American Beauty

Why strong women still chase the crown

Overnight, Deanna Bunch had become a new person.

She smiles wide recalling that day. It was the Monday after this year’s televised Lilac Parade, and she was walking through the halls of Roosevelt Elementary. “Everyone was like, ‘There she is! We saw you, we saw you!’”

Over the school’s loudspeaker, kids and teachers were told to stop by Bunch’s classroom to greet her.

Up there on the parade float, she had heard the voices of so many people she knew screaming her name. Her friends yelled “Deanna!” Small voices squealed “Mrs. Bunch!”

Suddenly, the second- and third-grade teacher wasn’t just Mrs. Bunch anymore. She was something more — a princess, a queen — wearing a sparkly diamond tiara and a silk sash as the official Mrs. Spokane.

Bunch, a 39-year-old wife and mother of two, says that she never would have considered competing in a beauty pageant as a younger woman. But after the last couple of years — marked by struggle and worry — something about becoming the next Mrs. Spokane, maybe the next Mrs. Washington, made sense to her.

“Once you’re 39 and married, it’s like, ‘Oh well, you’re not 20 — there’s nothing left for you.’”

Bunch takes pride in how orderly her life has been: things done the way they’re supposed to be done, in the order they’re supposed to happen. A good college, a master’s degree, a man she loves. A house and two little girls. A rewarding career. Everything she’d ever wanted.

Nearly everything.

“Quite honestly,” Bunch says in her no-nonsense teacher voice, “showing up with a crown and a sash makes people listen.”

Bunch is like many of the women seeking the Mrs. Washington crown — strong, educated and empowered — and yet, like her competitors, she’s seeking validation in an old-fashioned and hotly contested American tradition: the beauty pageant, with its evening gown and swimsuit contests.

Locally, Bunch will pit herself against several others, including Mrs. Spokane Valley, a 47-year-old epileptic personal trainer and ex-body builder with a passion for training the elderly; and Mrs. Mead, a 28-year-old mother of four who escaped a violent marriage and wants to tell the world how she found a better life.

Together the women say they find the prospect of being looked at on a stage empowering. They want to be judged on how they look, to be held up as shining examples of grace, fitness and poise. They want to be seen differently: more than just a mom or a wife.

“Once you’re 39 and married, it’s like, ‘Oh well, you’re not 20 — there’s nothing left for you,’” Bunch says.

Still, the year is 2012, and many question the role of such pageants and whether they reinforce the idea that a woman must look good to get attention and respect. Indeed, women as a whole have made major strides in recent years — they now outnumber men in high-paying management jobs — and yet the appeal of beauty pageants remains.

“If I was just a person at an event, I would say, ‘Hello, my name is Deanna … Wanna hear my story?’” Bunch says. “I feel like [now] I’m educating more people, because if you have title or a crown and a sash, you have a platform.”

Having It All

Bunch’s own platform — her talking points as Mrs. Spokane and the foundation of her interview with judges at the Mrs. Washington contest this fall — is about diabetes.

Her nightmare started when her daughter, Brynn, was just 22 months old.

“She was drinking and was thirsty, and my husband was like, ‘You know one of the signs of diabetes is extreme thirst.’ And I said, ‘Shut up,’” Bunch says. Her husband, Don, had been diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes — a genetic form of the disease — as a child.

So when Brynn’s thirst persisted, Bunch decided to test her blood sugar. “We pinned her down and unfurled her finger,” Bunch recalls. “[She was] screaming at me, ‘No, Mommy!’ And then when we got her blood in there, it said 523 — which is eight times what it should be.”

A year later, she’d go through the same thing with her eldest daughter, and Bunch’s neat life suddenly got very complicated. Meals have become times to practice math, as her two daughters learn to count carbohydrates and sugars. Outings and vacations mean stocking up on medical supplies.

Her life was consumed with explaining to two young girls why they needed to be careful about eating too much birthday cake, or too many slices of pizza.

Bunch also found herself explaining her family’s disease over and over again to people, so when she discovered the Mrs. Washington competition, she thought it could be a springboard to a larger audience.

Bunch says that she doesn’t feel some outside societal pressure to be a “super mom.” She’s puts enough pressure on herself.

“I think I’m hard on myself. I want to be … not perfect, but I really want to be a really great teacher. I want to be a really great mom. I want to be a really great wife. I want to be good at the things that I do,” she says.

That’s a sentiment explored in the current issue of The Atlantic magazine, in a story entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” In it, the author — a high-powered government executive — argues that the feminist idea of having both the career and the family is a farce.

“I still strongly believe that women can ‘have it all’ (and that men can too). I believe that we can ‘have it all at the same time.’ But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured,” the author writes.

But Stephanie Coontz, a professor emeritus in history, women’s and family studies at Evergreen State College, argues that the idea of “having it all” was never the lesson that 20th-century feminists were preaching.

“Let’s start by recognizing that the women’s movement never told anybody that they could ‘have it all,’” Coontz writes in response to the article on “That concept was the brainchild of advertising executives, not feminist activists.

“Feminism insists on women’s right to make choices — about whether to marry, whether to have children, whether to combine work and family or to focus on one or the other.”

According to the United States Department of Labor, women are choosing to work. In 2010, 66 million women were employed in the U.S., with 73 percent of those women working full-time. Women also accounted for 51 percent of all workers in “high-paying management, professional and related occupations.” Women also outnumber men in advanced education, earning more doctoral degrees — and 60 percent of master’s degrees — compared to men, according to the Council of Graduate Schools.

But now that women are dominating universities and the workforce, has the message changed? Or is the American Dream — for a woman — the same as it has always been?

Ann Ciasullo, assistant professor of English and gender studies at Gonzaga University, says that the ideal American woman of the 1950s — the happy housewife — has changed. But its replacement might be just as unattainable.

“I do think we still have a sense that a lot of women still want to be perfect in some way,” Ciasullo says. “Even though that ideal never really existed to begin with, it’s been replaced by the ‘super mom.’”

And that’s where Ciasullo says things get complicated. American women — regardless of how high-powered their career or how many degrees they hold — are still the primary caretakers of the home and family.

Ciasullo points to the recent cover of a Star magazine. “It had all of the celebrity moms with their kids, and the headline was ‘We’ve Graded the Moms.’ And it has Angelina Jolie: D-. Halle Barry: A,” she says.

“You would not see that with male celebrities. Because there is still a sense that when it all comes down to it, the primary duty for the woman is to care for her children,” Ciasullo adds.

“I think that for women in the last 50 years, [the American Dream for women] has consisted — kind of at the core — of maintaining the objects that the man goes out and buys. It’s about the home maintenance. Creating a nice place. Being a good hostess,” she says. “For men, it seems like the American Dream is going out and achieving.”

It’s a notion continually reinforced by pop culture. Ciasullo points to the television show Mad Men.

“When we look at literature, in particular at American literature, stories with women tend to end with death or marriage.”

“In the first few seasons, [Betty Draper] would have been someone who thought she was living the American Dream: handsome husband, couple kids, nice house in the suburbs,” Ciasullo says.

But where Betty stays put in her suburban home, her husband — the ne’er-do-well Don Draper — goes out. He works. He does what he pleases. “There’s always kind of this outward motion for male characters,” Ciasullo says.

It’s a rare female character who can embrace the American Dream — a construction that, historically, seems reserved for male storylines.

“When we look at literature, in particular at American literature, stories with women tend to end with death or marriage. It’s a rare story that does something else,” Ciasullo says. “There does seem to be historically a question of what does a woman do? If she’s not going to be a wife, how can she possibly exist in a world?”

So, simply trying something different — even if it is a beauty pageant — in order to maintain some sense of self beyond the family unit is admirable in Ciasullo’s view.

“There’s something very liberating in [these women] saying, ‘Yeah it’s not enough. I need something else,’” she says. “And how weird that you have a beauty pageant — that is kind of reinforcement of traditional or stereotypical beauty values — that’s giving this woman a place to say something that’s actually fairly radical.”

There She Is!

It started as a show of pretty girls.

The first Miss America pageant was held on Sept. 7, 1921, in Atlantic City. “It was designed for people in Atlantic City to make sure they could make revenue in the off season,” says Dr. Elwood Watson, co-author of There She Is, Miss America: The Politics of Sex, Beauty, and Race in America’s Most Famous Pageant. Atlantic City businesses wanted to prevent tourists from leaving town for a rival vacation spot, Coney Island, N.Y.

The first Miss America to be crowned was Margaret Gorman, a 105-pound, 15-year-old girl.

In her book, The Most Beautiful Girl in the World, University of Southern California professor Sarah Banet-Weiser points out that even at the competition’s birth, America had already realized that there was cash to be made from the use of the female form — in advertising, in marketing and in competitions like Miss America.

“The ties of beauty pageants to commercial culture go deeper than tourist gimmicks,” she writes. “The use of women’s bodies as an incentive to buy commercial products has much to do with the changing ideologies and behavioral patterns concerning women in the early 1900s.”

And though the first Miss America pageant — a themed event that dressed the competitors as mermaids — proved to be profitable, its motives were questioned.

“‘[The pageant] was condemned by civic and religious organizations for not only being indecent, but also because the contest exploited women for pecuniary purposes, while at the same time corrupting them through rivalry and competition,’” Banet-Weiser writes.

Across its history, the Miss America competition has been no stranger to dissent and controversy. The pageant was reserved for white women for several decades, with the first African-American competitor participating in 1970.

Miss America also drew the ire of feminists who, in 1968, crowned a live sheep on the city’s boardwalk and destroyed beauty products — cosmetics, fake eyelashes, girdles — in protest of the pageant.

The protesters distributed a 10-point brochure entitled “No More Miss America,” which likened the inspections of teeth and hair of the Miss America candidates to the judging of farm animals at a county fair.

But despite its controversial role in pop culture, Miss America endures. “The Miss America pageant has nine lives,” Watson says, laughing. “You cannot kill that pageant.”

Though beauty pageants started in America in the mid-1800s, the popularity of the Miss America competition spawned several new pageants: Miss USA, Miss Teen USA, Miss United States, Miss United States Teen, Miss Earth United States, Miss Black America and Miss Chinatown USA, among others.

In the late 1930s, a pageant was created to anoint Mrs. America — a married woman who embodied the qualities of an ideal homemaker, and who could cook, sew and iron her way toward the crown.

Mrs. America, like Miss America, holds competitions at the state level in order to bring forth 50 delegates for the title. According to Mrs. Washington America Director Pam Curnel, after the competition was suspended from 1968 to 1976, the pageant changed significantly about its intentions.

“It was about ironing. Or who could bake the best cakes and cookies and pies. It was completely different,” she says. “The one thing that stays the same is the community service.”

After competing in Mrs. Washington herself, Curnel took over the reigns as director in 1993. She says she’s made sure to emphasize that the Mrs. Washington candidates aren’t just pretty faces, but are out in their communities, volunteering and spreading the word of their platform — be it childhood autism or literacy. (However, the official contestant booklet notes that while Mrs. Washington competitors are judged 50 percent on an interview, a platform isn’t required. “You do not have to have a platform,” it reads. “It is always nice to do nice things in your community and there are many ways to do that. … We can help you come up with a platform for the pageant.”)

But if it’s so important for candidates to have a platform, why judge them at all on how they look?

“The evening gown, I think, is beautiful. I don’t see anything wrong with that,” Curnel says. “I would love to get rid of that swimsuit.”

But because Mrs. Washington America is a franchise organization of the national competition, Curnel says her hands are tied. The competition has to be structured where women are judged 25 percent on how they look in a swimsuit, 25 percent on how they carry themselves in an evening gown, and 50 percent on their interview with judges.

Curnel says she does enforce strict rules when it comes to the swimsuit portion of the pageant: no two-piece suits, and competitors must wear a sarong.

“They look like they’re wearing cocktail dresses. You’re pretty much covered up,” she says. “I can only do so much.”

Building a Body

A tanned and muscled, bikini-clad version of Stacy Benoscek smiles from a portrait hanging in her office.

“I’m pregnant with my first son there,” she says, pointing to her flat stomach in the giant photo hanging on her wall. It’s a snapshot of a time long gone, when Benoscek was a competitive bodybuilder contending for the title of Miss Fitness America — a lifestyle that took her to the national finals in 1995.

“I threw up the night of my contest and realized I was pregnant the next day,” she says.

She remembers being approached by a photographer at that final competition in 1995. He wanted to feature her in Muscle & Fitness magazine, but she declined, knowing then that her bodybuilding days were over.

“I didn’t win, but I had something so much more valuable — I was starting a family,” she says. “I would finally have the family of my dreams.”

Growing up in Spokane, Benoscek bounced between eight foster homes as a child. She recalls that time as a period of uncertainty.

“I didn’t meet my mother until I was 8 or 9,” she says. “When you’re raised in a foster home, all you want, or at least what I wanted, is family. I would watch Little House on the Prairie and Leave it to Beaver, and I’d be like, ‘That must be what a real family is like. I want that.’

“When I was growing up, I didn’t think I was capable of anything,” she adds. She distinctly remembers sitting in church as a kid. “In church they would say, ‘God gives everyone a gift,’ and I’d go, ‘Somebody forgot me!’”

When she graduated from Rogers High School, the 5-foot-2 Benoscek, who has epilepsy and a heart defect, says that she weighed 185 pounds. Her mother weighed close to 350. And all around her, family members struggled with serious obesity.

After an aunt forced her to enroll at Eastern Washington University, Benoscek started to realize that she could change. She could lose weight. She could be whatever she wanted.

“There’s a time in your life when you have to decide, ‘I control my life and I control how I look at things,’” she says.

Today, as a trainer at Spokane Valley’s Global Fitness — a gray box of a building next to the Argonne Yoke’s store — she preaches a creed of strength and stability to her clients. As she’s built her career as a personal trainer, Benoscek has acquired an unlikely skill set: She specializes in training clients who are, most times, in their 70s, 80s and even 90s.

“As the population ages through modern medicine, nobody is teaching self-sufficiency. They’re just like, ‘A pill solves all,’” she says. “Well, the pill can help internally, but you have to be able to move and use your body.”

As Mrs. Spokane Valley and as one of the oldest competitors in the Mrs. Washington pageant, Benoscek wants to be “a walking billboard” for her platform. That means “I have to lose another 20 pounds” before the November competition, she says. Most of the women competing are “10 to 20 years younger than me. They’re younger. They’re smaller.”

Benoscek’s desire to pit herself against women who are younger to prove her inner strength and worth is understandable, says Coontz, the Evergreen State College professor.

“I understand why [married] women today … might want to say, ‘Look at me. I didn’t get fat and out of shape. I want to show off that I’m still good looking,’” Coontz tells The Inlander. “I understand it. But I also think that there’s a real double standard when women are judged by their beauty in ways that men are not.”

Coontz says that American women are bombarded — from an early age — with messages to maintain a pristine outer image at all times.

“Look at how often Hillary Clinton gets commented on what she wears. And how many nasty comments have to do [with] whether she’s gained a few pounds,” Coontz says. “There’s an external pressure on women that, in the long run, can be very different even when we pass — or make the grade — by some outsider’s point of view.”

That need for validation from others is something that many say develops at an early age in young girls.

“I think girls — American girls — have a consciousness of their body at a young age that’s very different from boys’ consciousness of theirs,” says Ciasullo, the gender studies professor at GU. “And we know that we are always being judged on that in a way that boys are not.”

It’s a conversation that made national headlines earlier this year when a 13-year-old in Colorado posted a video of herself on YouTube entitled, “Am I Pretty or Ugly?” The blonde girl confessed to the Internet that “a lot of people call me ugly. And I think I am ugly — I think I’m ugly and fat.” She asked the world to tell her — in the comments of her video — if she was pretty or not. Today, that video has received nearly 7 million views and has spawned several more like it.

“Doesn’t that illustrate — aside from being absolutely tragic — how women are taught to see themselves outside of themselves?” Ciasullo says. “Girls are taught to perform. ‘Am I pretty? If I’m not pretty, how can I be prettier? How can I get your attention?’ And really, the real question she seems to be asking here, I think, is ‘Do I have value?’”

Love Thyself

For years, Desiree Lancaster believed that no man would ever love her.

She’d never been with anyone besides her ex-husband. They had first started dating when she was just a junior at Spokane’s Ferris High School.

As a teenager, Lancaster — a self-professed tomboy — says that she knew she wanted to be in the military. “I started Sea Cadets freshman year — which is like Young Marines. And I was totally military-bound. I was going to be an officer,” she says.

But her plans changed when she found out, at age 18, that she was pregnant with her first daughter, Kaitlyn.

“I was very much career-oriented, and then I got pregnant and married,” she says, “and life changed.”

Her life centered on caring for her daughter and working full-time. It was also about catering to what her husband wanted. Quickly, Lancaster lost her footing. She says her husband wasn’t supportive — in fact, he was the opposite. He played billiards to make money, and occasionally held down jobs at downtown bars. Her job — with the Spokane County Assessor’s Office — paid her well. But it wasn’t enough.

“He secluded me,” she says of her ex-husband. “He was verbally abusive. I was stupid. I couldn’t do anything right. He beat me down. … I felt like I was that crab in a shell — I never wanted to come out.”

“Girls are taught to perform. ‘Am I pretty? If I’m not pretty, how can I be prettier? How can I get your attention?’”

For years Lancaster moved her husband and their four daughters wherever they could find a place to stay: with friends, family and, eventually, motel rooms. They were young and poor, and even now she’s not sure where all of the money she was making went.

Lancaster remembers days when she’d take too long at the grocery store and come home to a furious husband.

“I’d come home, and he’d be really angry over something really silly like that,” she says. “I just thought there was something wrong with me. He made me believe that no man would ever want me.

“I was his possession.”

It wasn’t until the last year of their marriage when things got truly scary, and her coworkers started to notice that something was wrong. They eventually held an intervention with her and set up a meeting with a domestic violence advocate. It was time for her to get out.

“It was like, when people who care about you step in, it’s like you can’t back down now. You have to keep moving forward. You can’t chicken out,” she says.

Lancaster filed for divorce in mid-2009, moved into her own duplex near Gonzaga University and prepared herself for a life free from fear. But her ex wouldn’t let her — or their daughters — have it.

“Once I filed the paperwork, he’d come back to my house drunk or high on drugs. He told me a story that he was dying from lung cancer and that he only had a few months to live,” she says.

After several violations of a no-contact order, and a time when Lancaster alleges he tried to take their daughter from school without permission, she realized she wasn’t the only one living in fear; her four daughters were, too.

“When you looked at their baby pictures, all you saw was sadness,” she says. “[Kaitlyn] wanted me to homeschool her. She was scared he was going to show up again and take her.”

She moved again so he couldn’t find her. And when her divorce was finalized, she obtained another protection order that keeps her and her daughters safe — and free from contact from him — until October 2099.

She was free.

Within a year, Lancaster says she met the man of her dreams — her husband, Bret. They were married in August 2011. Her daughters call him Daddy.

For the first time, Lancaster formed a life that was her own. She bought her own house and a car. She tattooed her wedding date — Aug. 13, 2011 — on her ring finger, and a symbol for domestic violence empowerment on her wrist.

“I created things I never could do while I was married to my ex. I never could get a tattoo, it wasn’t allowed,” she says. “No one tells me I can’t do anything anymore. No one makes that determination but me.”

Today, as Mrs. Mead, Lancaster knows that she’s not traditional pageant material.

“I don’t fit the normal mold,” she says.

She wants to wear a pinup style gown and a vintage looking swimsuit. And, even though it’s discouraged, she doesn’t think she’ll take out her nose stud or cover her tattoos for the competition.

“Anything I have on me is an expression of my platform ... on how there isn’t a standard for a woman,” she says. “There’s not a standard form for a Misses. My poised posture and my lifestyle show that — show that I do fit.”

And more than anything, she wants to prove to the four little girls — girls who see their mommy in a sash and crown and think she’s a real-life princess — that they can be whoever they want to be.

On a recent afternoon, Lancaster is browsing online for swimsuits that fit her style. Her four daughters wiggle in their seats at the dining room table as they finish their egg-salad sandwiches.

“Kira — sit like a lady,” Lancaster says to her 5-year-old.

As Lancaster scrolls through images of swimsuits, Kira runs over from the table — sandwich in her cheeks — to get a closer look: “Oh, Mommy, look at the pink one!”

When the girls finish eating, Lancaster emerges from her bedroom with her folded Mrs. Mead sash and a sparkling tiara. The girls’ eyes widen, and she fits the tiara on Kira’s head, who bounces toward the bedroom to see herself in the mirror.

Lancaster continues to browse when there’s a thud in the next room.

“Did you break it?”

“No!” Kira responds, running back into the living room. She stands on her tiptoes and places the tiara, crookedly, on Lancaster’s head.

“You look beautiful, Mama.”

The Mrs. Washington America Pageant is scheduled for Nov. 3 at the Washington Center for the Performing Arts in Olympia.