Culture 21 August 2017
Miss New Jersey USA 2016, Jessielyn (Jessie) Palumbo may be a stunner, but she is as down to earth as they come. She, along with five former beauty queens from the Miss USA pageant have joined together for a campaign that is designed to shift perceptions of pagaentry, and empower young people to celebrate their bodies, flaws and all.
“I love pageantry so much and so much positivity has come from it, but there's also a negative side, because once you are in the spotlight you are automatically criticized by people who don't know you," says Palumbo, a Wayne native. “There's a lot of cyber bullying from anonymous sources."
Among the insults hurled Palumbo's way by these unnamed offenders were that she “looked like a bird," and that her nose and chin were too big. "I never noticed these things until others pointed them out," says Palumbo, 25. “My pageant sisters were also criticized, told they were 'too heavy, too skinny, or had 'too big of legs." I really got to the point where enough was enough."
Palumbo, who is also an artist and photographer, decided she would counter the swirling negativity with a body-celebrating campaign, which would show her and a handful of pageant sisters stripped down, sans Photoshop, or elaborate makeup and hair styling. “There is no definition of beauty, because it is so subjective. There is no ideal form. I figured the most vulnerable way to show this is by being completely naked and using zero airbrushing, showing things like stretch marks, cellulite and everything that comes with being a woman. It's natural and it's beautiful."
Participants in the campaign, called the This Is Beauty Project, include Miss Rhode Island USA 2016, Theresa Agonia; Miss Vermont USA 2016, Neely Fortune; Miss Connecticut USA 2016, Tiffany Teixeira; Miss Delaware USA 2016, Alexandra Vorontsova; and Miss Louisiana USA 2016, Maaliyah Papillon. Each woman joined in order to help inspire young women to be confident in their own skin, as well as to take ownership of the looks-shaming they've endured as public personas.
“An Instagram troll said I was 'as big as a whale,'" Papillon told SWAAY when explaining her reasons for being a part of the campaign. “Although it hurt to read those words, it made me even more aware of how the world needs to see multiple images of beauty to eliminate the stigma that 'only one size is acceptable.' I wanted to prove to myself and others that it's okay to embrace your beauty. I love my body, curves and all and wanted other women to have a visual example of what that looks like."
Agonia had her own reasons for joining the campaign.
“Family, friends and colleagues have told me that I'm too skinny; that seeing bones isn't healthy," says Agonia. “Yet, despite the criticism, I lead a healthy lifestyle and love who I am. I did this photo shoot to remind people that 'skinny-shaming' is not okay. I did this photoshoot because I want to live in a world that allows women to be multi-dimensional. We cannot continue to be depicted as beauty or brains. We need to be able to become CEOs while feeling confident in how we look, and not being questioned for our intelligence."
The shoot, which took place mid-July in a studio in Bay Head, N.J., was meant to be as natural as possible. There was minimal styling, natural lighting and barely there makeup by Angelica Alberti. Although not a requirement, many of the women decided to get completely naked, in order to make a bigger statement. Palumbo, who once worked as Onilne Photo Editor for Maxim, took all the pictures, including her own via automatic shutter release.“The photoshoot was one of the most liberating moments of my life," Teixera told SWAAY about her experience. "It is so hard to be a woman because people expect you to be perfect; not too thin because then you're 'boyish' but not too thick, because then you're 'fat.' [The message is] be sexy but not too sexy because then you must be a slut, but if you're too conservative then you're a boring prude. Oh and you also should look like a Victoria's Secret model all while being able to drink beer and throw back pizza like the guys. It's impossible to keep up! And after so long of trying to be society's version of a perfect woman, I finally said, 'Screw it, I'm perfect just the way I am!'"
Papillon and Teixeira
To further add fuel to the body-loving fire, the shoot highlighted the body parts women were most insecure about, or were mocked for. For Palumbo, it was her “angular nose and chin," for Agonia it was her thin waist and for Teixera it was her curvy backside, which she had been told to shrink.
“These photos, in my eyes at least, have given me the opportunity to give the most artistic middle finger to the modern beauty standard," says Teixera. “For the first time I really didn't care that I wasn't hiding behind Photoshop. If there is a dimple in my bum, or a wrinkle on my face, then so be it. I mean, in a perfect world I would walk around with a Valencia filter on me at all times, but that is not reality, and we need to stop making it seem like it is. It took me 26 years to love me, and I couldn't care less about any other opinion."
For Vorontsova, participating in the photo shoot allowed her to face her feeling that in some way her body held her back, as she was told by others she was too “thick" to make it far in the Miss USA pageant.
“I wanted to let go of feeling like on camera I needed to look absolutely thin. I have an athletic body type and that's not what every person would consider 'in' at the moment," she says. “I love my body, however, there are certain angles of myself that can at times make me cringe. No part of my body should ever make me feel like I need to hide it from the world. Untouched and unedited, this shoot made me embrace all parts of myself."
To be sure, another one of Palumbo's goals was to combat the pageant stereotype, which she says can undercut a woman's intelligence and put only her looks in the forefront. “People assume they are all about makeup teased hair, and looking perfect," says Palumbo. “The truth is we have natural bodies, curves, rolls, and everything. We want to give young women some confidence, and show them that we are there for each other. We want girls to find their niche and to feel empowered."
Looking to the future, Palumbo says she hopes to amplify the campaign, bringing in more beauty queens and doing more shoots, in order to reach more young ladies. “So many girls I see on social media feel the need to filter to the point where they are sometimes unrecognizable, which shows you the pressure they are put under," says Palumbo. "Hopefully when they see our pictures they will realize they are completely normal, and that everyone has a little imperfection."
Alexandra Vorontsova"I feel like especially with everything that is available [in terms of plastic surgery procedures], millennials think they can get nip or a tuck, get their lips done, or whatever it is to fit a form and look like Kylie Jenner. If not, think they can fix themselves with Photoshop, but I want to know what's wrong with being yourself?"
When asked about diversity in the pageant world, which is often criticized for upholding a rather narrow view of 'beauty,' in terms of diversity, Palumbo is optimistic that change is already happening.
“I know the Miss USA system is slowly going there but they haven't really broken the mold yet fully with body types," says Palumbo. “Ashley Graham has been a Miss USA correspondent and she really pushes the message of body acceptance. The last couple of years, there has been much more racial diversity. Even so, I want more, including transgender contestants, a variety of body shapes, and more unconventional types of beauty."
It seemed like everything happened overnight because, well… it did.
One moment, my team and I were business as usual, running a multi-million-dollar edible cookie dough company I built from scratch in my at-home kitchen five years ago and the next we were sitting in an emergency management team meeting asking ourselves, "What do we do now?" Things had escalated in New York, and we were all called to do our part in "flattening the curve" and "slowing the spread."
The governor had declared that all restaurants immediately close to the public. All non-essential businesses were also closed, and 8.7 million New Yorkers were quarantined to their tiny apartments for the foreseeable future. Things like "social distancing" and "quarantine" were our new 2020 vernacular — and reality.
What did that mean for us? Our main revenue source was the retail part of the business. Sure, we offered delivery and take-out, but that was such a small portion of our sales. I had built a retail experience where people from near and far came to eat edible cookie dough exactly how they craved it. We had two stores, one in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn, which employed over 55 people. We have two production facilities; an online business shipping cookie dough nationwide; a wholesale arm that supplies stores, restaurants, and other retail establishments with treats; and a catering vertical for customizable treats for celebrations of all sizes. And while business and sales were nearly at a complete halt, we still had bills. We had payroll to pay, vendors we owed, services we were contractually obligated to continue, rent, utilities, insurance, and none of that was stopping.
How were we going to do this? And for how long will this go on? No one knew.
As an entrepreneur, this certainly wasn't my first-time facing challenges. But this was unprecedented. Unimaginable. Unbelievable. Certainly unplanned. This control-freak type-A gal was unraveling. I had to make decisions quickly. What was best for my team? For my business? For the safety of my staff? For the city? For my family and unborn baby (oh, yeah, throw being 28 weeks pregnant and all those fun hormones in there, it's real interesting!). Everything was spiraling out of control.
I decided to take the advice I had given to many people over the years — focus on the things you can control. There's no point worrying about all the things you have no control over. If you focus there, you'll just continue spiraling into a deeper, darker hole. Let it go. Once you shift your perspective, you can move forward. It's not going to be easy; the challenges still exist. But you can control certain things, so focus your energy and attention on those.
So that's what I did. I chose, for the safety of staff and customers, to close the retail portion completely — it wasn't worth the take-out and delivery volume to staff the store, open ourselves up to more germs and human contact than absolutely necessary.
I went back to our mission and the reason I started the business in the first place — to spread joy. How could we continue to bring happiness to people during this uncertain time? That's our purpose. With millions of people across the globe stuck inside, working from home, quarantined with their families, how can we reach them since they can't come to us? So I thought back to how and why we got started.
Baking, for me, has always been a type of therapy. I could get lost in the mixing bowl and forget about everything else for a moment in time. Sure, I have a huge sweet tooth, but it's about the process. It's about taking all of these different ingredients and mixing them together to create something magically sweet and special. It's about creating and being creative with the simple things. It's about allowing people to indulge in something that brings them joy — a lick from the spatula or a big batch of cookies.
It's about joy in the moment and sharing that joy with others. So my focus is back on that, and it feels good.
We could still ship nationwide, straight to people's doorstep. So we are making it easier and less expensive to send the ultimate comfort food (edible cookie dough) by introducing a reduced shipping rate, and deals on some of our best-selling packages.
In a way for us, it feels like we are going back in time… back to our roots. When I first started the business, we were only shipping nationwide. There were no stores, no big team, no wholesale. It was just me, a small crew juggling it all, and we made it work then. And we'll make it work again. We have to leverage our online business and hope it floats us through this time.
We are focusing our digital content strategy on sharing recipes, activities, and at-home treats with our engaged, amazing social following so they bake with their families and stay busy at-home. We started live baking tutorials where our fans can bake-along with me and I can share all the tips and tricks I've learned over the years with them.
I've leveraged the cookbook I published last year, Hello, Cookie Dough: 110 Doughlicious Confections to Eat, Bake & Share, to come up with fun content and additional things to do at home. We started shipping it and our at-home baking mixes for free to encourage people to get busy in their kitchens!
And as a business, we will continue to connect with our community to bring them joy and focus on what we can control, including our attitude and outlook first.
During times of uncertainty, which this certainly is, you should do the same. Identify the things you can control and focus your time and energy on those things. Distract yourself with the positive. Force yourself to stop asking and worrying about all the what-ifs. Do what you can for the moment and then the next moment. Make a list, and take it day-by-day.
It's going to be okay. You will be okay. We will all be okay.