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Exclusive: Former Beauty Queens Shed Inhibitions (And Clothes) For Empowering New Campaign

Culture

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."

Jessie Palumbo

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."

Neely Fortune

Agonia had her own reasons for joining the campaign.

Tiffany Teixeira

“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?"

-Jessie Palumbo

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."

Theresa Agonia

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Career

Momtors: The New Wave of Mentors Helping New Moms Transition Back Into Careers

New parents re-entering the workforce are often juggling the tangible realities of daycare logistics, sleep deprivation, and a cascade of overwhelming work. No matter how parents build their family, they often struggle with the guilt of being split between home and work and not feeling exceptionally successful in either place.


Women building their families often face a set of challenges different from men. Those who have had children biologically may be navigating the world of pumping at work. Others might feel pulled in multiple directions when bringing a child into their home after adoption. Some women are trying to learn how to care for a newborn for the first time. New parents need all the help they can get with their transition.

Women returning to work after kids sometimes have to address comments such as:

"I didn't think you'd come back."

"You must feel so guilty."

"You missed a lot while you were out."

To counteract this difficult situation, women are finding mentors and making targeting connections. Parent mentors can help new moms address integrating their new life realities with work, finding resources within the organization and local community, and create connections with peers.

There's also an important role for parent mentors to play in discussing career trajectory. Traditionally, men who have families see more promotions compared to women with children. Knowing that having kids may represent a career setback for women, they may work with their mentors to create an action plan to "back on track" or to get recognized for their contributions as quickly as possible after returning to work.

Previously, in a bid to accommodate mothers transitioning back to work, corporate managers would make a show at lessoning the workload for newly returned mothers. This approach actually did more harm than good, as the mother's skills and ambitions were marginalized by these alleged "family friendly" policies, ultimately defining her for the workplace as a mother, rather than a person focused on career.

Today, this is changing. Some larger organizations, such as JP Morgan Chase, have structured mentorship programs that specifically target these issues and provide mentors for new parents. These programs match new parents navigating a transition back to work with volunteer mentors who are interested in helping and sponsoring moms. Mentors in the programs do not need to be moms, or even parents, themselves, but are passionate about making sure the opportunities are available.

It's just one other valuable way corporations are evolving when it comes to building quality relationships with their employees – and successfully retaining them, empowering women who face their own set of special barriers to career growth and leadership success.

Mentoring will always be a two way street. In ideal situations, both parties will benefit from the relationship. It's no different when women mentor working mothers getting back on track on the job. But there a few factors to consider when embracing this new form of mentorship

How to be a good Momtor?

Listen: For those mentoring a new parent, one of the best strategies to take is active listening. Be present and aware while the mentee shares their thoughts, repeat back what you hear in your own words, and acknowledge emotions. The returning mother is facing a range of emotions and potentially complicated situations, and the last thing she wants to hear is advice about how she should be feeling about the transition. Instead, be a sounding board for her feelings and issues with returning to work. Validate her concerns and provide a space where she can express herself without fear of retribution or bull-pen politics. This will allow the mentee a safe space to sort through her feelings and focus on her real challenges as a mother returning to work.

Share: Assure the mentee that they aren't alone, that other parents just like them are navigating the transition back to work. Provide a list of ways you've coped with the transition yourself, as well as your best parenting tips. Don't be afraid to discuss mothering skills as well as career skills. Work on creative solutions to the particular issues your mentee is facing in striking her new work/life balance.

Update Work Goals: A career-minded woman often faces a new reality once a new child enters the picture. Previous career goals may appear out of reach now that she has family responsibilities at home. Each mentee is affected by this differently, but good momtors help parents update her work goals and strategies for realizing them, explaining, where applicable, where the company is in a position to help them with their dreams either through continuing education support or specific training initiatives.

Being a role model for a working mother provides a support system, at work, that they can rely on just like the one they rely on at home with family and friends. Knowing they have someone in the office, who has knowledge about both being a mom and a career woman, will go a long way towards helping them make the transition successfully themselves.