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Tuesday, July 12, 2011


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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Shrinking and Pinking: Summer Round-Up

The summer brings warm weather (finally!), outdoor activities, and lots of sports news.  What's new in the world of shrinking of pinking since my last installment? Here are some female-centered sports stories that I've been thinking about this past month.

1) Did you see this excellent piece in The New York Times about Babe? No, not Babe Ruth-- Babe Didrikson Zaharias. I remember reading a biography of Babe as a young, unathletic girl and being amazed by her accomplishments.  Though she died young-- at age 45-- she accomplished much, including winning multiple Olympic golds in track and field, being an All-American basketball player, and a golf champion (she helped found the LPGA).  It's not an overstatement to say she may be the most well-rounded and accomplished female athlete of all time. But she's largely forgotten today, despite being a trailblazer. Today's female athletes should remember that Babe Didrikson Zaharias helped pave the way for all of them, long before Title IX came along.

2) Another story from the annals of sports history offers a slightly different lesson-- one young, female athletes today shouldn't imitate. Did you see the Sports Illustrated story on Kathryn Johnston Massar? Massar is credited as being the first girl to play Little League baseball. But there's one problem. She was actually too old to play Little League "legally" since she was fourteen at the time of her ground-breaking season in 1950 in upstate New York.  While it's clear to me Massar shouldn't be recognized as the first female to play Little League-- that the honor should go to Maria Pepe for pitching as a 12-year-old in 1972-- Massar's case raises interesting questions about when boys and girls play together and if the same rules should apply. Given that boys tend to be bigger than girls around puberty, should we allow "older" girls to play with "younger" boys?

3) Then again, Marti Semetelli shows that some girls can hang with the boys, regardless of age. This female pitching phenom will play on the boys' baseball team at Montreat College in North Carolina. At only 5'2" Marti is a force to be reckoned with while on the mound. It will be interesting to see how her collegiate career develops.  I think Babe (maybe both Babes?) would be happy to see a female collegiate pitcher take the mound.

4) While some girls can play with some boys, there's a move in Massachusetts to prevent too many boys from playing with the girls.  Because there simply aren't enough boys who play field hockey in high school, boys are allowed to play on girls' teams (the reverse of girls wrestling on boys' teams, which I've written about before).  But these boys tend to be bigger and play more aggressively. This article in The Boston Globe details the serious concussion one female player sustained at the hands of a male field hockey player.  After incidents like this one, coaches petitioned to prevent more than two boys at a time from playing on the field, playing in the area just around the goal, and from playing goalkeeper. Some oppose these changes, saying they discriminate against boys-- though I can see that they are meant to protect everyone on the field. Hopefully soon there will be enough boys interested in field hockey that all-male teams can be fielded.

5) Another rule change, though this one separates men from women. No longer will men and women (competitively) eat against one another. Now there will be separate competitions to crown male and female victors. As this article explains, "'Serena Williams didn’t have to beat Roger Federer to win the Wimbledon title, and we don’t think Sonya Thomas should have to beat Joey Chestnut,' said master of ceremonies George Shea." In case you don't know who Sonya Thomas is, she's "The Black Widow" of competitive eating (at only 105 pounds she once ate 41 hot dogs in 10 minutes); Joey Chestnut, also known as "Jaws," ate 54 hot dogs in 10 minutes.  While there is currently controversy over the men's competitive eating world champion, no one seems dismayed that women now get their own title and competition, as the move is expected to give women more attention.  Do you think having separate-sex championships (they do the same thing, somewhat controversially, for women in chess) will help women, or hurt them?

More importantly, what would the great Babe Didrikson Zaharias think of competitive eating as a sport?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

My Big Fat "Gypsy" Dresses

After reading this you might be forgiven for thinking that I watch a lot of TV (somewhat true) and that I only watch TLC (definitely not true).  Still, I can't help but write about TLC's latest foray into a different/almost-deviant subculture, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.

This show offers an "inside look" at life among the UK's Irish Travellers, and a few Roma; note I put "gypsy" in quotations in the title of this post both because the show isn't really about gypsies and because the term is actually quite offensive.  The show was a runaway hit in Great Britain, and it's been doing so well here that a US-based version of the show is now in the works.

Yes, there are Irish Travellers in the US, where they mainly live in Southern states.  What brought attention to the group in this century was a scary video of a mother beating her 4-year-old daughter in a store parking lot in Indiana, back in 2002.  With an improbable family name of "Toogood," the story brought attention to this reclusive community.

What struck me about the story was the revelation that Traveller girls get married very young (think 14-18) and their mothers dress them in a combination of pageant/ballroom dancing/stripper dresses (I was heavy into child beauty pageant research at the time, so this really resonated).  And the mothers then teach them how to dance in a sexy fashion to attract husbands. Yet, according to Travellers/Roma themselves, and many reports, premarital sex is basically unheard of, as is out of wedlock childbearing, as they are devout Catholics.

The UK/TLC series has truly exposed the bright, gaudy, over-the-top, and often suggestive wardrobes of Traveller females.  Here's a little taste.

The gussying up starts young, but especially around the time of a girl's First Communion:
When girls attend others' First Communions, or weddings, they go dressed to the nines:
 It doesn't stop as they get older. This is a shot of a bachelorette party (can you spot the bride and her mom?):
 (Hint: This is the bride-to-be):
Her wedding dress was my favorite shown:
Her bridesmaids' dresses (I SO should have used these in my wedding!):
My second-favorite dress featured on the show had lights inside of it, along with moving butterflies. Someone had to follow the bride with a fire extinguisher in case she caught on fire though... (Interestingly, she married into the Traveller community, so her dress was even more over-the-top, presumably to prove her bona fides):
Some other amazing wedding wardrobing:
(Photo credit: Mark Duffy)

So why do Traveller women wear these elaborate dresses? I turned to a book by British anthropologist Judith Okely that had been sitting on my bookshelf since I learned about the dresses worn in this community-- The Traveller-GypsiesShockingly, while the book is very informative, and devotes an entire chapter just to women's issues, sartorial choices are never discussed. Given that the fieldwork for the book took place in the early 1970s, I'm left wondering if such elaborate dresses are a more recent phenomenon. The show's narrator always says that these practices are stepped in tradition. I know bright colors are part of "Gypsy" tradition (think of painted, covered wagons), but I'm not sure Britney Spears-inspired bubblegum pink concoctions are "traditional."

Clearly there is an element of the animal kingdom's sexual mating rituals-- get as done up, and as colorful, as possible to attract a mate. But I would think there is more to it than this. I've been starting to read other books about Travellers, trying to see if there is a link between Southern child beauty pageant cupcake dresses and Irish Traveller outfits; I have always found the link between Irish/Scottish immigrants to the American South and traditional notions of femininity and masculinity fascinating (best book I have read about this is Culture of Honor), so I suspect there is a deeper connection.

In any case, while I am sure you are all now ready to order your own bachelorette/bridesmaid/wedding/Communion dress a la "Gypsy" style, better be ready to write a BIG check. Those dresses can cost anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Blog Follow-Ups: Botox Mom, Bernard Lagat's Son, and Miss America's Daughter

Many of my blog posts fall into one of the following categories: beauty pageants, child beauty pageants, and competitive children.  Today's post features updates on some of my most popular stories in each of these areas.

1) Botox Mom (aka Kerry Campbell/Sheena Upton)- It's been reported that Botox Mom (who never actually used Botox it turns out) is working with the Department of Children and Family Services in California to keep custody of her two daughters.  Upton is taking parenting classes, undergoing mental health counseling, and living with a family member to help her girls recover from the events of this past spring. I don't think we'll be seeing the Uptons on this season of Toddlers & Tiaras, do you?

2) Miika Lagat was back in the news this weekend as his dad ran in the US Track and Field Championships.  In an interview Lagat reported: "Lagat, who's son Miika is his #1 fan and was cheering for him every lap of the 5,000m on Friday night, said it was OK with Miika that his dad did not win. Bernard said Miika told him BEFORE the race, 'You know what daddy, you've run a lot (this week). If you lose, it's part of running.'" Let's not forget that Miika is five-and-a-half. He's pretty wise for someone so young, but having grown up around racing I guess he's earned his wisdom. I wonder if he will be racing soon?

3) Speaking of children of celebrities, Diana Dreman was just crowned Miss Colorado 2011. What's special about that? Well, her mother is Rebecca King, Miss America 1974. I am 99% sure that this is the first daughter of a Miss America to compete on the Miss America Pageant's stage. As the daughter of Miss America 1970, I have a lot of respect for Diana for putting herself out there-- but I also worry for her. I never did pageants, though there was a moment when I was a kid when I thought, "Hey, I could do that." My mother, wisely, didn't let me participate saying, "If you win, people could say it is because of me. If you lose, it could be because of me. You need to do your own thing." Not surprisingly, my own thing did not involve walking on-stage in a bathing suit (because, really, I think for most people, that is the stuff of nightmares).
In any event, I do think that Diana has the "Miss America look." I read on the pageant message boards that her talent routine is weak (dance), but I would expect her to go pretty far in Vegas come January. First of all, it's a great story for the Pageant. I will definitely be interested to see what a) the mainstream media makes of this story, and b) what pageant insiders make of it. And, of course, I'll share my thoughts!

Two other quick things to note: Rebecca King, Diana's mother (who was also Miss Colorado-- the last to win Miss America!), signaled a new stage in Miss America's development, back in the early 1970s. King was basically the first to use her scholarship money for professional graduate school. She became a lawyer and has had a successful law practice. She has also stayed involved with the Pageant, serving on its Board-- so it will be especially interesting to see how this plays out, since Diana has presumably met much of the Miss A leadership over the years... Second, I can't resist noting that this is not the most (in)famous pageant mother-daughter duo to come out of Colorado. That, of course, would be JonBenet and her mother, Patsy...

Thursday, June 23, 2011

From Eden vs. MaKenzie to Miss USA

It's been a big week in beauty pageants, especially with the Miss USA Pageant and the return of Toddlers & Tiaras.  Last week's TLC hit featured a "showdown" between two of the most well-known queens featured on the show-- Eden Wood and MaKenzie-- and this week's featured a Pentecostal, praying pageant mom and a pushy, pugnacious pageant mom/entrepreneur.

I've written about little MaKenzie before; while I am sure she is a difficult child to raise at times, she is an absolute character to watch. She is a refreshingly smart, and filterless, child.  The latest episode had her declaring that with her flipper in (a "must" for many glitz pageants), she looked like a bunny.  After a successful acting lesson (which likely went well precisely because MaKenzie isn't overly practiced/rehearsed), she exclaimed, "I don't know how to act. I just know how to be MaKenzie!"

Her rival-- who bested her yet again-- Eden Wood, is a bit more polished than MaKenzie, to say the least. We got a slightly different view of Eden this episode, as she had a minor meltdown while getting ready. In general though, Eden is a little pageant pro who clearly practices hard, and who has a team behind her helping her succeed. Despite her pageant successes, it was announced after this episode aired that Eden is "retiring" from pageants to pursue other career opportunities (though if you've seen Cutie Patootie, which I've linked to before, you might wonder if a singing career is premature-- then again, Eden is currently on a mall tour of the Midwest, so she has fans in place already).

Not to worry though, as they are lots of other pageant divas out there. Chloe, from last week's episode, is one. She is on a "winning streak," as her mom says. Her mother makes her living off of pageants, so doing well is Chloe's "job." Chloe's mom declared that Chloe is not traditionally "facially" beautiful, as she doesn't have blue eyes and blonde hair; we're treated to nine-year-old Chloe getting her hair highlighted and eyebrows waxed (always painful to watch).  The worst moment though was when her mom kept referring to Chloe's teeth as "jack-o-lantern," and then Chloe said she doesn't want to be a jack-o-lantern because they are "fat."  It's very possible Chloe is gong to grow up to hate her mother, and pageants.

So do MaKenzie, Eden, or Chloe stand a chance to become Miss USA like Alyssa Campanella (the gorgeous Miss California)? My guess is no, for a few reasons. First of all, it's unclear that any of them want to become Miss USA, or even Miss America. Eden clearly has grander ambitions and I'm guessing MaKenzie won't stick with pageants for many more years. Chloe, well, I've already shared my views there. On top of that, pageants really don't reward those who have been doing pageants since childhood. They are seen as too programmed and too "pageant patty." (One exception is Miss America 2004, Erika Dunlap, who did pageants as a child.) Note that, refreshingly, Alyssa Campanella was one of only two contestants last week at Miss USA who said she believed in evolution (one theory is that contestants didn't want to be controversial, the other is-- yikes!).  Like many things, including sports, making it to the "big leagues" is a long haul that involves luck, patience, and persistence. Many girls who start in childhood drop out along the way.

I definitely don't expect to see many of these girls competing in the Miss America system either-- and almost certainly not in Massachusetts. To hear some of the reasons why, listen to my appearance on NHPR's Word of Mouth from this past Tuesday (click HERE and then click "Listen" under "Article Tools").

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Odds Look Gorgeous: A Quantitative Analysis of the Miss Massachusetts Contest

Please check out my piece in the June 19, 2011 issue of The Boston Globe Magazine! It is an analysis I did of the past 25 years of the Miss Massachusetts America Pageant. No Miss Massachusetts has ever won Miss America-- and only one queen from a New England state has ever won, for that matter. Will this be the year? I'll have a full report on this year's Pageant in a few weeks.

You can see the printed version by clicking HERE (and you can see the headline on the cover and the description of the article by clicking HERE).

An online slideshow version is also available HERE.

Look forward to hearing your thoughts and hope you enjoy!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Celebrity Children

Chris Bosh of the Miami Heat just lost the NBA Championships. But he's okay with it. Why? Because his daughter, Trinity, got to see him play in the Finals.

Now Trinity is two-years-old. But imagine instead that she was twelve-years-old. How hard would it be to watch your father-- or any parent-- lose a major game or tournament, in person?

This past weekend Bernard Lagat, an Olympic runner, competed in the 2011 Adidas Grand Prix in New York City. Lagat ran the 5000m and came in second. His five-and-a-half-year-old son, Miika was in the stands to watch. How do I know? Because in NBC's coverage they actually miked little Miika and recorded his reaction to the race, showing the visual during the race replays. Miika was screaming for his dad to win, and seemed upset when he came in second. He sat next to his mom during the race, and obviously his parents had to okay their son being miked and recorded. While Miika is adorable and full of personality, was this really the best decision? Clearly a lot of Miika's identity is wrapped up in being the son of a successful runner. What about his own identity?

It's not just the children of athletes who often have a spotlight on themselves based on their parents performances. This can apply to children of performers and politicians, along with notorious figures. For example, Karen Gravano, the daughter of Sammy the Bull, is in the news as part of the VH1 show Mob Wives. Gravano is currently penning a memoir about growing up the daughter of a mobster.  And then there's Chaz Bono, also much in the news, who has used the celebrity of his parents as a platform to promote transgender awareness (never mind that as a young girl Chasity was featured on her parents' television show in sequins and make-up, which made his personal struggles more public and in some ways more difficult).

Perhaps most interesting to me are the children of politicians.  Politicians regularly use their families, and their children, to promote a particular image to the public.  They also use their children to drive home particular issues. For example, the Obamas (especially Michelle) talk about childhood obesity in terms of their own children's "rising BMIs." These same children can become caught in the crossfire when things go awry. When the Arnold and Maria scandal broke, their teenage son's tweets were reported by the media. And then, of course, there are the Palin children. The Palin brood have been used in and across multiple reality television shows (for some of my thoughts on kids and reality TV in general you can read my USA Today op-ed here). When Sarah Palin took off on a summer tour recently her youngest daughter, Piper, was used in the video produced by SarahPAC.

It doesn't have to be this way, of course. Putin shows that there is another path-- although in this country we'd likely prefer something less extreme than essentially hiding family members.  But this raises larger questions: should access to children of celebrities be limited in particular ways? Is the media wrong to focus attention on some of them (like Lagat's son being miked and recorded)? Or is this solely a family/parental decision that we should leave up to the parent's discretion?

It's true that children of celebrities get various benefits from having celebrity parents, like access to other celebrities and real material rewards.  It is also easier for them to have a platform, if they so chose, as Chaz Bono shows. But, in general, they are thrust into the spotlight against their will and based on the skills and accomplishments of their parents, and not their own. In some ways, then, are these parents no better than Richard Heene, Balloon Boy's father?