown, stands off to the side with her mom while Linden curls Ivee's hair. He's already coiffed Holley's hair into a swirling espresso cascade splashing over her shoulders.
Holley discovered the American Beauty Pageant a few weeks ago in the events listings on Facebook. "I've always had an interest in modeling and fashion," she says. "I just saw it and was like, 'Oh, that sounds like fun.'"
"Fun" is the adjective of choice here. And as we all know, wherever teenagers are having fun there are bound to be disapproving adults nearby. Carrie Maschmeier, Ink People's programs manager, discovered that almost immediately upon advertising the American Beauty Pageant. The first comment to appear on the pageant's Facebook page was critical of the very concept of a beauty pageant and chastised the Ink People for associating with it, Maschmeier said in a recent interview.
"Basically [the commenter] said that she did not support beauty pageants... that it was destructive for body image and she would definitely not be attending," Maschmeier said. She deleted the woman's comment (and similar complaints that followed) to keep the page's vibe positive, she said, and then proceeded with the planning. But when she reached out to potential sponsors she encountered more indignation.
"Frankly I'm surprised the Ink People would sanction such a thing!" Wildberries Marketplace owner Phil Ricord responded via email. "I can't in good conscience. Am I missing something?"
Ricord wasn't missing anything -- the beauty pageant is exactly what it seems. And that's the problem, according to critics. Here in post-feminist Humboldt County we like our women visibly liberated and our pageants wacky and ironic. Fashion shows and beauty contests, if they happen at all, tend to be playful inversions that critique the Miss America model: men in drag or clothing fashioned from garbage.
Maschmeier has continued to field negative feedback -- from shop owners who don't like the flier, Facebookers who don't like the concept, even fellow members of the Ink People who worry about the message it's sending to impressionable young girls like Ivee and Holley. (A swimsuit contest? Really?!)
But the girls themselves aren't worried. "I just think it's a fun experience," Ivee says again. "I've always wanted to do something like this, just have the experience, make friends and look pretty."
Is anything wrong with that?
Many people think there's plenty wrong with that -- and it's not just adults. "Being a teenage girl, we already go through so much pressure to be beautiful, to be perfect, and I don't think beauty contests really help us overcome that," 17-year-old Sonja Goetsch-Avila said in a recent phone conversation. Sonja, who will be a senior at Arcata High in the fall, volunteers for Spare Change, a program of Six Rivers Planned Parenthood in which teens teach their Humboldt County peers about such angst-ridden topics as their emerging sexuality, bullying, homophobia and body image.
She said the camps she has attended through the Spare Change program have helped her see the underlying messages in advertising, including the narrow definition of female beauty. She believes beauty pageants don't help. "Who are the judges to say that one woman is more beautiful than the next by judging her in a swimsuit?" she asked. And she worries about the effect on the girls who don't win the crown. "The pressure to be perfect and flawless weighs down on most teenage girls every day. Do they need one more professional telling them they're not beautiful enough?"
Michelle Frisco, an associate professor of sociology and demography at Penn State, said more or less the same thing. "There's a tremendous amount of pressure on girls to meet beauty expectations," she said in a recent phone interview. "I think that the less pressure we put on them ... the better off they are."
Frisco recently coauthored a study on weight and weight perceptions among adolescents. With the barrage of body-related messages teens see daily -- from media worship of bulimic fashion models to news reports on the obesity epidemic -- it's no surprise that there's a relationship between body perceptions and depression. But that relationship is complicated. One of the study's surprising findings was that overweight girls are actually less prone to depression than normal-weight girls who think they're overweight.
And that's a populous category. In 2003 Teen magazine reported that 35 percent of girls 6 to 12 years old have been on at least one diet, and 50 to 70 percent of normal-weight girls believe they're overweight. Even skinny girls aren't comfortable in their skin. A Harvard University study found that up to two-thirds of underweight 12-year-old girls considered themselves too fat. By age 17, up to eight in 10 girls are dissatisfied with what they see in the mirror, the Harvard study found.
By the time they reach college-age, one in every four women uses unhealthy methods of weight control, including fasting, skipping meals, overexercising, laxative abuse and self-induced vomiting, according to Anorexia Nervosa & Related Eating Disorders, Inc., a research group.
It's no surprise that girls' body dissatisfaction starts around the age when many receive their first Barbie-doll, whose elongated hourglass figure makes a mockery of human anatomy. The nonprofit Media Awareness Network reports that a woman with Barbie-doll proportions simply wouldn't function, according to scientists: "Her back would be too weak to support the weight of her upper body, and her body would be too narrow to contain more than half a liver and a few centimeters of bowel. A real woman built that way would suffer from chronic diarrhea and eventually die from malnutrition."
Certain multimillion-dollar industries have strong incentives to promote impossible beauty standards. Media analysts and social critics argue that the beauty industry deliberately perpetuates unobtainable goals to establish what's known as "normative discontent." The Media Awareness Network, for example, says that "by presenting an ideal difficult to achieve and maintain, the cosmetic and diet product industries are assured of growth and profits."
We all know that photos of models and movie stars are airbrushed to remove "imperfections." But many idolized bodies are bogus in the flesh, too. Miss Universe contestants, for example, are frequently sliced, diced and suctioned into shape, as revealed by this disturbing passage from Cosmetic Surgery Today, an industry news website: "In recent years, pageant contestants from Asia have been going under the knife to achieve a more westernized look, while pageant winners from South America have undergone liposuction and cellulite reduction procedures."
"Most pageants have a very rigid idea of what is beautiful -- and that's white and western," said Susan McGee, an instructor in Humboldt State University's Critical Race, Gender & Sexuality Studies department. In an email to the Journal, McGee said she is "emphatically opposed" to the American Beauty Pageant on a number of fronts -- its exclusion of males, its role in supporting the beauty and cosmetics industry and its presumed support of the rigid beauty standard, to name a few.
But she has more serious reservations involving the safety of the girls who enter. Beauty pageants, she said, contribute to "the eroticization and sexualization of young girls, teaching them that it is their bodies -- and a certain type of body -- that makes them valuable. ... I believe that this eroticization contributes to sexual abuse of girls, and certainly allows people to put the blame for rape on girls for acting in 'seductive' ways, i.e. ways that they have been taught by the dominant culture."
Even if such girls are not abused or raped, McGee said they could still be a danger to themselves. "[Y]ounger women are particularly vulnerable to eating disorders -- which are very serious and potentially fatal."
So, yes, it's fair to say some people see beauty pageants as potentially destructive. For Wildberries Marketplace owner Phil Ricord, who balked at a sponsorship request, the most alarming part was that a traditional beauty pageant was being sanctioned by such a well-respected community arts organization. "I mean, I can't believe that [Ink People director and co-founder] Libby Maynard would let the Ink People be associated with a beauty contest," Ricord told the Journal. "That blows my mind."
Carrie Maschmeier, a 30-year-old Eureka native with bleached-blond hair and three sterling silver hoops through her lower lip, is the Ink People's programs manager and the creative force behind Factory Girl, one of the nonprofit's latest programs under the DreamMaker initiative. DreamMaker programs are self-sufficient community arts projects that have been approved by the Ink People's board of directors and incorporated under the agency's nonprofit umbrella. Approximately 60 such programs are currently active, ranging from dance troupes to community theater, Hmong and Native American groups, youth arts projects and everything in between.
Maschmeier's idea for Factory Girl is to provide a space for free sewing and crafting classes where students can learn print-making, silk screening and more. The group recently completed its first task -- sewing extra-long pants for the stilt-walkers who lope around the Arcata Farmer's Market -- and the beauty pageant will be its first fundraiser, expanding awareness for Factory Girl while bringing in money through sponsorships, concessions, two-dollar admissions at the door and a $25 entry fee per contestant.
Maschmeier said she's been surprised by the negative responses to the event. When she was putting up a flier in a local boutique, a female employee remarked, "Oh, that's so sad." Of the 20 or so potential sponsors she approached only four had signed on as of late last week. "Even within the Ink People I'd say at least half of the volunteers, members or people dropping in, they say they support me and my efforts but they absolutely do not support a beauty pageant or anything of its kind," Maschmeier said.
The pageant was suggested by a couple of young volunteers, and Maschmeier is standing behind it because of what it means to the girls involved. "I support passion," she said. "Some girls want to be a part of it and are really enthusiastic about it, and I totally support that. That's my stance on it."
Ink People Director Libby Maynard said she, too, expects more than a typical beauty pageant from the organization. The notion of inner beauty is central to her own ethos, she said. "We probably have a dozen programs at the Ink People that are all about helping to build self-esteem. I would think that this [pageant] would be done in a way that would help build self-esteem, not drag it down or destroy it." Maynard admitted, however, that she had not talked to anyone about the details of the event or the rationale behind it.
Julian Lang, president of the Ink People's board of directors, said in an email to the Journal, "Peering over the shoulders of artists is not a duty of Ink People board members. ... It's true that an artistic vision can be controversial." The board's role in such instances, he said, is to help artists respond to their critics -- or, as he called them, "folks who have trouble understanding what they [the artists] are doing artistically."
Another board member, Megan Workman, said she personally would prefer an event that doesn't rank or judge the girls. Nevertheless, she said she's confident that Maschmeier is handling the event well. "I think potentially it could be a really great experience for Carrie and the girls involved," Workman said.
The foyer of Linden and Company Salon & Spa has been done up in an Arctic motif: The carpet, the furniture, the throw pillows -- everything's in shades of alabaster, ivory and milk. Ivee and Holley sit -- in their formal gowns and with excellent posture -- on the edges of chairs that have been arranged around a decorative fireplace (complete with a white-metal protective grate). Atop the eggshell-colored mantel sits the only black item in the room -- the plastic frame around a 40-inch flat-screen TV. It is tuned to a fashion show featuring skeletal models in loud-print sundresses, somehow managing to navigate a catwalk on their emaciated limbs.
"Modeling would be fun," Ivee says, "but it's also kind of an unrealistic goal. I want to be a lawyer."
"I want to be a nurse," Holley responds. "Or a pastry chef. I'm kind of debating."
Both girls shrug off the concerns about the beauty pageant. People are looking at it the wrong way, they say. And besides, life is full of competitions. This just happens to be the one they're interested in.
"They have valedictorians at schools, and I'm never gonna be a valedictorian -- I'm not that smart," Ivee says matter-of-factly.
"Everyone has something that they're good at. You just have to find it," Holley agrees. "I'm not really good at anything, but I like to put on makeup and put on a pretty dress."
Do they worry about people judging them exclusively on how they look?
"I mean, sure, there's always gonna be that at school and stuff," Ivee says. "But I have my friends. I know who they are. And they're not gonna ditch me if I have a bad hair day."
Ivee is confident about the interview portion of the competition because she says she's good at talking. As for the swimsuit contest, they're both looking forward to it. "It's about the only time we get to wear our swimsuits here," Holley says. Asked if it makes her nervous at all, Holley replies with something of a non sequitur.
"I think the harshest critics are ourselves," she says. Meaning what? "Like I think, 'Oh my hair is this way, it needs to be this way' sometimes. Or, 'I need to lose some more weight.'" After a beat she adds, "But I'm happy with myself."
"I don't physically think I need to lose weight?" Ivee chimes in, her inflection turning a statement into a question. "But sometimes if I can't fit into my [size] zeroes I do get a little self-conscious. I'm like, 'Oh no, am I getting fat? I can't fit into my zeroes!' But then I look at myself and I'm like, 'No, you're not getting fat.'"
Outwardly Ivee and Holley don't seem too bothered by these competing voices ("You're fat," "No, you're not"). Their nervous energy and timorous smiles suggest that they're enjoying today's pampering -- the makeup, the hairstyling ... even the interview from a journalist supplies a hint of the supermodel lifestyle.