By Alissa Musto
“Miss Mass. Face looks like a Walmart bag lost in a parking lot #mafl #MissAmerica”
This was the “congratulations” I received after being called into the top 15 at Miss America. As Miss Massachusetts, I arrived with the understanding that I was an underdog, representing a state far more concerned with the outcome of Sunday’s Patriots game than the Miss America pageant. Then for some crazy reason, this pageant outsider was called out as one of the semi-finalists in front of a television audience topping six million. I was insanely excited and it showed.
Back at the hotel, my phone was bombarded with congratulatory texts and Facebook messages from friends, fans and family. However, some people had other thoughts on my accomplishment.
“Miss Massachusetts is a horror”
“Is Miss Massachusetts 40 years old? #MissAmerica”
“miss massachusetts annoys me also she looks like a suburban soccer mom how old is she”
“Miss Massachusetts needs to calm down. #MissAmerica”
There were dozens of Twitter notifications spewing opinions that I was too unattractive, too awkward and too old-looking to even be on that stage.
Internet attacks on pageant competitors are nothing new; viral videos of rambling on-stage questions and beauty queens tripping over their evening gowns rack up millions of views. However, people fail to realize that most pageant contestants are not celebrities. They’re usually college students looking to earn scholarships, unidentifiable in a Monday morning classroom. Despite the glamorous façade, their doors are not being knocked down with multi-million-dollar endorsement deals or invitations to appear on star-studded red carpets. They have to wait in line for their Starbucks like everybody else.
Naturally, deciding to enter a pageant, especially a nationally televised one, comes along with the understanding that there will indeed be “haters;” sometimes they come in the form of judgmental colleagues, jealous friends, crazed pageant enthusiasts or just random people on the Internet. Regardless of the source, being subjected to destructive criticism can be discouraging to girls on the receiving end of these hurtful comments.
Growing up in the entertainment industry, I’ve developed a thick skin. Still, I wanted people to realize that these girls they bash online are real people and not just characters on some TV show. With nothing to do during the six-hour drive home, I tweeted back with humor and kindness to shed light on the extent of Internet shaming.
“Miss Massachusetts talent was convincing judges she was old enough to compete #MissAmerica #old” “I also do balloon animals”
“Is miss mass galloping or what #MissAmerica” “I was inspired by the horse farms in the small town I grew up in #Rehoboth”
“Is Miss Massachusetts 40 years old?” “No! 39 and a half!”
Support from actresses, news anchors, models and current and former titleholders from around the country started pouring into my newsfeed. The positive response was, of course, assuring, and I was glad that most people found the tweets entertaining. On the other hand, I was saddened by how many women could relate. Pageant girls, and female figures in general, are publicly and disrespectfully denounced for their physical appearance (as if that is their only characteristic that really matters!). Getting condescending looks from a bystander about your appearance is one thing, but scrolling through an endless page of mean tweets about yourself for the first time is daunting. For anyone. Wearing a crown requires confidence, but it doesn’t make someone immune to bullies, body shaming or harassment.
As Miss Massachusetts, I have the opportunity to speak with schools, Girl Scout troops and other youth groups throughout my state; what concerns me the most is how many young women relate to my story and have experienced cyberbullying as young as 12 and 13 years old. And even worse? The hateful messages are not coming from strangers, but almost always from their peers. Social media is often a great resource, but cyberbullying has become an unfortunate side effect, especially amongst younger users. Hopefully, my story can be used to empower teens who have been subjected to Internet attacks. We live in an era where it is easy to hide behind a computer screen and not realize the consequences of our words. That doesn’t make it ok, but it definitely makes it more common: too common.
Alissa Musto is a professional musician, singer-songwriter, music education advocate, and the reigning Miss Massachusetts. She is a recent graduate of Harvard University, and she uses her platform as Miss Massachusetts to educate students about the realities of cyberbullying.