Dazzling, streaky-haired Gloria Steinem once said something along the lines of “No one thought I was so beautiful until I said I was a feminist.” Steinem was, I think, riffing on the popular myth about feminists: that we are ugly, too grotesque to get a man— and therefore our habits of running for office, landing a seat on the Supreme Court, or writing books are merely elaborate justifications for having no date on a Friday night. Steinem was also deflecting the notion that she is more beautiful, and thus more powerful, than other women. Helen Gurley Brown once remarked to me, “Well, she would say that — because she’s gorgeous. She doesn’t know what it’s like not to be gorgeous.”
As a child, I was definitely a Helen. The first time I remember feeling consistently pretty was age 10, when I would create elaborate hairstyles in the bathroom while my five-year-old sister, Jessica, gazed at me from her perch on the toilet, enraptured. I had boys looking at me; I was pals with Brita and DayNa and the other precociously lovely blonds. I had admirers — or at least I had my little sister. I don’t recall when I first considered myself a feminist. I grew up with Ms. magazine and a mother who gave me a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird when I was 11, when she caught wind of a book report I handed in about Valley of the Dolls. I was born into “Free to Be!” “That Girl!” “Mary Tyler Moore!” “Maude!” I wrote letters to the editor of the newspaper in support of abortion rights at age 13. I was proud of being smart. On the other hand, beauty loomed large in my young psyche. I bought all of the fashion magazines and found Ms. dry. By the end of high school, I knew I shouldn’t care how I looked, because the content of my character was much more important, but I sensed that I was less vulnerable to being seen as a boy, lesbian, or outcast if I was also pretty.
My desire to be beautiful was rooted in my desire to be powerful. There were lots of ways to have power, but it seemed important to have “looks power” first. This was my secret self. My real self was being a smart snob in vintage clothes. Which is why I’m so surprised that I ended up in the World of Wheels pageant in 1987. The World of Wheels was a car show, held at the civic center in Fargo, but they also had a beauty pageant called Miss World of Wheels. I was, if I haven’t made this clear yet, a theater geek. I sang songs from Fiddler on the Roof on weekends; I loved Liza. The other women — many were older, in their early twenties — in the pageant had the five Bs: bronze tans, boobs, and big, blond bangs. They wore bikinis; I donned a fashion-forward gold lamé onepiece. My sister Jessica was in the audience and recalls having a “lamb to the slaughter” sensation when I took to the stage for the interview portion. When I was asked whether I liked to tan (seriously, that was the question), I answered, “I’m sorry, but no one should tan. It causes skin cancer.”
I forgot about competing (and losing) in the World of Wheels for years. I went to college, where I actually got a great deal of attention for my looks. By the end of sophomore year, I was also a rabid college feminist. First, we protested the mutilated dolls that a male artist made, learning we could be a united front of outrage and could scare people. Later, drunk on power and flat beer, we would talk at frat parties about how women should have guns and the only good rapist was a dead rapist. We were hot bundles of tough, miniskirted contradictions. After college, I moved to New York City. The city, like feminism, offered an exciting new value system — beauty was measured differently, your whole self was taken into account. I no longer felt shame about the part of me that longed to be powerful in that most basic, most perishable female way — the part of me that wanted to be beautiful.
For a long time, I couldn’t talk about things like the World of Wheels pageant, or being told to lose weight at the modeling agencies I went to when I first moved to New York. I’d say that before I became fully conscious, I engaged in tribal rituals of female debasement before the male gaze. What I didn’t say is this: It wasn’t competing that felt so bad. It was trying and failing. Getting chosen to do the modeling for Sephora or Moda Italia felt great. I can admit that now. After all, feminism can’t say there is no place in its philosophy for beauty or raw power. To survive, it has to be like New York — to glory in beauty, but never value a woman just by that measure.
Recently, my book Look Both Ways was reviewed in a fashion magazine, the kind I read as a teen. The writer referred to me as “by far, the hottest of the Third Wave feminists.” I felt a little zing of accomplishment. I was beautiful — for a feminist.
A version of this memoir appeared in About Face: Women Write about What They See When They Look in the Mirror (Seal Press, 2008).