For 28 years the judges in the Mrs. America Pageant have awarded a tiara to the contestant they deem the best-looking married woman in America. Although I am not even the best-looking woman on my block, I am married and I am an American. So I decided to experience what it's like to enter a beauty pageant in middle age. This would fulfill the goal of the Human Guinea Pig column—doing something Slate's readers are curious about but have too much dignity to do themselves.
I found it reassuring that the Mrs. America online application, which asked for my name, address, and color of my eyes and hair, offered gray as a hair choice. Just hours after I filled out the form, the director of the Mrs. Washington, D.C. pageant, Laurett, called and excitedly welcomed me to the competition. "Don't you need to see if I'm pageant material?" I asked. "It's not necessarily about winning," she reassured me. "It's about growth and progression."
I could guarantee her that in my case it wouldn't be about winning. Unless Lynne Cheney decided to give up campaigning in order to compete against me for the title of Mrs. Washington, D.C., I was certain to lose. The structure is the same as the Miss America pageant. Entrants vie to win their state pageant, then the 51 married women go on to the nationals in September, which are televised on the PAX network.
Many young women, growing up watching the Miss America pageant, imagine themselves on that Atlantic City stage, the eyes of the nation admiring their every curve. I never did. When I was still a teenager, my younger brother looked at me in shorts and remarked with awe, "Em, you have legs just like a Russian shot-putter!" Not surprisingly, things hadn't improved in the intervening 30 years.
One of Laurett's businesses is grooming contestants to win pageants, and she offered me an hour of free consulting. Because this was the end of April and the pageant was scheduled for the end of June, she suggested we meet immediately to start my preparations. When Laurett opened the door to her home and saw me on the stoop, I suddenly knew what it must be like to weigh 300 pounds and show up for a blind date for which the other person has not been prepared. Her eyes popped, and she gasped a little. Then she gamely tried to cover her reaction with the kind of smile you would give to your blind date while you figured out how to fake an appendix attack during dinner.
Not that I'm fat. I am 5 feet 4 inches (OK, maybe 5 feet 3-½ inches), and I weigh 125 pounds. This means I have a body mass index of 22, which even the U.S. government has declared a normal weight. But normal weight is not beauty-contestant weight, not even Mrs. Washington, D.C., beauty-contestant weight. As we walked into Laurett's living room, she showed me the crowns, each in a Plexiglas case, she had won in her various pageants. Tall and striking, she had been not only Mrs. Virginia but Mrs. America in 2002. "Maybe you'll get your own crown," she said, sounding unconvinced.
We sat, and Laurett gave me a thorough looking over. She suggested I lose 10 pounds and start a muscle-toning program. (Shortly afterward I received a note from her—"Emily, We're so glad to have you!"—wrapped around a bottle of herbal diet pills.)
"You need to build yourself up, definitely," she said, surveying my chest. "Maybe taping to give you a cleavage."
"Smile," she said. I did. "You need to overwrite your lips."
I looked quizzical, and she explained that I should powder out my lips so they were invisible, then draw a new, full set of lips outside my natural lip line. Also, I should get a pair of false eyelashes and wear them around the house for practice. I was starting to worry that all this cosmetic improvement would leave me looking like Tammy Faye Baker.