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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

3 Min Read
Health

7 Must-have Tips to Keep You Healthy and Fit for the Unpredictable COVID Future

With a lack of certainty surrounding the future, being and feeling healthy may help bring the security that you need during these unpredictable times.

When it comes to your health, there is a direct relationship between nutrition and physical activity that play an enormous part in physical, mental, and social well-being. As COVID-19 continues to impact almost every aspect of our lives, the uncertainty of the future may seem looming. Sometimes improvisation is necessary, and understanding how to stay healthy and fit can significantly help you manage your well-being during these times.

Tip 1: Communicate with your current wellness providers and set a plan

Gyms, group fitness studios, trainers, and professionals can help you to lay out a plan that will either keep you on track through all of the changes and restrictions or help you to get back on the ball so that all of your health objectives are met.

Most facilities and providers are setting plans to provide for their clients and customers to accommodate the unpredictable future. The key to remaining consistent is to have solid plans in place. This means setting a plan A, plan B, and perhaps even a plan C. An enormous amount is on the table for this coming fall and winter; if your gym closes again, what is your plan? If outdoor exercising is not an option due to the weather, what is your plan? Leaving things to chance will significantly increase your chances of falling off of your regimen and will make consistency a big problem.

The key to remaining consistent is to have solid plans in place. This means setting a plan A, plan B, and perhaps even a plan C.

Tip 2: Stay active for both mental and physical health benefits

The rise of stress and anxiety as a result of the uncertainty around COVID-19 has affected everyone in some way. Staying active by exercising helps alleviate stress by releasing chemicals like serotonin and endorphins in your brain. In turn, these released chemicals can help improve your mood and even reduce risk of depression and cognitive decline. Additionally, physical activity can help boost your immune system and provide long term health benefits.

With the new work-from-home norm, it can be easy to bypass how much time you are spending sedentary. Be aware of your sitting time and balance it with activity. Struggling to find ways to stay active? Start simple with activities like going for a walk outside, doing a few reps in exchange for extra Netflix time, or even setting an alarm to move during your workday.

Tip 3: Start slow and strong

If you, like many others during the pandemic shift, have taken some time off of your normal fitness routine, don't push yourself to dive in head first, as this may lead to burnout, injury, and soreness. Plan to start at 50 percent of the volume and intensity of prior workouts when you return to the gym. Inactivity eats away at muscle mass, so rather than focusing on cardio, head to the weights or resistance bands and work on rebuilding your strength.

Be aware of your sitting time and balance it with activity.

Tip 4: If your gym is open, prepare to sanitize

In a study published earlier this year, researchers found drug-resistant bacteria, the flu virus, and other pathogens on about 25 percent of the surfaces they tested in multiple athletic training facilities. Even with heightened gym cleaning procedures in place for many facilities, if you are returning to the gym, ensuring that you disinfect any surfaces before and after using them is key.

When spraying disinfectant, wait a few minutes to kill the germs before wiping down the equipment. Also, don't forget to wash your hands frequently. In an enclosed space where many people are breathing heavier than usual, this can allow for a possible increase in virus droplets, so make sure to wear a mask and practice social distancing. Staying in the know and preparing for new gym policies will make it easy to return to these types of facilities as protocols and mutual respect can be agreed upon.

Tip 5: Have a good routine that extends outside of just your fitness

From work to working out, many routines have faltered during the COVID pandemic. If getting back into the routine seems daunting, investing in a new exercise machine, trainer, or small gadget can help to motivate you. Whether it's a larger investment such as a Peloton, a smaller device such as a Fitbit, or simply a great trainer, something new and fresh is always a great stimulus and motivator.

Make sure that when you do wake up well-rested, you are getting out of your pajamas and starting your day with a morning routine.

Just because you are working from home with a computer available 24/7 doesn't mean you have to sacrifice your entire day to work. Setting work hours, just as you would in the office, can help you to stay focused and productive.

A good night's sleep is also integral to obtaining and maintaining a healthy and effective routine. Adults need seven or more hours of sleep per night for their best health and wellbeing, so prioritizing your sleep schedule can drastically improve your day and is an important factor to staying healthy. Make sure that when you do wake up well-rested, you are getting out of your pajamas and starting your day with a morning routine. This can help the rest of your day feel normal while the uncertainty of working from home continues.

Tip 6: Focus on food and nutrition

In addition to having a well-rounded daily routine, eating at scheduled times throughout the day can help decrease poor food choices and unhealthy cravings. Understanding the nutrients that your body needs to stay healthy can help you stay more alert, but they do vary from person to person. If you are unsure of your suggested nutritional intake, check out a nutrition calculator.

If you are someone that prefers smaller meals and more snacks throughout the day, make sure you have plenty of healthy options, like fruits, vegetables and lean proteins available (an apple a day keeps the hospital away). While you may spend most of your time from home, meal prepping and planning can make your day flow easier without having to take a break to make an entire meal in the middle of your work day. Most importantly, stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.

Tip 7: Don't forget about your mental health

While focusing on daily habits and routines to improve your physical health is important, it is also a great time to turn inward and check in with yourself. Perhaps your anxiety has increased and it's impacting your work or day-to-day life. Determining the cause and taking proactive steps toward mitigating these occurrences are important.

For example, with the increase in handwashing, this can also be a great time to practice mini meditation sessions by focusing on taking deep breaths. This can reduce anxiety and even lower your blood pressure. Keeping a journal and writing out your daily thoughts or worries can also help manage stress during unpredictable times, too.

While the future of COVI9-19 and our lives may be unpredictable, you can manage your personal uncertainties by focusing on improving the lifestyle factors you can control—from staying active to having a routine and focusing on your mental health—to make sure that you emerge from this pandemic as your same old self or maybe even better.