Pageant stereotypes have portrayed female contestants as bathing-suit-wearing, stage-strutting, baton-juggling lovers of world peace.
Sophomore and Miss Teen USA 2011 contestant Imani Bentham challenges these oversimplified conceptions.
Bentham doesn’t juggle a baton, but instead balances classes, an internship, membership in the Black Student Union, pageant responsibilities and work as assistant editor-in-chief of The Ace Magazine.
Following senior and fellow pageant contestant Meagan Allen’s suggestion, Bentham entered the intensive two-day event and won the title of Miss Teen District of Columbia.
“I’d never done it before or seen it before,” Bentham said. “I was just kind of there for the experience.”
After winning the competition at the district level, Bentham said she was required to compete in the Miss Teen USA pageant as a representative of D.C.
“[At the national level] there are 50 more girls, and my competition in D.C. was 10,” Bentham said.
Balancing both school and pageant preparation became a critical skill Bentham had to master. She said it hasn’t been easy, but she’s been able to work it out through time management, organization and the support of those around her.
“A lot of the time I’ll be on the computer and have one tab up for Blackboard, and then next to it have my Teen USA profile up to see if anyone else has been voting for me, and… if I do a paper, I have to text my state director and say I need two hours for the paper and then we can talk,” she said.
While Bentham says professors have allowed her to make up missed events, and her internship has permitted her to have a flexible schedule, she would like more recognition from GW.
“The administration doesn’t know [that GW has girls competing in pageants] and I think it’s a disadvantage,” Bentham said. “It would be great to have the University know that someone from their school is competing as a representative in the competition.”
Maintaining the pageant’s standards of behavior as a role model for younger girls has been another area of focused attention for Bentham.
“It has become more difficult because you’re on a college campus,” Bentham said. “With social media it’s hard to contain what images get out… If someone even assumes something is happening, it can be a problem. I’ve been trying to keep a low key social life.”
Bentham has furthered her image as a role model by participating in community service events and encouraging young girls to embrace their own unique characteristics.
“Little girls come up and ask if you’re a princess and if you have a castle,” she said. “During the year, I hope to get to continue with volunteer experience, to get to talk with girls and inspire them to compete… To let them know it’s OK to be kind of quirky. You don’t necessarily have to fit a certain mold to be in a pageant.”
At the start of her journey to pageant glory, Bentham wasn’t sure just what mold she fit into. Despite her feelings of uncertainty, she is glad she participated and is looking forward to where this experience could lead.
“I can’t believe I’ve been juggling so much, but I really think it’s for the best,” she said. “I don’t know where I’m going to take this, where it’s going to take me… I’m just kind of going along for the ride right now, I guess.”
The Miss Teen USA pageant will be held at Atlantis Paradise Island, Bahamas July 16.