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Backstage at the Beauty Pageant

“The world will scream for you if you’re beautiful, you know,” she said. She declared it to me as though I had no idea that I could be beautiful, or that there would be any value in it.

I smiled and asked if she would let me take a picture of her. I did not tell her that I was well acquainted with how much attention people pay to beauty. You can’t take photographs without being aware of that.

“And why are you covering up like that?” she asked as she pulled my shirt cuffs back, noticing my long-sleeved arms as I held up my camera and pressed the shutter. 

“Is it rosacea?” she asked, “We’ve got concealer for that. You just have to ask one of the make-up artists. One of them is doing some of the girls right now.”

Rosacea occurs only on the face, if we’re going to get technical. The vaguely geographic red patches on my arms that made my skin into an angry map were something else. There is a name for them, but it is not nearly as beautiful as rosacea. 

“You could have signed up. I keep telling you, but you don’t listen,” she said looking me up and down, “There are lots of photographers. You’ll get lost in that crowd, but you could really shine on stage. Let the men take the pictures, let them be of you.

I wanted to ask her if this was the reason that I was the only female photographer there. But I didn’t.

And a man did take my picture later. It was at the big party before they picked their winner from the finalists. I was sitting at one of those round banquet hall tables with contestants’ mothers. They introduced me to their friends with enough compliments to compensate for my work being at the foot of the stage rather than on it.

I didn’t want him to take my picture at first. In response, he said, ” Why not? You’re beautiful, too,” before he pointed his lens at me. That’s all I thought about when I saw the picture — how that is what we have told to a generation of young women. That they are beautiful too — in addition to the models, in addition to the pageant girls, in addition to the girls that fill a room with admirers as soon as they walk in.

We talk to mirrors now, saying that we are also beautiful, and we have become quite good at that. But we will have to teach our daughters to omit the adverbs that turn us into peripheries.