One recent day the sun was shining—for once!—and I was trotting around the Four Fields track chanting under my breath:
And we run because we like it ‘neath the big blue sky!
That’s what you inherit when your old man was an English teacher, not trust funds like some of ‘em but disjointed scraps of poetry and a deplorable habit of spewing Shakespeare at inappropriate moments (such as when you are writing articles about the local gummint). What makes it more irritating is that with the advent of Google you eventually find you’ve been quoting it all subtly wrong all these years, but let’s not go there now. For the minute I was supremely happy!
In the Holy Month of Robindon, AKA January, I fight my eternal “fat-wah” with especial zeal, dieting and exercising harder than in the other months, and that was one reason for a fat girl to be running around the track. But the main reason, and the reason I was reciting the poem, and the reason I was happy, was that I really do love it!
I use the word “run” lightly. I always say I move like the Russian Army, slow, heavy but I get there, and don’t laugh at me or I’ll crush your democratic institutions and lay waste your countryside. I’m no athlete, I just love being outside and I need a certain amount of physical activity to be at peace inside my body. I recently recovered from a broken leg and the most unbearable part was not getting outdoor exercise. That’s still fresh enough in my mind that as far as I’m concerned jogging around the track at the Four Fields under a big blue sky represents complete, unqualified ecstasy.
So there I was, running through the sunshine in the Holy Month of Robindon, when another woman passed me on the right, walking, and suddenly I wasn’t all that happy anymore.
The woman was younger than I was but not young, no 19-year-old track star training for the Olympics, just a normal middle-aged woman going around the track like myself for exercise. And she didn’t say anything snide—“Move over, lard ass,” or “Fixin’ to overrun Hungary?”—just a pleasant Hi. Still, I found myself embarrassed that her walk was faster than my run and I began trying to calculate how many more times she would pass me if we were both determined to go a couple of miles.
I knew it was my own fault I was unhappy. This wasn’t a competition! Nobody was comparing us! She had just as much right to the track as I did! But I was pleased, when we got to the parking lot side of the track, that instead of doing another lap she got in her car and drove away.
But not so pleased that I could quite recapture my mood. The sun was still shining and I was still going around the track but now I modified my poem:
And we plod because we like it ‘neath the big blue sky!
It reminded me of Aesop’s fable about the hare and the tortoise. The moral is supposed to be: “Slow and steady wins the race.” But why does it have to be a race in the first place? What the hell kind of race can you have between a rabbit and a turtle anyway? Why couldn’t the moral be something not about winning or losing but about a turtle just being, like, a turtle?
You will tell me that that other woman at the track was just walking at her own pace and had not flung down any gauntlets at me. That’s true. But with human beings, everything’s a competition! People are so into one-upmanship, I bet as soon as cavemen invented the wheel they start trying to get theirs to roll faster than the next guy’s. It’s why they call us the human “race!”
I remembered in third or fourth grade our whole class was timed for some reason as we ran a certain distance. Kids would cross the finish line and a teacher would write down their time. I didn’t like racing but I was obedient back then so I kept huffing dutifully along until I got to the finish line, among the last stragglers of the class. A fast kid who’d finished early and was waiting around watching remarked, “Those must be the ones without Platformate.”
Platformate was some kind of fuel additive that was advertised on TV back then. There was a commercial showing fast cars zooming past the finish line and then some loser cars clanking along behind them, left in the dust because they didn’t have Platformate. That’s what the kid was comparing me to. I was the loser car.
When I got to high school I managed to opt out of PE by signing up for chorus. It was a disaster! I can’t sing a lick and people tell me I’m always a complete octave off when I try. I take their word for it because as far as I know octaves are garnishes for martinis. Meanwhile, then as now, I loved sunshine and playing outside and sweating. So why on earth would an unmusical schmo like that take chorus to get out of PE? Because I didn’t want to hear any crap about Platformate, that’s why!
I’m just not made to be physically competitive and I’d learned in junior high school (which is where I’ll have to return when I die and am sent to hell) that PE is all about physical competition. In junior high school PE, we low-Platformate types played the same basic role as bowling pins do in bowling. We stood there waiting for somebody to hurt us.
Nevertheless, I still loved playing outside. I rode my bike or hiked, and I remember, just after college, telling one of my brothers that I regretted having given up tennis, which we’d all learned as children, and was thinking of taking it back up. He shook his head gravely and said I’d lost too much time; if I took it back up now, in my 20s, there was simply no way I could catch back up. I looked at him incredulously: Did he
think I was aiming for Wimbledon? I had just been thinking about being outside swatting the ball back and forth across the net long enough to make the beer taste good. In the end I didn’t even do that, though. The conversation with my brother had made me realize I wasn’t even competitive enough to talk about tennis!
But back to our sunny day in January, and getting my mellow harshed by having competition thrust upon me by some nice lady walking on the track for exercise like myself: Where my mind went next was, of course: The Miss America Contest.
That may not seem like a logical progression to you, but one reason I was at the track was to improve my physical appearance and concomitant self-esteem, and if you don’t think that’s tied up with competition, I would like to know what the hell beauty pageants are all about, pray tell.
Now that I’m a crusty hag I’m dead set against beauty pageants of any kind. I consider them antifeminist bastions of the bad old days, when any little boy might grow up to be president while the best a little girl could hope for was to be pretty so maybe he’d marry her. But when I was a kid I was as mesmerized as everybody else by whatever was on TV, and I remember once sitting in front of the tube watching the Miss America pageant when my father came into the room.
“You think that someday that’s going to be you up there on the stage, don’t you?” he said. “Well, it won’t be. You’d never stand a chance.”
That’s how the old man was. I think it was more his hatred for television than any desire to crush my fragile self-esteem. You should have heard him carry on about Hogan’s Heroes. An insult to all the people who had fought in World War II or been killed in it, he said. And it’s true, isn’t it, that those early sitcoms skewed our generation’s idea of reality? As much history as I’ve read since then, sometimes I still catch myself thinking of POW camps, police stations, military bases and war medical outposts as being jolly kinds of places. (I bet they anyway beat hell out of junior high school.)
My father’s ridicule did crush my fragile self-esteem, though, and shame me, too, because of course I really had been imagining myself up there in Atlantic City, hands to my face to show how overwhelmed I was at the honor, simpering coyly as millions of television admirers watched me being crowned. Being acknowledged as the most beautiful girl on the whole goddam continent--yeah, I could dig it.
But it shortly emerged that the old man was quite right. In high school it became abundantly clear who the sash-and-tiara types were and I wasn’t one of ‘em. I was no more designed to win pageants than footraces. Maybe you needed Platformate for that, too.
I have nothing against beautiful people. There are many I have liked. I read
somewhere good-lookers do in fact tend to be lovable because all their lives people have been nice to them and wanted to be near them. This kind of treatment apparently turns you into a nice person just as the no-Platformate comments make you twisted and bitter.
I’m not really all that twisted and bitter these days, and I would argue I wasn’t that awful-looking back then, either; it is just one of life’s ironies that when we are at our youngest and most beautiful we are in high school and college, clumped among others at the same stage of life, so that by comparison girls like me never rated much above a C minus.
But what still pisses me off about the competitive human spirit and high school (and I still see it happen!) is how the kids sort themselves out by Platformate levels—and how the schools let them, in fact guide them in the process—into winners and losers, into beautiful people and dogs, into the important ones who can win football games and make homecoming court versus the unimportant ones who should shut up and keep their heads down.
I was a head-downer. I remember in French class one day I had this epiphany: There was a drill where the teacher would read a sentence in English and we were to raise our hands when we had translated it into French. She kept the sentences simple, I was good at it, and whatever she read in English I could say in French as soon as she finished speaking. But after a minute or two I figured out she didn’t want mine to be the first hand in the air every time. I had to hang back and give everybody else a chance to play. Nobody likes a smartass!
But this principle did not apply to sports, where if you were good at it you could go running triumphantly down the field ahead of the pack, hogging the ball and the spotlight, while in the bleachers everybody stood up to cheer you on. And it most certainly did not apply to beauty pageants, where if you had the stuff you strutted it down the runway, wearing as little as possible to impede people’s vision of it, and if you could manage to outshine the other good-lookers you’d be given a crown and fawned over and encouraged to go on and strut at the state-level.
It seems in every other sane discussion of coping with your physical manifestation you are told: “Just be the best you can be! Don’t compare yourself to others!” That is not the message conveyed by the designations Miss Somebody, Second Runner-Up, Third Place and Honorable Mention.
Well, I will stop carrying on about it! You could say I hate beauty contests because I’m against competitiveness, because I’m a feminist, or because I have no Platformate and zero hope for winning even Thanks for Participating. One way or the other they’re not my thing.
But what is interesting now—and this what I was thinking about that sunny day as I
plodded around the track like a big-ass commie tank rolling into Lithuania—is that the Miss America contest is starting to have those negative thoughts itself. Specifically, it is considering eliminating the swimsuit part of the competition because, a spokeswoman said, and I am paraphrasing (but not much!): Why, it makes it seem like we judge women by how they look on the outside!
Imagine a beauty pageant doing that! But there are two sides of the fix-the-pageant push. There’s the side that wants to nix the swimsuit competition and another side that is adamant it’s a critical part of the pageant and should stay in. And what’s funny is that both factions, the Swimsuiters and the No-Swimsuiters alike, are made up of former beauty queens who have competed in the pageant.
So I have this image of all these big-haired women with glossy lips and mascara like tarantulas slapping at each other with their curling irons and shooting hairspray in each other’s eyes, one side shouting: “Beauty contests are about scholarships! They’re for all girls! (Except the ugly ones!)” And the other side shouting back: “We demand the right to have our near-naked bodies judged like meat! And you would too if your butt still fit in that pink bikini!”
I understand the bathing suit faction. Sort of. I expect that even for the born-beautiful it’s hard to get your body into the kind of shape that you’re willing for millions to see it nearly naked on prime-time TV, and that if you get there you’re entitled to a little recognition.
But I’ve also heard enough women saying, “I’d rather be seen naked than in a bathing suit,” or “I’d rather be dead! Shoot me!” that I wish
we could take the competition element out of wearing the damn things. Like maybe if you showed up wearing one people instead of sizing up how you carry it off could say, “Oh. Going swimming?”
And you know, that goes not only for the swimsuit part but the whole pageant biz. I started this essay deploring that an element of competition had been accidentally imposed on my Holy Month of Robindon run. But there is nothing like beauty pageants to reinforce the idea that simply showing our faces in public is some sort of contest!
Think about the culture. “You can’t tell a book from its cover,” we cluck sententiously. Or: “Pretty is as pretty does,” and “It’s what inside that counts.”
But at the same time we start parading little girls in full brothel makeup for the Little Miss pageants by the time they can walk. (And then we say, “They grow up too fast these days!”)
So there you go. What I have to say about beauty pageants is: Burn the train!
That’s from Shenandoah, an old movie about the Civil War. In it Jimmy Stewart is on an epic quest across the South to find his youngest son, who was taken prisoner by the Yankees when he was mistaken for a Confederate soldier. At one point during his long search, Jimmy stops a train carrying prisoners of war. His son is not on it but Jimmy does find his son-in-law, who really is a Confederate soldier, and has also been taken prisoner, played by Doug McClure.
(We have been talking about female beauty but here is an interesting tangent on the male variety: Have you ever noticed there’s always a Doug McClure?
Popular concepts of female beauty as embodied by film stars have varied widely throughout the century or so movies have existed. Sometimes, what with the weird old hairstyles and makeup, it’s hard to tell what an actress even looked like! But in the male lead department there’s always somebody baby-faced and boyish with curly blond hair and blue eyes. Before Doug it was Tyrone Powers. Now it’s Matt Damon.)
(I put that in parentheses because it has nothing to do with this essay.)
(Except that Doug McClure played the Confederate soldier son-in-law in Shenandoah.)
(Which isn’t really germane, either, but that’s how we roll here at The Planet.)
Anyway! After liberating Doug McClure, Jimmy Stewart is asked by the conductor of the train what he’s going to do with the train. The conductor points out it’s a pretty good old train and it’s not the train’s fault it was commandeered by the Union to carry prisoners. Jimmy tells him:
“You run a sad kind of train, mister. It takes people away when they don't want to go, and won't bring them back when they're ready.”
Jimmy then asks Doug McClure, who along with the other prisoners has done some suffering on the train, what he should do with it, and Doug, contorting his baby face in emotion, says:
“Burn it! Burn the train!”
I’m sure a lot of women and girls have enjoyed being pronounced beautiful by pageants but there’s trainloads more of us they've taken to places we didn't want to go, like Losersville, like rather-be-shot-than-wear-a-bathing-suitville, like don't-know-how-to-be-a-girlville. Anyway as a society we do judge people by how they look on the outside, we can’t help it. But we also know we’re wrong to do so; that’s what all the prim little adages are about. So if we know it’s wrong, why do we still have these big, over-the-top, rhinestone-encrusted, long-stemmed-rose-laden orgies of it? What I say is:
“Burn it! Burn the goddam train!”
Whew! All this because a woman passed me at the track, walking faster than I ran! One minute I’m running through the sunshine reciting poetry, the next I’m trotting around waving a LPLM (Low-Platformate Lives Matter) banner, hissing curses at beauty queens, threatening arson, and don’t forget I may still roll on into Ukraine at any minute to crush democracy.
Why am I telling you all this? Hell, I guess I just need to report, as your embedded fat-wah correspondent, that there isn’t anything simple about being a woman of a certain age on a constant quest for self-improvement. You can say you’re on your usual January diet, to undo the ravages of the Christmas season; or you can say that insidious cultural forces make you feel alternately unworthy and defiant.
And they're both true. When you get to be my age, you figure out--finally!--that you have some choice about how you feel. I'd rather be a strong, independent woman running--or plodding, whatever!--happily through the blessed sunshine. But my grip on that is fragile enough that all it takes is one woman passing on the right and poof! I'm a tortoise sucked in by the aforesaid cultural forces into racing with the hare, unsure whether I should lie down and cry or get mad and kick some rabbit ass. What I'll probably do instead, of course, is keep plodding through the sunshine and hope nobody shows up to push me over the edge again.
I'll finish this by telling you I looked up that poem about running. It's called The Song of the Ungirt Runners, by somebody I never heard of, Charles Hamilton Sorley. (My old man had his flaws, but he sure knew his Eng. Lit.) I had gotten it wrong, of course. It's not "'neath the big blue sky," it's "'neath the big bare sky."
But one other line the poem kept repeating I did think was a propos. "We run because we like it," it said. "We do not run for prize." That's what I keep trying to say here. I don't need to win! I just don't want to keep losing every time.
I just don't want to race any rabbits.