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The pursuit of accomplishing

something "outside of the box," can be frightening but it can also be the most amazing experience of your life.

Throughout my life, education has always been my first priority. It was important for me to prove that I had a brain. I was sure that people underestimated me because of my looks and my smile. I thought it was impossible to be recognized as smart and beautiful. Then I grew up. I found liberty when I learned how to just be me-all of me.

I began to embrace every attribute and asset that I possessed. I followed my heart and decided to participate in a pageant, but not just any pageant, the Miss Illinois USA pageant. I dreamed of how far I might go if I worked hard and did all that I could to make myself a better Jennifer. In prepara-tion for pageant week, I trained twice a day in the gym, boxing and lifting weights. I maintained a strict diet that required serious focus and dedication, which meant, for example, I had to give up chocolate! I even had to learn to master the “pageant walk”, and who would have thought that learning the art of outfit changes could be such a chal-lenge? But all of these challenges gave me confidence and helped me learn to be “me” and not compare myself to anyone else.

These steps were in preparation for pageant weekend. What goes on during the official competition weekend is CRAZY! Behind the scenes: Literally, you run off stage, jump out of six inch heels, strip off whatever clothing you can while zooming to the dressing room for your next outfit. This required running down a hall and across the hotel, up the stairs and down another hall. You have exactly two minutes (with the help of chaperones zipping or gluing your clothes to your body so they don’t move or fall down on stage) to change and run all the way back to the stage, pretend you are not out of breath, smile so long that your lips quiver, walk while trying not to trip or fall, stare at the judges and smile- still don’t fall- make sure you are walking to the right spot, look for your stage cues- but not too long because you

don’t want to lose eye contact with the judges get off stage, run like you’re on fire again to change clothes once more and make it back for your next time on stage in a bikini! Don’t forget to suck in with shoulders back, smile, have natural and flowing arms and hands, pose, and don’t think about how exhausted and hungry you are! A lot of us pushed lettuce around on plates for the three days of the competition and for many of us, this diet had gone on for months or even years prior to the pageant. The most common thing I heard was, “I can’t wait until Sunday at 8pm…I’m going to eat pizza!! Once upon a time, I would have rolled my eyes at a girl on such a diet, but now I understand. Done in a healthy way, these girls were committed to a goal, and I learned to respect that. I also respect that these women found the gumption to stand in front of an audience with pride and say, “Here I am!” They open themselves up to judgment, and if it doesn’t work out as they hoped, they build resilience. They try again. Not everyone can do that.

A common misconception about pageants is that these girls are consumed by all that is fake, superficial, and unrealistic and they do not represent what a “real” woman is. That is not true. This IS who they are and they are real women. They are beautiful, yes, but they are also smart and dedicated to be their best. Beauty is only a part of what they embrace about themselves. They work hard to enhance who they are, and damn right, they should put themselves on a stage to model it. They have earned it. Poise, class, health, and beauty from the inside-out is how I would describe the young women participating in the Miss Illinois competition.

This entire experience was one that built confidence, sisterhood, endurance and dreams. We are all made of Mind Body and Spirit. How we develop each is what determines how fulfilling our lives will be. We all have God given attributes. How we maximize and utilize what He has given us is our way of giving thanks and honoring Him. This pageant was a LOT of work and focus… A LOT…and I couldn’t have done it if God hadn’t made me who I am, inside and out. I’m grateful and I now have the confidence to own it. I am proud to be ALL of who I am. Thank you to everyone who has been with me throughout my journey.

Jennifer Christenson’s Miss Illinois USA 2012

First Runner Up Experience

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