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Friday, April 25, 2014

Pageant Weekend as a Former...er, "Forever"

On June 5th, 2010 my life changed forever the moment I was announced as the new Miss Vermont.

It sounds like a cliche - "It was just LIFE CHANGING."

But seriously, it was. 

It wasn't the instant fame (LOLZ) or the new life of glitz and glam (I was Miss Vermont... I had to wear mud boots to a lot of appearances) it was the year of transformative experiences that began on that night.

When you're Miss State, you're afforded opportunities to speak, perform, travel, and to spend every single day representing what you're most passionate about. It's pretty incredible. In what other circumstance does a young woman between 17 and 25 get to do that?

It is hard to articulate just how important being Miss Vermont was in making me the person I am today because it's so all encompassing. 

Because I was Miss Vermont 2010, I wake up next to my husband every day.
Because I was Miss Vermont 2010, I know how to do superfast hair and makeup every day.
Because I was Miss Vermont 2010, I understand how to give a presentation of any length on absolutely any topic at a moment's notice.
And on and on. 

Being Miss Vermont won't be the pinnacle of my existence on this planet, but it will always be an extremely important part of who I am and what I can do. 

This weekend is Miss Vermont Pageant Weekend in the Green Mountain State, and the girls are competing on the same exact stage at the Barre Opera House where my life changed four years ago. 
I am excited to see who will join our sisterhood and beyond sad I won't be there in person, but mostly I am filled with gratitude that I had the gift of being a forever Miss Vermont. 




P.S.
Happy National Pageant Day!


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Pageants and Body Image and Real Life

Over the past few months, former titleholders, Miss Americas and Miss States, have been speaking out about body image in their post-pageant lives.
It is awesome.
If you're not already familiar with these posts, you can check them out here and here. Other formers I know and love have been speaking out too, but their posts aren't publicly linkable.

 When it comes to the whole pageant thing, the one piece I've always had a bit of an issue with has been the swimsuit competition. I respect that it's a part of Miss America's history, I appreciate that titleholders need to be physically fit, and I love that it motivated me to become healthier. 

But that's just it - when I was competing, I worked really hard to make sure that I wasn't changing the way I was eating or working out just because of how I wanted to look in a bikini on stage. What motivated me to go to the gym or to make healthy choices was the idea that Miss Vermont is a role model of a healthy lifestyle. I made healthy food choices (lean meats, lots of greens, little to no sugar), I worked out regularly three to five days a week, and I drank lots of water.

While that's an idea everyone in pageantland is in favor of, there's a lot of disagreement about what a "healthy lifestyle" looks like and how you need to look on stage in that bathing suit to have a shot at being a titleholder.
Almost without exception, the way to get to how you need to look involves working out for hours every day and limiting your food intake before and during competition. While I don't want to disparage women who made the choice to do those things, those were not healthy choices for me. I flat out refused to do them and it made people mad.
(Much to the endless credit of my fitness trainers, they accepted my approach.)

I took a lot of flack and pressure about how my body should look during my year as Miss Vermont. From online message board posters, volunteers, and board members, the message was the same - 
"Miss Vermont is fat!"
 "Caroline, if you'd just tone up a bit more you'd really have a chance at Miss America."
"Vermont looks so heavy."

Guys, the whole time I was a size 2/4.
Not even a *gasp* size 6 or 8 as people online speculated. 
I was a size FOUR. Size four is not fat.

(Heck, I know women who wear a size 12 who aren't "fat", but that's another conversation)

There was a (brief) period during the lead up to Miss America where I listened to what people were saying and I changed the way I was eating so that I could look a certain way on stage. But then a day came when a mother of a little girl asked me what I was doing to get ready for swimsuit... and I couldn't bring myself to tell her (in front of her elementary school aged daughter) that I was substituting meal shakes for regular balanced meals. 
I realized that I wasn't being true to myself and what I believed in, so I decided to stop listening to the criticism and to return to making healthy choices. I even wrote about it in what would become a very controversial blog post. 

At Miss America I was easily one of the "heaviest" girls there, and believe me, people talked about it. They posted online about how "HUGE" Vermont looked and about how sad it was that Vermont just couldn't get it together to prepare for Miss America correctly.
Luckily, during Miss America I was able to block it all out and really did have a wonderful time. While in Vegas I barely thought about the swimsuit competition and when I did I just thought "Whatever. It is what it is, so I'm going to do it my way and be myself." It was awesome.
But later, it hurt. I felt self conscious about it. I was healthy and strong, but I had trouble feeling good about that because of how cruel and judgmental people online (and sometimes in real life) were about how my body looked in a bikini. To this day, I feel weird about my Miss America swimsuit pictures. My boyfriend (now husband) thought they looked great  but I didn't feel like I looked great because compared to the women around me, I looked short and dumpy and pale. Sure, getting ready for swimsuit had made me fitter, it had made me stronger, and it had helped me embrace my body... but it still left me very confused about my own body image.

After Miss America was over, my appearance schedule picked up and the obvious pressure of wearing a bikini on stage was gone (I would never have to do it again!) I relaxed my workout schedule.
After I was done being Miss Vermont, the pressure of being a role model with a crown on was alleviated, so I gleefully rebelled against the expectations of pageantland and worked out less...or not at all.
After finishing college I immediately ran for office, an endeavor that leads to weight gain for pretty much everyone who does it - all of those community chicken dinners you have to eat are not low calorie.
Eventually I weighed 25 pounds more than I had at Miss America... and it bothered me that I didn't look my best... but it bothered me more that I thought I had to be 25lbs lighter to "look my best".

I had to force myself to remember that just as being a size 4 is not shameful, neither is being a size 6/8.

I was talking about this with a non pageant friend of mine during the campaign at one point, and she made an interesting comment. She pointed out to me that there were probably a lot of people who found me more relateable and appealing at my heavier (and still healthy) weight.

Then I was getting ready for my wedding and I thought about losing weight so I could be thinner in the photos. Then I realized that was the only reason I wanted to lose weight, and that wasn't good enough for me, so I kept doing what I was doing and could not have cared less about a number on a scale on my wedding day.
(Actually, it turned out to be a very good thing I hadn't lost weight. Two days before the wedding I fell down a set of stairs and was later told by a medical professional that if I'd weighed any less that fall probably would have broken my tailbone and I likely wouldn't have been able to walk down the aisle. Vindication!)

Over the years of being a "former", it's become more and more clear to me that once you're a role model, you're always and forever a role model. You may be a former Miss Vermont, but you're never a former role model. Weight is not what makes someone a role model, character is.

That said, here's where I am in my personal journey now:
I'm going to fitness classes (BarreAmped, Spin, Pilates) 4-6 days a week as of three weeks ago because I want to be more physically fit than I am - I miss being able to do push-ups!
I'm 23, and I feel like I should be healthy and fit enough to run a whole 5k if I want to. I don't want to, but I want to be able to if the need arises.
Even though I hate exercising I can't deny the endorphins that come with it, and recent studies have shown being physically active improves your brain function later in life. I like my brain. I want to keep using it for a long time.
So I'm sweating way more often than I enjoy because I want to be healthy as I get older... but I wouldn't hate fitting more comfortably in my clothes too. If that happens, awesome. If not, I'll live.
I'm trying hard not to make this working out thing about losing weight that I don't need to be ashamed of.
I struggle every single day with my feelings about my body and my weight. Even though I worked very hard to not let the pressures of pageantry mess up my body image, it still got messed up.
Every day I feel like people are silently judging me when they find out I was a Miss America contestant and then they see that I am clearly not in the same shape today.
I know that whenever I'm around pageant people they're silently judging me for my weight gain - they're probably the same people who judged me for being so shamefully "fat" during my year of service.
Those people are wrong. They have always been wrong. If weight is what they chose to judge me on, then they aren't people I would like anyway. 
I'm doing my best to sort it out now, because I really hope to have a daughter some day... and she'll be the most important person I can ever model healthy body image for.

But for now, pageant people, stop being jerks. Stop putting pressure on young women that drives them to make unhealthy choices and to have unrealistic expectations for themselves.
Pageant contestants, make choices that are the healthiest for you and try to keep it all in perspective.
Fellow formers, we're all in this together. I feel you girls.
Most of all, let's stop shaming and judging each other as much as possible. I've done it, we've all done it... let's try not to.
Ok?

Monday, March 3, 2014

I Have Dyscalculia

From first grade through college school was always easy for me. I was reading by age 3, LOVED social studies, and I thought science was cool. I was in Gifted and Talented classes and went to academic summer camps. I didn't really have to try that hard to get good grades... except in one class.

Math. 

Anything with numbers was a challenge. Keeping score, card games where numbers matter, and don't even get me started on fractions.

In high school, no matter how hard I tried, how long I stayed after school, or how much time I spent trying to memorize concepts, the highest math grade I ever got was a C+. I couldn't understand why everything else came easily but math didn't. I knew I was smart, so why couldn't I do better in math?

My mom knew I was trying hard in math classes, so she didn't give me a hard time about it. I was excelling in everything else so she didn't worry, and I just chalked it up to being "bad at math".

Then one day in college, I had a thought.
"If dyslexia is a learning disability in how the brain deals with reading, could there be dyslexia but with numbers? Is there a math learning disability?"

I did some googling and I learned that such a thing did exist: Dyscalculia. The math learning disability. 
I went through the symptom list and I had experienced about 95% of them. 
Things started to click. 

I contacted my college's learning disability accommodation folks, and then got in touch with the firm who had conducted a battery of learning assessments on me when I was 10. Their response?
"Oh wow. We should have caught this."
I had been so high above my grade level in all areas that they hadn't taken much notice of the massive  relative deficiencies in the areas that would indicate dyscalculia. 

I was SO relieved. Suddenly, it wasn't my fault anymore. It wasn't that I was lazy. It wasn't that I was slacking. It wasn't that I didn't care. (All things my math teachers had said over the years.)
My brain was wired differently. 

Other than the relief of knowing my number challenges aren't because I'm secretly stupid, my diagnosis hasn't really affected my life because I found out so late in my academic career. 
If I had been diagnosed earlier, it would have made a huge difference. I would have been able to receive special accommodations in math classes, colleges would have understood my grades better, and the constant disappointment from my math teachers would have been mitigated, or at least easier to handle. 

But here's the real problem: most people don't even know that dyscalculia exists. 

I went back to visit my high school and told a math teacher (who had given me a particularly hard time) about my diagnosis. Her response?
"Dyscalculia? What's that?"

A math teacher didn't even know about this math learning disability. 

So today, on World Dyscalculia Day, I'm sharing my story in the hope that maybe you'll recognize the symptoms in yourself, in your child, or in a classmate and tell them about the math learning disability. Ask teachers you know if they've heard of it. Let's be proactive so that more students can receive the help they need. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Thoughts During Fitness Class

I am not a fan of working out.
The only way I really make myself do stuff is in a really super girly (and super hard) group class - Pilates, Barre, Spinning, Bikram Yoga. That's my jam.
And by jam, I mean I'm always the worst in the whole class but I hate it less than using machines at a gym.
It doesn't help that I have scoliosis and the world's tightest hamstrings, but I really do try my best. 

Here are some things I think during classes:

"Why is everyone here wearing teal tank tops? Did I miss the memo? Are they all instructors?"

"How did I end up in a class full of instructors? Is this one of the levels of hell?"

"Well. They are definitely all more flexible than I am - but that girl over there is shaking! Maybe she's like me! Oh...no...I think she's just on her third class in two days....."

"I'm literally the largest woman in this room. I wear a size six. This must be miserable for women who are battling obesity. Peer pressure and judgement suck."

"My leg is twitching. My LEG IS LITERALLY TWITCHING AND WILL NOT STOP."

"Oh, the instructor is saying something pointed about modifications and looking right at me."

"Now she's positioning her mat closer to mine.... I am a failure."

"It's time to stretch - THANK YOU LORD!"

"Oh....I can't touch my toes....that's right....maybe someday...."

"I lived. Never again."

"Ok.... next class booked before I lose my motivation. I hate everything."

Monday, February 10, 2014

How to Handle Losing

With the Olympics happening right now, there are a lot of conversations happening about winning and losing gracefully. About how our athletes should act when their dreams are wrenched away from them. While I'm no athlete (seriously, I hate being sweaty) I have spent most of my life setting ambitious goals and dreaming big. 

There are a lot of people who dream of getting into their first choice for college.
There are a lot of women who dream of winning Miss America.
There are a lot of people who dream of being elected to public office

I failed at all of those things. 
(I've failed at a lot more than just those three things, but they're pretty much the most glaring examples.)

But here's the thing....
If I'd gotten into my dream school, I very likely never would have dated Dillon, let alone married him.
If I'd won Miss America, I wouldn't have had the incredible year that I did as Miss VT. 
If I'd won my election in 2012, I wouldn't have the life I do now, which I really quite like. 

Failing is sometimes pretty awesome. 

If I hadn't failed and missed out on a few of those big dreams, I wouldn't be the person I am today. 

My mom has said before that she is most proud of my ability to handle disappointment. She raised me to be able to be ok with not always getting what I want, in spite of my natural tendency to be hyper competitive, focused, controlling, and a perfectionist. 
My parents taught me to be resilient and flexible. Trust me, these things are NOT a part of who I am naturally, they were learned. Ask my pre-school teacher. When I was THREE she noticed I was a bit of a perfectionist. Since before I could read I've wanted to get everything right.
While I'm not saying I'm perfect at letting things go (ask our wedding party, to whom I sent a Google Doc outline the rules for all things wedding related), I have gotten better at rolling with things, and I'm pretty darned good at getting over big disappointments. 

A quotation that became one of my favorites after losing Miss Vermont the first time:
"That's what learning is, after all; not whether we lose the game, but how we lose and how we've changed because of it and what we take away from it that we never had before, to apply to other games. Losing, in a curious way, is winning."  
Richard Bach
And that's the whole point I'm trying to make - sometimes, the best thing that can happen to you is for you to not get what you want. Seriously.
I know this is hard for dedicated, driven, goal oriented, competitive, Type A people to fully comprehend, so here's my little cheat sheet: 

How to Handle Losing:

1. Be sad.
2. Get over it. You're a grown up. You're mature enough to handle disappointment. Suck it up, buttercup.
3. Be happy for the person who got what you wanted. See her joy? Share it.
4. Know that you are exactly where you are meant to be and be glad about the good that will come of this.
5. Learn from it and move on to the next thing, because you're awesome.