Putting limits on pursuit of beauty

Q&A -- Brittany Lietz


To Brittany Lietz, the new Miss Maryland, there's nothing true about the phrase "beauty is only skin deep."

The Edgewood nursing student's desperate quest for beauty, in the form of self-tanning sessions three times a week, eventually ended up lingering deep beneath her milk-pale skin. While the teenager tanned, malignant tumors reached sneakily into layers that had never seen the sun or man-made ultraviolet rays. By the time she was 20, Lietz had been diagnosed with Stage II melanoma - an elevated level of the most dangerous form of skin cancer.

A year and a half later, Lietz has all but beaten the disease, internal and external scars notwithstanding. But it may be more a part of her life than ever.

This month, Lietz beat 23 other women for the title of Miss Maryland, moving one step closer to her dream of becoming Miss America. And she has taken on the charge of educating the sun-loving public, particularly children and teens, about the dangers of too much exposure.

Her crusade is less platform and more passion than those of other Miss America contenders who have not personally experienced the issue for which they campaign.

"When it happens to you, you don't want it to happen to anyone else, because it's horrible," said Lietz, 21, over chicken salad and mixed fruit one recent afternoon, a week after exchanging her Miss Tidewater crown for that of Miss Maryland. "Whether or not it made me a stronger person, it still is horrible."

The Miss America Organization, the nation's oldest beauty pageant, has attracted many detractors over the years. The pageant flies in the face of feminist goals, some complain. Its very existence smacks of sexism, others say. As ratings for the televised pageant have plummeted year after year, the event's relevance has been questioned like never before.

Why do today's smart women, afforded the freedoms and opportunities of the 21st century, still choose to parade their beauty and have a panel of judges use their appearance to determine their worth? In this age of Suze Orman and Condoleezza Rice, does anyone even still care about beauty pageants?

Actually, many people do, says Jessie Klein, an assistant professor of sociology at Adelphi University in New York.

"One would have to admit that today's cultural moment is a fairly right-wing, conservative place. And I think that the beauty pageant sort of fits into that context," Klein says. "And so to the extent that they're still popular, beauty pageants are very relevant."

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, an international nonprofit organization, the number of cases of melanoma has increased more rapidly during the past 10 years than that of any other cancer. More than 51,000 new cases are reported to the American Cancer Society each year.

Lietz's goal is to reduce that number, particularly among young people. And the Miss America pageant provides her - a relatively unknown, 21-year-old nursing student - the opportunity to help.

But it says a lot about our society, says Klein, that Lietz has to fit narrow parameters - by being a middle-class, "modest," single, never-been-pregnant beauty queen - to do so.

"Pageants promote pride in one's body, which is always a wonderful thing," Klein says. "But it's in a context in that you have to display your body, you have to be judged, you're sort of a commodity. It's interesting what a woman has to do to be able to communicate social causes that are important to them."

Recently, The Sun talked to Lietz, who is equal parts beauty queen and activist - and unapologetic about it - about her crusade against skin cancer and why she believes pageantry is still relevant, and right, for today's society. Here are her thoughts:

You were a pre-med student at Towson University when you found out you had skin cancer. Now you're a nursing student at the University of Maryland School of Nursing. Why the switch?

I changed my mind after the diagnosis. The nurses at Hopkins, they're amazing there. No question was too dumb to ask. And I spent so much time with them. I got to know them better as friends rather than just my caregivers. The doctors were great, too. But that made me want to be a nurse.

When did you start tanning?

At 17 to get ready for prom. I'm very pale, so I went to tanning salons three to four times a week. For most teens, it's that amount of time or more. I started out at eight minutes [in the tanning bed]. Over 2 1/2 years, I increased it up to 25 minutes.

Melanoma is often hard to detect, because unlike many other cancers, patients don't feel sick or out of sorts. How did you discover that you had the disease?

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