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A Real Beauty Queen: Miss America and Alopecia

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This year’s Miss America Pageant featured several interesting twists and turns. Or at least I think it did. The only reason I happened to watch was that I’ve been snowed in at my hometown for days with the sole comfort of cable TV.

First, the pageant celebrated its 90th anniversary this year. Congrats, you’re old as balls and still exploiting a highly unattainable beauty image. Oh, you’re a scholarship program? OK, FINE.

That being said, there were plenty of reasons to be encouraged by the show that aired Saturday, January 15, 2011. First off, the winner, Teresa Scanlan, is the youngest Miss America since Bette Cooper in 1937. Whoever that is.

But really, who cares? Another year, another winner, alternating among blonde, brunette, and African-American and you have a diverse, “fair” pageant structure. Well, there was another contestant who turned out to be quite the gem. And a breath of fresh air in the face of conventional beauty, though this girl is quite stunning. Her name is Kayla Martell and at first glance she probably looks like any other blonde-haired beauty queen. But there is something bubbling beneath the surface. Kayla, or Miss Delaware, suffers from alopecia.

The medical condition alopecia areata refers to the loss of hair from the head and body, sometimes to the point of baldness. Remember that one MTV True Life episode? That’s what it looks like. Femininity is often tied to one’s hair. So it can be quite an identity crisis to suddenly have no control over the presence, or lack thereof, of your basic feminine character trait. Kayla Martell embodies strength and beauty, pushing against conventional definitions of what is beautiful. Hair or no hair, Kayla feels self-worth regardless of what her body is involuntarily doing. Though she did don a custom-made wig for the Pageant’s ceremonies.

Kayla began losing her hair at age 13, just in time for junior high. She used her disease as her platform to educate the public about just what it means to walk in her, and countless other girls’, shoes. According to an interview with People, Kayla planned an assortment of different wigs for the occasion, including “a Miss Delaware wig, a Miss America wig, a ‘soccer mom’ wig and a Shirley Temple wig that stays curled.”

As a child, though, Kayla may not always have been so whimsical. Missing much of school for doctor appointments had to be hard during such a critical time for a young girl’s social growth, but “teasing was never an issue for her because people saw that she had not let her condition affect her life; confidence was her key.” According to another interview for KidsHealth.org, Kayla would merely reply, “My hair may be short enough to cause worry, but life is too short to allow it.” Just look at her now.

Listen to the rest of Kayla’s story here.

Photo credit: Gail Albert Halaban, People.com

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About Jessi Stafford