The Bachelorette, Texas Style: Or, How I Reconciled Being a Debutante With Being a Feminist

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Story By: Madeline Baker

This past December, I came out to Corpus Christi society as an eligible bachelorette.

Now if you are completely confused or utterly repulsed by this sentence, let me break it down for you. For centuries, young women have been presented as debutantes to their respective societies with the goal of securing a suitable husband with whom to “settle down.” A huge ball is thrown, and fathers present their daughters as the newest debutantes of the season, which is usually a year in length. So there I was in December. My brother strutted me around a ballroom as members of my family watched seven other girls and I make our formal debut in my hometown of Corpus Christi, TX. No, I’m not looking to get married anytime soon, and I certainly don’t see myself as being any more eligible as a woman than the next girl. I did, however, feel like this event was totally out of character for me. I didn’t want anyone thinking I was an object capable of being picked up by any guy who had his eyes on me. I certainly wasn’t forced by my mother into participating in this event, but prior to the presentation I felt as though I was losing myself in the process. Was this what I thought femininity was, or could I find a way to be a debutante and a feminist at the same time?

In July, I went with my mother to a bridal salon and picked out a wedding dress. Please don’t freak out (I tell you now, meaning I was freaking out then, a little). Debutante dresses are usually poofy and white, and the only way to meet this criteria was to head to a bridal salon and try on close to ten dresses. As I ascended the pedestal so the employee could get a better look at me, I turned around to see my mother’s eyes welling up. Oh God, I thought, please don’t cry in the middle of this place… I am beyond embarrassed to even be in this dress. Despite my mother’s reaction, I did feel really pretty in the dress and I’m not ashamed to admit that I did even try on a veil. Then I realized what was happening and ripped the veil out of my head before I got any more ideas.

The other women participating in the season with me were  always in great spirits. Not one of them took themselves too seriously during the whole process, and we were grateful for each others’ company at each event. We all went to different colleges, and I loved hearing about their experiences at school and what they were studying. These discussions, however, took place at a variety of catered luncheons held to celebrate the presentation of all of the debutantes. I couldn’t quite grasp why we were being celebrated. Was it because we were young and beautiful, capable of being a good wife to any lucky man? I never understood why people kept congratulating me at various events and parties held by the debutantes and their families. I had literally done nothing besides being born at the right place and at the right time to deserve this kind of congratulations.

I loved being showered with gifts, and man, did I get A LOT of gifts. People just kept dropping things off at my house: necklaces, bracelets, ornaments, clothing. I loved the attention and I loved that people wanted to do nice things for me. I went to the mani-pedi parties that had been planned for us, and I coated myself in fake tan for each event. My sister, who had been presented as a debutante 3 years ago, started referring to me as “Debutante Barbie” because I always had a smile plastered on my face and a fresh coat of tan on my body. Debutante Maddie and normal college student Maddie were two different people, but I was enjoying my double life.

Now, I know what it sounds like reading all of this. Yes, this was an expensive event, and I am incredibly privileged that I had the opportunity to participate. Was it a waste of time and money? I can’t really say.

I would be a complete hypocrite if I said I didn’t have a great time participating. I loved my dress, although I didn’t love the $200 dry cleaning bill that came with it (which I indeed had to pay for myself after a very long and and grief-filled lecture from my very distraught mother) and I loved that everyone thought I was beautiful. I had gained a sense of confidence that I can’t say I had prior to the whole experience.

After everything was said and done, I struggled with how to bring the smart, confident young woman that I was during debutante season and incorporate her into my life at UVA. I loved the attention I had received for being done up and commanding the room during my debutante presentation, but I also loved when people at school recognized me for being smart or a good leader regardless of how I looked on the outside. I didn’t want to come back to UVa after break and lose the confidence as Maddie the Debutante. I wanted to continue to be Maddie the Really Good Friend, or Maddie the Funny Girl who Makes Hilarious Pronouncements in her Sorority’s Chapter Meetings, but I didn’t necessarily mind being Debutante Barbie either.  It’s taken me quite a long time to realize it, but I’m not ashamed of my debutante experience. I’m not ashamed that my family could afford to celebrate my being a woman, and that I could see past the tradition of the event and look at it as a means of owning my womanhood. Of course my mother wasn’t putting me up on a stage to auction me off to the highest bidding eligible; she was allowing for me to be spunky and have a good time while recognizing that my value lies in so much more than the white dress I wore.

At school, when I am asked about my debutante experience, I usually respond in the same way every time: I learned a lot about getting a stain out of a wedding dress, I’m a pro at putting on a fake tan, and it was truly one of the most interesting and exciting times of my life!


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