I recently had an awesome visitor come to my hometown of Boca Raton, Fla. 2 Billion Under 20 community member, non-profit founder, author, speaker and Miss Northern West Virginia’s Most Outstanding Teen crown-holder Krystian Leonard stopped by to speak at TEDxBocaRaton about her experiences overcoming social stigmas. In her talk, she shared everything from being picked on at an early age because of scars she has scattered on her body, to fighting stereotypes associated with being in the world of pageantry (a hurdle she shares with fellow 2 Billion Under 20 book contributor Darby Schumacher, a contestant in this year’s upcoming Miss Tennessee pageant who currently holds the title of Miss Metropolitan in her hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn).

For ambitious young women like Krystian and Darby, who is also a finalist for this year’s Thiel Fellowship class (a headline-grabbing program that gives 20 people under 20 years old $100,000 each year to pursue entrepreneurial or scientific projects) as well as a 2014 Coca-Cola Scholar, it’s important to know how to overcome societal pressures so they can continue to get ahead. Krystian kindly shares her thoughts on doing just that here:

Krystian Leonard, Miss Northern West Virginia's Most Outstanding Teen crown-holder

With so many stigmas given to various people in our society, chances are high that you are probably associated with at least one yourself. I first had to overcome a social stigma associated with my visible scars, only to then be subjected to another stigma associated with being a title-holding beauty queen. It seems true that, no matter what your path in life may be, there are always those who fail to open their minds to those around them and remain biased after initial perceptions.

I challenge you instead to look beyond what appears on the surface. If you are facing a stigma of your own, keep fighting the good fight. One day at a time, we can change negative perceptions for all negative social stigmas.

Here’s some negative perceptions I’ve battled throughout my 17 years of life:

1. Scars

Growing up with two large visible scars on my body, I was always picked last for teams in gym class, called “ugly” and “freak”, and shoved down stairs all because my scars made me different. I was so ashamed of them that I didn’t want to talk about them, and I never shared with anyone in my family about the bullying that was occurring every day at school. Instead, I opted to have a revision surgery to try and fit in. After a not-so-lucky procedure, I tried again to make friends… but still nothing changed. I was still my stigma, also known as “Frankenstein”. I had to learn to reject what my bullies were trying to make me feel and believe in myself instead, so I decided to demolish my negative mountain and not just conquer it. This allowed me to shine from within.

2. Crown Chaser

A stigma common among pageant contestants is being a “Crown Chaser”, or someone who solely competes in pageants for the shiny hat or sparkling sash. That's not me, and when I first started competing, I personally wasn’t into sparkling gowns or glittered anything. I was just interested in overcoming my negative self image. However, I learned even more about myself than I could have ever imagined. Part of competing in the Miss America system is advocating for a platform. My love and passion created a personal platform that intertwines with my past, my goals, and my future. I created a platform I knew I would love to continue past my pageant days, called Shining S.C.A.R.S., a nonprofit organization I founded to help children and teens who are going through the same bullying and pain I went through as a child. S.C.A.R.S. stands for, “finding your Strength, building your Character, for self-Acceptance, to Rise, above the Stigma.”

3. Beauty With No Brains

Most people see me at first as a stereotypical Barbie wannabe, or assume that my life is grand because they think I’m pretty. Some even claim my success is due, in part, to good looks. All of that couldn’t be further from the truth. Growing up with scars made it difficult to even learn how to call myself pretty on the inside. I have worked hard for what I want out of sheer determination. I do not rely on my looks to make a difference in the world; I rely on my brain. Lesson to all: never judge a book by its cover, good or bad. I could share countless stories of beautiful girls with incredible IQs who unfortunately are some of the loneliest people simply because people judge them.

4. Body Image

For as long as I can remember, our society has been buzzing around the idea of being thin. I remember in middle school, other girls made ridiculous claims that my scars were there because I had liposuction surgery to remove fat. I was 13! Seriously!? Most lunch times were spent listening to my peers discuss what foods they were cutting from their “diets” next. That same stigma has been associated with pageant contestants, claiming you couldn’t win a given title unless you were skinny. But not anymore. Miss America contestants are some of the most physically fit and clean-eating machines you will ever witness! They are leading the way in reinventing what it truly means to be fit!

5. Be the Crown

There is a funny scene in Miss Congeniality where the star's pageant coach is attempting to get her to “be the crown”. She was completely against the idea of being a beauty queen at first until she learned each contestant actually had a story and a heart. Being a pageant titleholder comes with a lot of responsibility, and not just while you are appearing for an event. For me, the crown is always there (as a popular saying goes, “Always wear your invisible Crown.” We all have one; its called the crown of accountability. My physical crown represents the Four Points of the Miss America Scholarship Organization: Style, Success, Service and Scholarship. Those things might seem cliché, but trust me when I say my curly hair would rather be thrown up in a messy bun than styled, because you can’t just style curly hair without a two-hour ordeal. Style is by far my weakest point, but one I have learned to embrace with the help of some professional guidance. Just because you think something is cute and trendy doesn’t mean it belongs in a board meeting or hospital. Dress the part. Success is measured for me by completing goals in my continuous pursuit as an author, speaker and nonprofit founder. Service happens to be my favorite, and I volunteer in my community in any way possible to help others get over the stigmas they face on a daily basis. With Scholarship, any 2 Billion Under 20 community member can tell you that nothing is harder than keeping that grade point average up while juggling a multitude of community projects and growing a nonprofit organization. With that, I challenge any young girl out there reading this, pageant contestant or not, to “Be the Crown” and represent yourself in the best way possible!

Jared Kleinert

Jared Kleinert is the 18 year old co-founder and co-author of 2 Billion Under 20, a community of Millennials redefining success, breaking down barriers, and changing the world. Find out more about their upcoming, eye-opening book at www.2billionunder20.com.