Thinking on the NCJ’s current cover story regarding a local beauty pageant — coverworthy because here in Humboldt, we rarely hosts such events. Whether because we’re enlightened or just unimportant on the circuit is open to debate, as are the larger questions in the story: Do beauty pageants damage young women’s self-esteem? Do they send the message that looks supersede everything else? Is a teen beauty pageant an appropriate fundraiser for an arts collective? OK, maybe those sound like rhetorical questions, but room for thought exists.

I thought about this at the gym today, climbing on the scale first to see what damage the recent road trip had done. A road trip that included an hour-long shopping session trying to find a bikini that didn’t make me want to flee from the dressing room mirror. On one hand, I thought, I sure am glad I don’t live somewhere I have to wear a bikini on a regular basis. On the other, I’m disappointed my body is not capable of rocking a two-piece at all times.

This particular road trip involved returning to my hometown, the place where I spent my teen years hating myself for being such a hideous beast. Sunkissed blonde hair, a killer tan, big blue eyes and an hourglass bod — you know, horrible. I went without meals, made myself throw up, took speedy drugs to kill my appetite and was disappointed I never truly developed an eating disorder. What a loser, right? At 5’6″ and 125 lbs., I wanted to be 100. I look back at photos and am still appalled — not because I appear obese, but because I spent all that time thinking I was when I should’ve been reveling in the glow of young sexy womanhood. (Experience turned into short story here.)

I have daughters. I tried to shield them from influences — media and otherwise — that would diminish their sense of self-worth. I tried to ensure they cultivated talents beyond being beautiful, because at some point, even pretty girls need brains and personality to get by. With mixed results, cultural norms able to reach even behind the Redwood Curtain. But I think the Humboldt vibe, the lack of TV, the focus on a multitude of ways in which to succeed have helped. I like to think so.

That said, being “pretty” is not a bad thing. Beauty’s long been appreciated in all sorts of cultures, albeit differently defined in various eras by various people. Maybe we attach too much importance to being hot and not enough to being smart or kind, but even today, fashion magazines aside, it’s not as hard to be pretty as people make it out to be.

Almost anyone can shape his or her body into being nicely defined without too much fat. Well-fitting clothes go a long way, as does a good haircut and understated makeup. Those superficialities out of the way, confidence, humor, charm and generosity overshadow most perceived physical “flaws” — that’s why otherwise less conventionally attractive people end up shining in social situations, emanating sex appeal, while otherwise prettier people are left leaning on the wall to wallow in their insecurity. Or sometimes people have both naturally chiseled features and killer personalities. Life’s unfair like that. But people who decry those who happen to be beautiful as if they’ve done something wrong remind me of people who stop liking something, a band, perhaps, or a restaurant, simply because it’s become popular. Like, quit your whining, already, you sour-grapers.

All that really matters is people strive to be the best versions of themselves on all fronts. A beauty pageant can crush a tender young soul or it can be a lot of fun. However, given the depressingly common amount of self-loathing among teen girls, examining the ways in which we, as a culture, induce and reward eating disorders, cosmetic surgeries and other unhealthy behaviors is not only worthwhile, but imperative. I hope the event is a blast for the people involved and I’m glad the NCJ opted to highlight the issues surrounding it.