Teen beauty pageant contestants discuss mental health

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Miss Utah’s Outstanding Teen 2020 and 2021, Charlee Sorensen, introduces the Miss Utah’s Outstanding Teen 2022 competition at the Covey Center for the Arts in Provo. This year’s contestants reflected on how participating in beauty pageants has helped them with their mental health, contrary to popular belief. (Andrea Zapata)

Female contestants in Miss Utah’s Outstanding Teen competition reflected on how participation in beauty pageants helped them during their mental health journey, a result contrary to some studies and popular belief.

The competition lasted three days, ending on Feb. 26 when Miss Alpine’s Outstanding Teen Jocelyn Osmond was crowned as the new 2022 Miss Utah’s Outstanding Teen at the Covey Center for the Arts in Provo.

For many of the girls, this competition was the result of many months of fundraising, rehearsing their talent, improving their interview skills and perfecting and acting upon their social impact initiative.

Beauty pageants are commonly seen as a showcase of vanity and shallowness, and a stressor for the participants. According to the research from West Virginia University, they also present a highly competitive atmosphere that could trigger comparisons, body disconformity, anxiety and other mental disorders.

This connection between child beauty pageants and mental health disorders recently became a topic of discussion again after Miss USA 2019 Cheslie Kryst committed suicide in January.

Days after Kryst’s death, her mother said the former Miss USA suffered from depression, which she hid from everyone.

“I was extremely sad, she was an amazing person and one of my biggest role models,” said Miss Spanish Fork’s Outstanding Teen Dakodah Hew-Len. “I wish she had known how big of an influence she had on girls like me.”

Miss Utah’s Outstanding Teen 2020-2021 Charlee Sorensen knew Kryst and commented on how impressions can be deceiving.

“I think people just assumed that because she was successful, she was happy,” Sorensen said. “We put her on a pedestal, which can feel like a lot of pressure.”

Hew-Len’s sister, Cadence Hew-Len, is part of the 2021-2022 Miss Spanish Fork royalty as a second attendant. She said she believes mental health issues do not necessarily stem from beauty pageants. In Kryst’s case, she said, there was additional pressure coming from her appearances on TV.

“I was diagnosed with severe anxiety when I was 12 years old. I was unable to talk to most people,” Cadence Hew-Len said. “The interview portion from the beauty pageants helped me build my confidence to establish conversations on a normal basis. It’s important to realize that for many of us, pageants are a way of growing and learning.”

Beauty pageants as an aid for anxiety and eating disorders

When asking Miss Utah’s Outstanding Teen contestants about their journeys in beauty pageants, many of them said their experience in these competitions actually helped them challenge and overcome their mental health disorders.

Miss Beaver County’s Outstanding Teen Madison Steers said she began experiencing anxiety in fourth grade and thought there was something wrong with her, as nobody in her school would ever talk about feeling what she felt.

Steers was encouraged by her family to participate in Miss Beaver County’s Outstanding Teen competition. Although she felt nervous, she decided to give it a shot and challenge her anxiety.

“When I found out I did well in the pageant, it boosted my confidence. It made me feel that merely by having participated, I was taking steps to overcoming my anxiety,” Steers said. “Having won the competition also opened many opportunities like reaching out to elementary schools to spread my story so that other kids who struggle with anxiety know they are not alone and that there is someone who relates to them.”

Although Steers struggled with mental health before participating in the Miss Utah’s Outstanding Teen contest, she admitted there are beauty pageants and modeling agencies that set unrealistic standards, which could lead to mental health disorders.

“Perfectionism is a big thing in beauty pageants, and it’s hard not to compare yourself to all the other candidates,” she said. “But I have faced my anxiety and I have confidence enough to go up there and know that I do not need to change myself to feel beautiful in all ways.”

Sorensen shared a similar story to Steers’. She said she had a hard time in school growing up, which developed into an eating disorder. Sorensen commented that beauty pageants are much more than dresses, hair and makeup.

“Pageants are ultimately empowering, and they cured my eating disorder because the interview, the social impact initiative and the talent portions of the contest helped me realize that my worth is so much more than what I look like,” Sorensen said.

Mental health was a topic of debate in the 2022 Miss Utah’s Outstanding Teen contest as the on-stage question portion of the competition revolved around answering questions about mental health awareness, the spread of body positivity, self esteem and dealing with issues like PTSD and OCD.

Miss America: Not a beauty pageant

The Miss America organization announced in 2018 the competition would no longer have a swimsuit portion and the judges would focus on who women are “as a person from the inside of their souls.”

“They don’t want to be defined as a beauty pageant anymore,” Sorensen said. “They want to make it clear that it’s not completely about being pretty.”

The Miss Utah’s Outstanding Teen consists of a ten-minute interview in front of a panel of judges, a talent portion, evening wear, an on-stage question and a physical fitness section where contestants wear fitness attire instead of a swimsuit.

According to Sorensen and Hew-Len, the interview is one of the portions with the highest amount of points.

“Pageants look for a young woman to represent the state who is well-spoken, willing to do service and connect with the people, so in the end, there are many other skills you need to have to win,” Sorensen said. “Knowing this helps us understand that you don’t have to look like somebody else’s definition of beauty to feel beautiful and be a light for others.”

Days of 47 pageant producer Constance Huntsman also said not all pageants are uniquely and mainly about beauty.

“We are not your typical beauty pageant,” Huntsman said. “We are looking for women who are good spokeswomen of Utah, who exemplify the spirit of the pioneers.”

The Days of 47 pageant nonprofit corporation and competition is sponsored by multiple Utah-based businesses and organizations, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It does not have a swimsuit or talent portion. According to Huntsman, it mainly focuses on finding well-spoken young women who show a capacity to serve the community.

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