“Meg, let’s go to the Waverly! ‘Reality Bites,’ a new movie with Ethan Hawke, is playing.” It was Regina. Although we were graduating from NYU Law School within months, we had piles of homework still ahead of us. I could always count on my Mercer Street dorm roommates Sylvia and Regina to find a good distraction on occasion. As we lined up to get tickets in front of the old theater on West 4th Street in Greenwich Village in Manhattan, I couldn’t help but noticing a few adults, perhaps in their forties, who were behind us and trying not to stare at my hands. Within seconds of seeing me, I could feel their pity. Immediately, I felt the typical pit in my stomach. Fortunately, my mood was immediately revived as Regina and Sylvia began to make me laugh about something else. I stared up at the theater marquee, and it hit me. They must take one look at me and think, “Wow, her reality must bite.”
It was late at night, but I was transfixed, watching HBO’s, “Miss You Can Do It,” the acclaimed documentary about Abby Curran, the Miss Iowa 2008 Pageant winner and Miss USA contestant, who was born with Cerebral Palsy. Given the fact that Abby had been a hopeful contestant for years, winning the initial state title was itself quite an accomplishment. In fact, when Abby entered the Miss USA Pageant, she was the first woman with any type of “disability” to ever compete at a national pageant level. Despite the fact that Abby is extremely beautiful and eloquent, her posture and balance while walking are impacted as a result of her condition.
But rather than focusing on Abby’s personal journey at any length, the documentary spent more time highlighting ‘Miss You Can Do It,’ an annual pageant created by Abby herself. When asked why she decided to create a new pageant for girls with similar challenges to her own, Abby responded candidly: “It all started when my high school friend, also born with CP, wanted to enter a pageant. She was so thrilled until her parents told her everyone would make fun of her.” Curran, who is now studying to become a nurse, runs the Miss You Can Do It Pageant on donations. Practically everything Abby had to say struck a chord with me, but this particular line felt particularly compelling: “People like me win things so we can pass a dream on to someone else.”
The majority of the documentary thoughtfully followed a handful of eager young female contestants (and their families), all handling their own version of difference or disability. While I watched each girls’ storyline unfold, I couldn’t help but note a particularly beautiful blond haired, blue-eyed girl around age nine, who flashed an infectious smile as she leaned on her braces. She was also born with Cerebral Palsy, and was thrilled to tell the cameraman how excited she was to be there. “I am excited because it is my first Pageant,” the enthusiastic girl exclaimed. And then, almost as if she was speaking on behalf of all the hopeful contestants, she summed it up in one short line. “I want everyone to see who I am.”
When she was later crowned ‘Miss You Can Do It,’ it was clear I wasn’t the only one taken with this remarkable girl and her message.
Okay, a confession. Now that Mad Men (AMC) and The Voice (NBC) have ended for the season, I admittedly caught myself in my home-gym with nothing to watch this past Sunday. I tend to use my gym time as a chance to take a mental break and watch lighter stuff. With that, I flipped on a show I had never heard of called, “Princesses Long Island” (BRAVO). The premise was to follow a handful of Jewish women who live mostly on the North Shore of Long Island. They are mainly in their late twenties, all single, and most still living with their nuclear families. The show (not surprisingly) is focused on material things, and focuses its time and attention mostly on the love lives (or lack thereof) of the female “stars.” And so, as I began to work-out on my elliptical machine, I sunk to a new low and continued to tune in.
On the episode, “Ashlee,” one of the lead cast members, had decided to spend the afternoon with her father at a local nail salon. It quickly became clear that Ashlee had been living a pampered life. During the segment, she enjoyed a mani/pedi while chatting with her dad receiving the same treatment in the chair next to her. Almost immediately, Ashlee began to complain to her dad that she couldn’t seem to find a man as “perfect,” as he was. As the woman at the salon completed her pedicure, she fitted Ashlee’s feet with standard and customary paper flip-flops. And then, a fleeting thought momentarily crossed my mind: “Wow—I wonder what it would be like to actually enjoy a pedicure and fit into those paper shoes.” But my thought was instantly interrupted by Ashlee’s voice. “Excuse me?” She was speaking to the salon employee with complete sincerity. “Do you have any paper flip flops with a heel?” The pedicurist shook her head in the negative, leaving all of us to begin thinking how ridiculous and childish Ashlee was behaving. But then it got interesting—at least to me. “What?” Ashlee said aloud and loudly. “I am only 4’9. There is no way I am walking out of this salon in public without heels!”
And so, to accommodate Ashlee and to ensure her tiny stature would be shielded from any unwelcome attention, she was placed in a chair with wheels. Once the staff wheeled her to the front of the salon, Ashlee then insisted (to a very reluctant owner) that she needed to ride on his back outside to her car. I was repulsed and yet, still fascinated. As the (painful) episode continued, Ashlee’s sole objective was to flash her material possessions (fancy cars, clothes, jewelry), while at the same time ensuring that the one thing that made her different, remained hidden.
In that moment, I couldn’t help but think about the Miss You Can Do It contestants– they don’t have any option to hide their physical challenges, even if they wanted to. The result? These girls are blessed already knowing that whatever makes them different does not define them. Moreover, rather than waste time hiding (an impossibility anyway), these girls rejoice when others appreciate them for who they are. As one of my new Twitter followers, Michele, put it so eloquently when I recently tweeted about the HBO piece: “I saw a sparkle and true happiness in those girls.” With that in mind, does their reality really “bite?” Ultimately, despite their everyday struggles, I think not.
But I think we all know whose might.