A Bronx middle schooler born with a cleft — a common birth condition which occurs when a baby’s lip or mouth does not form properly during pregnancy — and two Miss America pageant winners teamed up this past weekend in Yonkers to provide a message about anti-bullying and awareness.
Dahlila Nixon, 13, was born with a cleft lip and palate and unfortunately wasn’t estranged from bullying by her peers.
“In middle school I was bullied because I was born with a facial difference. Kids would throw things and point out my scar and slanted nose,” said Nixon. “I’ve had multiple surgeries to repair my cleft.”
The effect of a cleft isn’t just cosmetic, as it can impact a person’s ability to eat, speak, breathe and hear, among other complications.
It also effects people’s social status, as in some countries, cleft-affected children are often social pariahs and hidden away, according to Smile Train, the world’s largest cleft-focused organization with a presence in 70-plus countries.
But Nixon, a self-professed social butterfly, told the Bronx Times that she’s persisted past the negative remarks and “learned to love” her crooked nose, and more importantly herself. It took a while, she says, for that confidence to come out.
Perhaps no other demographic is affected by negative self-image than teenage girls, and it’s become a public health issue exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that was published in early February 2023 found that, in 2021, 57% of high school girls reported experiencing “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in the past year,” up from 36% in 2011. That’s nearly twice as high as the 29% of males who reported having those feelings in 2021.
A 2022 Miss USA winner, Romano defies stereotypes once projected upon girls and women in the U.S. pageant scene, as she’s a pageant winner and was a full-time chemical engineer upon entry into the competition.
“My story is about a chemical engineer and being Miss USA, and how different those two things are but also how we shouldn’t let society dictate who or what we should be,” said Romano.
In recent years, beauty pageants have changed to focus less on the appearance of its contestants, and more on the well-rounded ambitions and qualitative values that a prospective queen has.
In 2016, Miss Teen USA, which is under the same organization as Miss USA and Miss Universe, eliminated its swimsuit competition. Two years later, the Miss America Organization did the same, rebranding from a “beauty pageant” to a “scholarship competition.”
And for the first time in its 72-year history, the organization is allowing married women, pregnant women and mothers to enter. Historically, the pageant has only been open to single women, in the 18-28 age range, who have never been married or had children.
Medhi, who was crowned Miss Nebraska Teen USA last March and has competed in pageant circuits since she was nine, wrote a book titled “I am ABC’S,” full of self-love affirmations for elementary students.
“I wrote a children’s book, it’s an affirmation book and what I do is go into elementary schools and read to students to instill self-worth and empower them,” said Medhi. “The goal is that the younger they hear these messages and affirmations, the more confident and empowered you may feel as you grow older.”
Sunday’s fundraiser also shines a light on the dearth of timely and accessible care for cleft-born babies, according to Smile Train, which has performed successful surgeries on more than 30,000 persons with cleft lips and palates.
Dahlila’s mother, Sally Hiraldo expressed the confluence of emotions when Delilah was born with a cleft, but has devoted her life to awareness and finding strength in her daughter’s journey.
“I was completely devastated when I learned Dahilia would be born with a cleft. I knew very little about the condition,” said Hiraldo. “I want to help other families across the globe who have cleft-affected loved ones. I do this so I can empower her to be strong and accepting of herself.”