Backstage was all nerves and last-minute bobby pins. I was panicking because I could only find one of my frilly lace socks. Nearby, a 28-year-old man in underpants with rocket ships on them sneaked a peek through the curtains onto the stage where a 30-year-old woman wearing a ruffled pink dress sang a musical rendition of The Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll.
“Dammit!” he cursed. “I'm also doing The Jabberwocky for my talent! This is a disaster!”
Pageant life is no joke. Even if the prize is an ambiguous scholarship or, in this case, a leather patch and a giant stuffed animal, once the competition is underway, the contestants give it their all and the stakes somehow seem incredibly high. I eventually found my other frilly sock, that man in briefs brought down the house with his prose rendition of The Jabberwocky, and we were gloriously crowned Little Miss and Mister Little of San Francisco for 2012.
This Saturday, 10 full-grown adults will don onesies, glitz gowns, and even diapers to compete in the International Little Miss/Mister Little Pageant at the sex and BDSM conference known as Dark Odyssey: Surrender. In past years, the nation's capital was home to the international competition, while San Francisco hosted a regional contest. But when local producers Davina Darling, Scarlett O'Starlett, and Penny Barber learned that the international pageant had taken a hiatus with no plans to return, they rallied alongside the Dark Odyssey producers and purchased the rights to the name and the contest.
This pageant is about a little bit more than spray tan and rhinestones. For the folks who compete, it's a chance to showcase a very private part of themselves to a very public audience.
I'm a 29-year-old entrepreneur, writer, and activist. But sometimes, I'm also a 9-year-old girl who likes coloring books and ballet.
There are very few times in my adult life where I am allowed to be innocent, naïve, and carefree. Some people unwind with a bubble bath and a glass of wine at the end of a hard day; I unwind with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a glass of milk in a Star Wars cup. Some women like to sleep with an eye mask and a pillow stuffed with lavender; I prefer to wrap myself in a My Little Pony blanket and hug my Build-a-Bear close. To each his own.
Role-playing as a naughty nurse or a superhero doesn't raise too many eyebrows, but role-playing as a little girl definitely does. Even within the BDSM community, age players are a smaller subset who are often seen as outliers.
Seeing a grown woman in knee socks and a schoolgirl skirt is infuriating to some, arousing to others, but undoubtedly prevalent in Western media. Women are infantilized on a regular basis — sometimes in television commercials and sometimes in person. Every time I glance at an American Apparel ad, or a stranger calls me “sweetie,” I'm reminded that being taken seriously as a woman involves constantly reminding people that I am not a child.
So why put on a tutu and tights and showcase my “little girl” self in front of a crowd of hundreds of people? Because being “little” in a consensual context that I am in control of allows me to have zero tolerance for being treated like a child in situations where it counts.
There's also a part of being “little” that helps me be a better adult. The adult world tells us to only dream so big, but my “little” self believes I can do anything — she's not afraid of failure or judgment. She doesn't know anything about taxes or the criminalization of sex workers. She believes in the power of the Broadway musical, and is fairly certain she'll be president one day. When I'm “little,” I can dream the biggest. My adult self needs a dose of that kind of wide-eyed optimism now and then. I think we all do.
“Seeing that spark in someone's face when they realize, 'Oh my God, I'm not alone and I'm not a weirdo, that's what fuels me to keep doing these events,” says producer Darling.
This year's contest is sure to be the biggest little pageant San Francisco has ever seen.