Beauty pageants don’t always elicit the most enthusiastic responses in 2019. The idea of women being judged based on antiquated beauty ideals and outdated gender stereotypes seems less and less relevant as our society continues to evolve to be more understanding and accepting of identities and approaches to gender that were virtually non-existent just a few decades ago.
But that’s not how O. Stecina, a 19-year-old non-binary college student, sees beauty pageants. Or, at least, it’s not how they see it since participating in one.
Stecina, who does not identify as either male or female and uses they/them pronouns, competed in the 2019 Miss Colorado USA pageant. On Oct. 26, they stood alongside 73 other contestants intent on winning the title, which was first handed out in 1952. But Stecina wasn’t contending for the Miss Colorado USA crown. They were vying for, if anything, the Mx. Colorado USA crown.
“I’d kind of thrown around the idea of doing a pageant before I realized I was non-binary,” Stecina told HuffPost on the phone last month. “I wanted to give myself permission to be beautiful outside the confines of womanhood and I’m interested in breaking those gender stereotypes, so it’s not about womanhood necessarily, it’s about beauty in all genders. Also, it seemed a little absurd ― it’s the last thing anyone would expect me to do, so I wanted to go for it” [laughs].
Stecina, who had very little knowledge of what being in a pageant entailed prior to applying to participate in Miss Colorado USA, was on a mission to dispel their own stereotypes they had developed about beauty pageant contestants ― namely that they’re “vapid, vein, Barbie doll girls.”
Their friends and family were wary but supportive ― so much so that Stecina quickly collected enough money to cover the application fee through fundraising on social media ― and after publicly announcing their intention to compete, they found themself in a particularly vulnerable place.
“When I put up the fundraiser I got a couple of pretty awful comments from people, but I have gotten used to it,” they said. “I think people are nicer to me when they get to know me, so a lot of those threats are kind of empty. Once they think of me as a person they’re usually less awful.”
Stecina didn’t let the criticism or trolling stop them. In fact, it only fueled their desire to be involved in the competition.
“I wanted the world to have an example of a non-binary person in this arena, and I wanted to prove these people wrong,” they said. “You’re not going to stop me because you commented something mean or told me to kill myself on Instagram. I’m going to keep going.”
But before they could compete, one especially big challenge had to be overcome. The application itself appeared to bar Stecina from participating as the rule book given to them by Future Productions ― the company that runs many Miss USA competitions around the country ― says that a contestant must be legally recognized as female in order to compete.
“The gender marker on my license says X, so I am recognized as non-binary by the state of Colorado,” Stecina said. “But the woman I talked to at [Future Productions] was really advocating for me. We had to bend the rules a bit, but I think that’s not as uncommon as you might think. It was the first thing I clarified. I said in an e-mail, ‘Just so you know I’m not a girl, can I still compete?’ And they said, ‘Go for it, we want to see you.’”
Competing in the pageant was a transformative experience for Stecina, who was surprised by the friendships they made, the people they met and the vibe of the entire operation. They were welcomed by contestants and staff alike, and they specifically commend the emcee, who referred to them by their proper pronouns all but once.
Stecina, who ultimately did not make it to the final rounds, remarked that even though the finalists all appeared to adhere to and fit into the “traditional” beauty and gender standards viewers are used to seeing in these competitions, the opportunity for change definitely seems possible.
“A girl who competed with me had Cerebral Palsy, she got just as much love and got an award during the show,” they said. “I think on the state level there is a lot of possibility for us to have our chance to shine. I think if there are enough people who keep pushing into this world instead of not considering it because of societal standards, it can bleed through and we can have some variety.”
Stecina went home with an award too ― the Director’s Award, the recipient of which is chosen by the pageant staff and is someone honored specifically for their positivity and kindness.
“I really didn’t expect much from the pageant ― I had seen the girls who won awards,” they said. “I was completely content going home and listing that I had competed on my resumé and getting photos. But finding out people liked me was really great.”
The experience changed how Stecina views beauty pageants, but more importantly how they view themself and their identity. They recalled feeling relieved that the whole experience was less cutthroat than some other, non-beauty focused competitions they have been part of over the years, and marveled that there is no right or wrong way to approach their own gender.
“I was really excited to be able to embrace my feminine side without actually being a woman, if that makes sense,” they said. “I think when you first come out, it’s difficult ― you feel the need to completely distance yourself from the person you used to be and go completely androgynous. But there’s no one way to be non-binary, and it felt really empowering to get in touch with that side of me, wearing nice dresses and makeup. I don’t often wear makeup but I love the way it makes me look. Being able to let myself be more feminine and proud of my feminine aspects instead of wanting to cover them up was amazing.”
They even enjoyed wearing heels for the competition, though they have no plans to put them on again any time soon ― “I would never wear heels again, I hate them” [laughs] ― and has found even more confidence to bring with them into their everyday life.
“I have found myself branching out fashion-wise, being more comfortable getting dressed up to see a show and trying new things with makeup which felt totally foreign to me,” they said. “Now that I feel more comfortable, I love what it can do artistically.”
Stecina is enrolled in college in Chicago and is studying documentary filmmaking, so they aren’t necessarily looking to make a career out of pageantry. They do, however, have some words of advice for other non-binary people: Don’t hold back.
“I think a lot of non-binary people are worried their identity will become the center of what they do no matter what, but it’s important for them to try new things, enter new spaces where they don’t feel like they will belong,” they said. “The world is becoming more accepting and if you want to have that moment on stage you deserve it as much as any cis person. The most important thing is that we feel empowered, and I think letting yourself into a scary space and learning that people want you to be there is really empowering.”
Also on HuffPost
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.