The Pageant Queen
By the age of 7, Mari Broome had won 250 beauty pageant trophies, had been on Oprah, and dreamed of competing in Miss America. Fourteen years later she was crowned Miss University of Florida, and then Miss Florida in 2005. The following year she found herself on that big dreamy stage and placed in the top ten in Miss America. Dream realised, she officially quit pageants, used her scholarship money to get a Masters in clinical social work and set up her own practice. Now her stage is more of a comfy chair helping teens, adolescents and adults get through eating disorders.
Mari’s a brilliant mix of right brain left brain. She’s creative, which helped her perform on stage and she’s analytical, which helps her in her work. She’s also a certified yoga therapy teacher for adults and children, and a certified sex therapist. She speaks up about bullying prevention, stress management and yoga treatment for eating disorders and sits on numerous boards. She’s fucking awesome.
When Mari first watched Miss America on TV at a very young age she turned to her parents and told them that’s what she wanted to do. “They looked at me like I was nuts,” she tells me from her home in Florida.
Unlike the media portrayal of beauty pageants, Mari wasn’t shoved centre stage by a domineering mother who never quite made it as Miss Oklahoma. Mari’s mother realised there was no talking her daughter out of her dream so researched the different kinds of pageants and cautiously walked her daughter through the door.
Mari loved it. She loved singing and performing on stage. But she knows how the world views beauty pageants. She can’t stand the title ‘beauty pageant’ because of the negative connotations. Yet her experience was anything but negative.
I first came across Mari in this Huffington Post article where she talks about how pageants were the thing that saved her from her eating disorder and also the thing that undid her.
As she told me, over Skype, how anorexia snaked its way into her life as a teen I was reminded how good these talks are. There were tears at one point, which I can’t include here as they have no sound. But those tears connected our hearts, reminding both Mari and I that we were once both messed up, really messed up, but it’s possible to come out the other side and use that pain to become a kick ass woman.
Here she is:
Pageants were your world until you turned 13. What happened?
“I transitioned to a different school. It was tough. I went on a school tour and was made fun of from the get go. There was a commercial I was in called ‘snow to go’, which was an icy type drink you can get from a gas station in my home town. Some of the students made fun of me, calling me ‘the blow to go girl’. It’s funny now, but then I was trying to make my way and I felt so out of place. I was being made fun of for something I enjoyed doing.”
“My self-esteem plummeted. I am an introvert but I became even more so. Nobody accepted me. Somebody called me a snob and I reverted further. I felt like I had no connections, couldn’t be myself. My body was also changing at this time – that wonderful time called puberty. I started getting comments from family friends that I was ‘not skin and bones anymore’ or that I was growing up. Totally innocent comments I twisted. Around this time, my boyfriend broke up with me as well, the love of my life at the time. It destroyed me. I already felt so isolated and out of place, so nevertheless, my relationship became one with an eating disorder.”
I decided to quit pageants and try out for something cooler: basketball. I began excessively exercising and eating fat free food, which then turned into getting rid of certain food groups altogether. The negative self-talk kicked in. I was knocking myself down and as I had stopped doing pageants I didn’t have my outlet – my coping strategy. Singing was a big therapeutic tool for me and I didn’t do it anymore.
“People were noticing the weight loss. I was isolating. My friends were concerned. I know that now. For my freshman year I only warmed the bench – my basketball coach let me on the team but I wasn’t allowed to play. I continued getting weaker, so wasn’t able to keep up the way I initially could during conditioning – the eating disorder was taking over. I even remember an older concerned student running up behind me at school and pushing my shoulders back because of how hunched over I was – likely due to my low self-esteem and the scoliosis setting in. I decided to join the track team that year as well (not because I actually enjoyed running, but for the eating disorder). I subsequently fractured my shin during the mile race due to how weak my body was and not being able to listen to it when it asked me to stop. Then this speaker came in and talked about struggles with body image and eating disorders and I didn’t realize until a few months later, my friends did this specifically for me. They were worried about how sick I was. It got really bad.”
“My parents started to notice how thin I was becoming as well. At first, they just thought I was being ‘healthy’ and then others started talking. I was considering getting back into pageants and my pageant coach at the time tried forcing me to eat a spoonful of peanut butter – it was like torture. Obviously forcing someone with an eating disorder to eat is not the most effective strategy, however, people were worried, and if anything, it forced me to see how big of an issue this actually was. I had to sit there for an hour and I couldn’t eat that spoonful of peanut butter. I would literally beat my head against the wall as I was so frustrated and angry about not being able to eat. I was also so blinded by what I was doing that I wasn’t considering the effects on the people around me. “
“I didn’t have the resources we have today. I was ‘tricked’ into treatment. If they had told me they were putting me into therapy, I would have fought it kicking and screaming. I was told I was going to a gynecologist. This was to get on birth control since my periods were all jacked up. They thought the pill would help me gain weight and get my period back. Again, not the most effective form of treatment, but people were at a loss of what to do at that point.”
What happened that flicked you out of it?
“I was afraid to fall asleep, I was worried I wouldn’t wake up. I knew I did not want to die. I turned on my light and looked in the mirror and finally saw what other people were seeing and it was not a pretty sight. I looked hollow; I had no colour, and under my eyes were dark. I looked scary. And that same night I woke my mom and told her I was scared. She sat on the couch and started to cry. She said ‘I am so afraid of losing you and I don’t know what I would do if I lost you’. We intensely and emotionally connected. I finally saw it. She was genuinely open with me about her feelings and concerns and that resonated with me. I told her I wanted to get better and she said ‘ok, well why don’t we go to get a Krystal’s hamburger’ and I said ‘mom slow down, cool your jets, it won’t happen that fast!’ That was the start of my recovery. It was hard without having the professional help of a dietician and therapist, but knowing I had my parent’s concern and support was a great start.
“A friend also helped. I met a girl in high school who had such a beautiful and seemingly normal relationship with food. She was happy and healthy and carefree. She would snack on peanut M&Ms all the time, as if it was nothing. I wanted that. I don’t know how and why we connected but we did. She doesn’t even realize the impact she had on me. Seeing her helped me think maybe I could have a better relationship with food too.”
“Eventually I got a therapist. I started to eat. I went through the awful bloating as my body adjusted, and the doubts. I was dealing with the symptoms but you also have to work on the underlying issues.”
“The major issue was that I had lost myself. So I slowly started to sing and perform again. I realized the biggest thing was me. I didn’t know who I was so I had worn a mask. When I finally realized that I could remove the mask and be myself and people actually liked that person, that’s when things really started to change for me. That takes a long time. In elementary school, entertaining, singing, and music grounded me, and when I felt rejected in middle school, I lost myself. So I realized I can have both; I can be myself and do the things I love to do and if I am judged for it, oh well. As my dad always says, ‘We’ve been kicked out of better places’. I don’t have to make everyone happy. I don’t have to please everyone (which is a big part of the ED). From then on out I started to get back to me.”
Does your experience with your ED help you in your work?
“I understand how hard it is for someone struggling with an eating disorder to eat, which does help me in my work with my clients. It helps with patience and empathy. I understand what they struggle with -just looking at the package of peanut butter can freak them out. This isn’t about the food though. The control of food is something that is being used to cope or control repressed emotions. This isn’t something you can just snap out of. People in recovery need support, compassion and strength. I am fortunate to have fully recovered so that I am able to provide that kind of support. As a therapist you always have to have a boundary, but I am comfortable talking about my eating disorder if asked. Depending on the client and where they are in their recovery, knowing someone that can relate, can be a helpful tool.
“I do believe that the perfectionism and some of the other traits from the eating disorder latched on. Just because I had recovered from the eating disorder didn’t mean I didn’t have other struggles. My life wasn’t perfect. And I struggled in other ways that weren’t the eating disorder. As you grow up you learn who you are but you will continue to have struggles and bumps. That’s life. An eating disorder is a symptom of the shit people go through. The shit doesn’t go away just because the eating disorder does. That’s why I do the work that I do. I get that.”
Did you experience emotional stunting too – where you come out of your Eating Disorder, emotionally, at the age you went in?
“The ED hijacks your body and brain, so emotional development is often times stunted. It’s almost like I blacked out for that part of my life, but life didn’t stop and wait for me to catch up once I was recovered. That was a difficult transition. Because the mind and body are so disconnected when in the throes of an eating disorder, people may develop other ways to feel, often times through self-harm (oh I am still alive, look I can feel something), or doing 100 sit ups before bed because it makes them feel something – pain is usually that feeling. I also see clients put themselves in unsafe sexual situations, just to feel something. The emotional disconnect is something that is very hard, and people don’t like to go there as it’s super uncomfortable. I ask them how they’re feeling and they say ‘I don’t know’. In order for them to connect with their emotions I have to get them to connect physically.”
“I see a lot of clients who were raised to ‘put on a happy face.’ Feelings were invalidated. That’s a social and environmental thing, it’s not just EDs. More people are struggling with EDs than is reported.”
Beauty pageants get a bad rap, can you explain how they were helpful for you?
“The way the media portrays them is more extreme. They don’t portray the other side. My experience was positive, that’s all I can speak on. If anyone asks me about them, I never say beauty pageants, as I don’t like the word ‘beauty’ when it comes to pageants. People have this idea that the physical piece is all it is based on. You don’t just compete and win a crown; it is something you have to work hard for- both mentally and physically. Also, once you win that title, you do something with it. In pageantry you often times have a platform, something that is important to you. Miss America 2008, Kirsten Haglund’s platform was eating disorders. She was able to go across the state to educate millions of people on this important issue.
“My platform was literacy. Giving kids, all kids, a chance to enjoy reading and connect with a book. A lot of schools I visited didn’t have the money to have a library and or many kids were disinterested in reading, often times due to their insecurity about reading, so I developed a program. I raised money through my title and went into low income schools and gave them books. The books were unique in that they were personalized; they were all about them, sparking their interest in reading their story”.
“Competing in the Miss America circuit paid for my scholarship for my Masters in Clinical Social Work. The Miss America Organization is the nation’s leading provider of scholarships for young women, awarding millions annually in cash awards and in-kind tuition waivers. I don’t know how anyone could view it as negative. I get why society has that skewed view on pageants. I am not saying there aren’t pageants that really focus on physical beauty or things that are more superficial. In my experience it was much more than that. It was about the whole persona and who you are, and your talent and not what you look like. That was the pageant world my parents found for me to compete in.”
“The swimsuit portion, or Lifestyle and Fitness, is 10% and the lowest portion of the overall score. The purpose of the swimsuit portion is to show a healthy body, that the contestant is taking care of her body, and that she is proud of her body. People sometimes think they’re going to choose the skinniest girl, and that’s not necessarily what you see. Putting on a swimsuit and being on stage in front of loads of people forced me to connect with my mind and body. I also couldn’t fake confidence, which is really what they are looking for in a title holder.”
“As weird as it might sound it was my sport. I would have had a different experience if my family had been down my throat making me feel like I had to win it but they weren’t. It was about the journey and the experience.”
If we can’t blame pageants for a focus on beauty then what can we blame?
“We get scared so we have to blame something. So media and imaging and airbrushing have something to do with it, but it’s more than that. It’s how we talk to ourselves as humans and what our kids hear us say. As a society we are very negative about ourselves and so judgmental. And as adults, our kids hear that. And it’s getting younger and younger and kids are saying similar things. Knowing the media can play a big role, we have to do our own work; work on quieting our own negative self-talk, be mindful about what we say to ourselves because we are the first role models for these kids growing up in a very different, much more complex world. Show them how to be kind to themselves and how to love, care and be proud of the body they are in by embracing your own.”
Thank you so much Mari, you’re a mighty warrior.
Endangered Bodies worldwide, a group of kick ass women, are petitioning to stop cosmetic surgery games that target children as young as nine. Because no child should be dreaming of a face lift. You can sign it here: