Archived Opinion

From beauty pageants to soccer fields

From beauty pageants to soccer fields

It’s not my proudest accolade, but I spent a significant portion of my childhood in a pageant dress. 

The doctors told my parents they were infertile, so when they surprisingly had two little girls after 13 years of marriage, they were ecstatic to say the least. My mom was an only child and lived a rather sheltered childhood. My grandmother suffered from mental health issues, so my grandfather did the best he could to offer my mom opportunities, but he was protective of his daughter and also quite frugal, so her participation in extracurricular activities was minimal.

When she had two little girls who were three years apart in age, she wanted us to have all the opportunities she missed out on. Whether it was piano, baton, dance, cheerleading, musical theatre, or voice lessons, we were somewhere practicing something every night of the week and in a different state every weekend for a competition or event. 

My sister and I were in hundreds of beauty pageants as little girls. Beauty pageants get a bad rap, but it was the 1980s and my mom’s intentions were so sweet, so no judging. For the talent portion, I would perform either a baton or a dance routine. Most pageants also had a sportswear competition and an interview. 

As a quasi-tomboy, slightly nerdy little girl, the dresses always made me itch and the shoes hurt my feet. I would get on that stage and smile, model and dance my heart out, but secretly I couldn’t wait to put on on my jogging suit and high top Reebok sneakers so we could finally eat dinner at Denny’s way past my bedtime. 

Around age 12, I told my mom I was over it. No more beauty pageants or dance classes for me. I wanted to run track in middle school and be a cheerleader. She wasn’t happy about my decision, per se, but she allowed me to do what I wanted. I stuck with baton and ultimately was a majorette at N.C. State, which was really fun. I twirled through my junior year and then stopped so I could tailgate with all of my friends as a senior. 

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As adults, my sister and I would joke with my mom about all of our lessons, classes, and competitions, and that we would sometimes go to school Monday morning with remnants of blue eyeshadow or red lipstick still on our faces. 

All joking aside, a number of positive effects emerged from all those years sweating in the dance studio, bruising from metal batons, and perfecting my poised pageant persona. 

I now have perseverance and self-discipline like no other, and I’m sure much of that stems from my childhood. As a college student, I was the first to backpack across Europe because traveling didn’t scare me. Throughout all of our years competing and performing, we traveled from East Coast to West Coast, even to Hawaii. All of that showed me the world and sparked an adventurous thirst that to this day is almost impossible to quench. Further, I made friends everywhere throughout those years. Many of us were pen pals, back when that was a thing. Now we all stay in touch via social media. 

Fast-forward 24 years. I’m now mom to two active little boys. There have been no pageant dresses, dance classes or baton twirling around here. I don’t even have to fix a head of hair in the morning before school. 

The boys have their own unique interests. My older son, Brooks, started swimming with Smoky Mountain Aquatic Club last summer. We thought it would just be something fun to do in the summer, but he took to it right away and fell in love with the sport. After trying soccer for several years to no avail, I thought he may just not be into sports, but he loved swim from the get-go and now swims four times a week. 

Last Saturday at his team’s Swim-A-Thon, he swam 110 laps! He’s only 8 years old for goodness sakes, I was highly impressed and very proud. He never complains about practice (knock on wood). In fact, he’s typically the one hurrying his parent out the door so he’s not late to practice. 

My littlest boy, Case, turned 5 in January. I may have let him play the baby role for a while longer than his brother, but come on, he’s my baby. Brooks was already doing Little Gym, swim lessons and soccer by age 3 and playing violin by age 4, but every time I asked Case if he was ready to do something of his own, he would say, “Nope, not yet. Maybe when I’m 5,” with a huge smile on his face and a Ninja Turtle weapon in his hand. 

Staying true to his word, he’s now five and is swimming with Starter SMAC (the youngest team) and playing soccer. His first soccer practice was last Friday. He wore his soccer socks around the house all week. We got him suited up correctly, pulled up to the soccer field and he ran off with the coaches without a glance back. 

He’s finally ready. 

I really do feel like I am who I am because of the childhood I had. Despite the itchy dresses, long hours in the dance studio, jammed fingers from baton twirling, and frustration at the piano keys, I wouldn’t change a thing. 

I don’t know what types of life lessons these sports will teach my boys, and I’m in no rush to find out. 

Right now, I’m just enjoying being their mom and trying so hard to savor in my heart the feeling of lacing on tiny cleats and sliding feet into flippers. 

(Susanna Barbee can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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