In a free consultation, a pageant coach told me the two steps to winning my Miss America local teen pageant: lose 20 pounds and straighten out my “untamed” curls. I was 14. She left (along with any possibility of me losing 20 pounds), but the hair suggestion stayed. Though I won without her help months later, photos of me being crowned show my smiling face framed with the straight hair she recommended. Today, TikTok users are similarly asking viewers to act as expert consultants on the steps towards maximum attractiveness.
“Nothing’s off-limits,” reads thousands of TikTok captions, alongside women displaying different angles of their faces. Boy, have I been there. I would go from studying precalculus to taking pictures at parades in fake eyelashes and heels in a transformation that would impress Bruce “Batman” Wayne.
In my role as Miss Contra Costa County’s Outstanding Teen 2018, I realized soon enough that fewer people asked for photos or autographs if I forgot falsies or if I didn’t wear heels. As more titleholders across California were crowned, I worked even harder to be beautiful — losing some of those twenty pounds, dying my hair a hideous shade of blonde, and allowing my executive director to dress me like a doll. TikTok allows women to do just that: accepting the emotional toll of society breaking them down with the hopes they can, be it through colored contacts or lip filler, build themselves back up higher.
“I’m tryna change everything about myself so drop suggestions,” one TikToker, @myah.nicole, captions her video. While it garnered comments such as “nothing” or “perfect the way you are,” some gave more substantive comments like makeup tips or hair highlights. However, more popular videos like the viral TikTok of @crucifiedelmo, garnering over 230,000 views, have received more specific, harsh criticism. Scrolling through her page you’ll see “get rid of the freckles,” “[get] a straight and symmetrical nose,” or “try lip filler lol” — much harsher comments attacking more unchangeable traits.
In a study evaluating the association between childhood beauty pageantry and adult mental health and self-esteem, childhood pageant participants expressed greater body dissatisfaction, interpersonal distrust and impulse dysregulation. As for TikTokers, this bombardment of commentary on trivialities and willingly being judged by strangers can create the same negative side effects as pageants — from severe body-image disorders to eating disorders. The benefits seldom outweigh the price when self-confidence, body image and mental health are on the line.
Looking back, I still can't lie and say that the little changes I made in investing in self-care or my appearance to compete at Miss California didn't make me happy or help my self-esteem. However, the problem for me lay in my willingness to cross personal lines — compromising my time, my features passed down through generations, and my belief in myself in order to submit to a system that told me beauty is value.
At some point in the competition for the title and the months after, I realized that it was OK if I wasn’t the prettiest. I accepted that I would never have the smallest waist or light-colored eyes and, soon enough, I began to truly enjoy my year of service.
My advice to TikTok users who are tempted to solicit feedback on their appearance (other than to just avoid it altogether) is to not place your identity in your physical attributes. Whatever you allow to become your identity you will allow to have power over you. Sure, it feels amazing to have strangers compliment you, but allowing strangers to belittle you? Reducing you to the symmetry of your eyebrows or the shape of your lips? Regardless of age or gender, this commentary is destructive. I challenge TikTok users to step away from this “nothing off-limits” mindset and realize the unalienable beauty within themselves and us all.