“I try to be like my dad, he’s where I get my characteristics and strength,” said Miss Kansas Theresa Vail. She went on to call her father her role model, but she hopes other young women find inspiration in strong females. Based on how people are responding to her participation in the Miss America pageant, it’s almost guaranteed that many will be looking up to Theresa Vail.
Raised as a self-described “military brat,” Vail moved around a lot. She was bullied as a child, and nearly ended her own life at the age of ten. Seven years later she joined the Army. Now she is a sergeant and has recently signed on for six more years of service. Only the second representative of the military to compete in Miss America, Vail has broken quite a few barriers. She was America’s Choice in last weekend’s pageant, which earned her a place in the Top 15 and placed her just outside of the Top 5 overall.
It makes sense that her platform is “Empowering Women: Overcoming Stereotypes and Breaking Barriers.” One of the biggest stereotypes Vail overcame was the thought that Miss America contestants shouldn’t have visible tattoos. Instead of hiding her large tattoos, Vail proudly displayed them.
“I told everyone before I left for Miss America that whether I win the crown or not, if I can change people’s opinion, then I’ve done my job,” she said. Many people’s opinions of Miss America and the women who compete for the title are based on how the contestants look. The focus on body image and self-confidence is something Vail has already encountered while she has been serving as Miss Kansas.
“From being Miss Kansas, I’ve learned that most young girls, teenagers, are very uncomfortable with themselves,” she said. To change that lack of confidence and self-appreciation, Vail encourages everyone to take up an activity they love. She believes doing something you love makes all difference in how you perceive yourself.
“When I joined the rifle team, I gained more confidence, which made me feel better about my body,” she said. “I love myself, not in a narcissistic way, but I love the way I look.”
The way she looks is due in part to her love of running. “Running is my favorite way to exercise, but not until after I’m done and the endorphins kick in,” Vail said. She also joked, “then I go out again the next day and I’m like, ‘Why am I doing this?’.” Vail said she took up running because she was intimidated by the idea of going to the gym, something many women can relate to. To combat her uneasiness about going to the gym, she started walking outside. “I actually got into the best shape of my life walking with weights.” Vail also advocates for more unconventional exercises, she’s an excellent archer, saying, “Anything that gets you moving is what counts.”
When not focusing on her fitness, Miss Kansas is doing her best to empower women in all aspects of life. “Talking to women of all backgrounds I learned that they encounter the most stereotypes in the workplace,” she said. “They are seen as less intelligent, less capable than their coworkers.” This wasn’t a surprise to Vail, who faced stereotypes when she first enlisted. “In a male-dominated environment, men saw me as being less capable,” she said. She added that the key to overcoming that viewpoint is by being confident, or even a little over-confident, in your abilities. “Be confident enough to do your job; overcompensate a little.”
Through her experiences, Vail certainly has many reasons to be confident. “I’m so humbled. I feel successful,” she said. Vail now has the chance to continue encouraging women to break barriers and remove stereotypes as she serves as Miss Kansas this year. During that time she will undoubtedly empower others, but she will also empower herself.
“To me, being empowered is being a role model to others,” Vail said. “I feel most confident when I’m making a difference.”
Photos courtesy of the Miss Kansas Organization