Myth America
by Camryn Manheim

Camryn Manheim is a graduate of the University of California at Santa Cruz, an Emmy award-winning star of ABC's The Practice, the author of Wake Up, I'm Fat!, a protester at the Myth California Pageant, a body image activist and involved with the Preying Mantis Women's Brigade in the mid 1980's.Two clarifications about the article printed here.It is a myth the female Praying Mantis eats the head off the male as a part of its sexual practice. Instead the male and female do a dance where the male must prove he means no harm. Since the female is up to twenty times larger than the male, according to Santa Cruz biologist Jackson Davis, unless the female accepts nothing happens. This sounds right.
     We named ourselves after the praying mantis because they are beautiful and delicate, yet fierce; they are survival oriented (they will eat their own limbs if they are starving); they are regenerative (their limbs grow back); they can turn their heads 360 degrees (they have vision); they are an endangered species and they are pest controls.
The second myth I wish to dispel here is that the primary organizers of PMWB were lesbians. Many of us, myself included, were not and we certainly weren't trying to convert her to be anything but a feminist hellraising radical troublemaker. We were too busy organizing.
     But if we were any part of Camryn Manheim's development, either in her sense of political theatre or into the incredible woman that she has become, then we are extremely proud of our most famous mantid. Camryn has apparently not only infiltrated Hollywood and maintained her radical politic, but she has reveled in it and even clarified it. The woman seems to be a kick-ass revolutionary. How the hell did she do that?--Nikki Craft

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Reprinted with permission from Wake Up, I'm Fat!, a wonderful book written by Camryn Manheim and published by Broadway Books. Forward by Rosie O'Donnell. Copyright (c)1999 by Big Whoop, Inc. All rights reserved.It was during those glorious summers at the Renaissance Faire that I teamed about Santa Cruz from the Flying Karamazov Brothers. They had told me what a cool, hippie-dippy place it was and how I would fit in perfectly. They clearly dug their hometown. I couldn't imagine gushing about Peoria or Long Beach like that. So when it came time to choose a college, I followed my heart and the advice of a bunch of crazy jugglers.
     By the time I arrived at UC Santa Cruz, I had a pretty complete understanding of what a lesbian was. Which was good because Santa Cruz has the largest per-capita lesbian population in the country. Santa Cruz is Santa Claus for lesbians,
     The Birkenstock wearin' girls saw me as one of their own. And in many ways I was. When in Rome, or rather when in Lesbos ... well, the point is the Karamazovs were right. I felt so accepted, like I belonged. Santa Cruz, where the ocean meets the redwood forest, and the '60s never ended. It was paradise, so I wasn't going to sweat the details.
     Santa Cruz was tofu, crystals, sensory deprivation tanks, and the MISS CALIFORNIA PAGEANT! Talk about incongruity. Right through Hippie Town, USA, came an annual parade celebrating the objectification of women and the glorification of the beauty myth. Each year, in a town dedicated to naturalness, antimaterialism, feminism, liberalism, and earthy values arrived a procession of capped teeth, long blond hair, and plastic surgery
     Now, protesting the evils of a beauty pageant is just the kind of meaty issue a radical feminist, vegetarian, undecided lesbian like me likes to sink her teeth into. Bring it on, Barbie!
     I had lent my support to a radical feminist group called the Praying Mantis Brigade. You know, the praying mantis, the large winged insect, where the female eats the male after mating. That should give you an idea of the political slant of this organization. It was such a comfort being with those women. I never felt judged by how I looked.
     Every year the Praying Mantis Brigade had a little pageant of its own in protest of the Miss California Pageant called the "Myth California Pageant." Women would come wearing gowns made entirely of meat, wearing sashes that said "Miss Used," "Miss Treated," "Miss Understood." At the end of the parade was a Cadillac convertible with a 500-pound woman sitting on the back, wearing a bikini and a tiara, with her fat flowing over the sides of the car. She looked absolutely regal, doing the obligatory elbow, elbow, wrist, wrist; elbow, elbow, wrist, wrist wave.
     One year the Praying Mantis Brigade asked women who had at one time been raped to donate blood to be used in a protest against the pageant. And on the night of the Miss California Pageant, the Praying Mantis Brigade took raped women's blood, went up to the Civic Auditorium where the pageant was being held, and threw the blood on the stairs so all the gowns and tuxedo pants would have to drag through it.
     It was just like Carrie, only, y'know, more political.
     The following year the pageant was moved to Pasadena.
     Well, there I was, a confirmed Praying Mantis. But was I a confirmed lesbian? The entire lesbian community, certainly thought I was. Don't you just hate that? That patronizing "Well, you just don't know it yet, but you're one of us." That's as annoying as a guy telling a lesbian "Just give me one night with you, and I'll convert you."
     Like any minute now I was going to break out into that Holly Near tune "Imagine My Surprise."
     Echoes of my sister's taunts came back to haunt me.
     My family was beginning to suspect and certainly all my friends thought I was headed down that Lesbianic Trail. But motorcycle and all, I was still not convinced. I felt guilty, hanging out with all these really cool women, but at the same time missing those dexterous hands of Adam the Juggler.
     Amid all those wonderful dykes, I had had a revelation. I was not a lesbian. I wanted to be a lesbian. I tried to be a lesbian, and God knows I would have been a great fucking lesbian. I mean, after all, I lived in Santa Cruz, I had a motorcycle, I was an activist, a liberal, an artist, a feminist, I love women, they love me, fat and all, and my sister always said I would be one. I even gave it the good old college try. Not once, but twice.
     It would have been so easy if I could have been a lesbian. But no, I had to settle for heterosexuality, which, as some of you know, is no day at the beach.
     Being exposed to those beauty queens and Praying Mantises at the same time made me ask myself some hard questions. Would I have been so radical had I not been so fat? Could I have been one of the women on the other side parading my beauty of which I was so proud? As I stood there holding my JUDGE MEAT NOT WOMEN picket sign, I recalled all the people who had said to me throughout my life, "You've got such a pretty face." But they never finished the thought. The whole phrase is "You've got such a pretty face, too bad you're fat." But what if I weren't fat? Would I still have attacked this "Meat Parade" so fiercely? The truth is, my fat has informed my politics. And while I'd like to think I would have been just as ardent in my opposition to the objectification of women had I been thin, I'll never know for sure.
     But at the time, standing there with my picket sign, I was guilty of that little-girl fantasy. I imagined hearing my name called. Lowering my head to receive the tiara. Roses landing at my feet. Adjusting my tiara. My mascara tears leaving streaks on my face. The flashbulbs popping. Adjusting my tiara. The other girls so gracious and genuine in their congratulations. Adjusting my tiara.
     Had they known what I was thinking the Praying Mantises would have taken away my bullhorn.
     But even if I had been thin enough, I never would have entered a pageant. Or would I?
     No! For Christs sake, this is the most politically offensive dream sequence I ever had. I can't believe I was actually on the front lines of feminism failing prey to the beauty myth. And yet you never know. If I were 5'6" and weighed a 105 pounds slipping back into a dream--I would kneel down gracefully and tentatively pick up my flowers. I would twirl my baton and wave to my boyfriend, who would say "Hey, you look great in that tiara."
     You know, it's hard to say what your life would be like given a whole new set of circumstances. C'mon, there are a lot of benefits to being in a beauty pageant.
     For example, I'd do it for the scholarship. I'd travel the world and meet interesting people, and I would tell them that their language was wrong and they should learn English. Because English is the best! I'd go into the ghettos and impoverished countries, but never spend the night. Never, never, never, never, not even if they promised me a grant, because my boyfriend would tell me not to. And my boyfriend would do this for me, and my boyfriend would do that for me, and my boyfriend would name a boat after me, and my boyfriend, my boyfriend, my boyfriend, my boyfriend, my boyfriend . . . blech.
     Man, that is a lame fantasy and one I wish all little girls could steer clear of. I mean, even if you're pretty, and thin enough to be crowned Miss California, forty-nine of fifty women go home losers on Miss America night. And if I ever get to host the Miss America pageant, I'll end the show by saying "Some people might think there were forty-nine losers up here tonight. But really there were fifty. Because everybody who enters a beauty pageant is a big loser. Good night!"

* * *

During my four years in Santa Cruz, the Praying Mantis Brigade had won me over politically, if not sexually, and it was tough leaving those women . . . and those crazy jugglers. But I had fallen in love with the theater, and there was no doubt what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. And there was only one place to do it. New York City! (Sadly, there would be far too many times when acting would also seem just like an elaborate beauty pageant.)

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