For Gisel Osuna Merrifield, participating in the Mrs. International pageant wasn't just about gowns and glamour. She did it in hopes of making a difference by not only representing her home country, but also her faith.
This past July, Merrifield, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, competed in the international pageant for married women as Mrs. Mexico against 69 other candidates. Participants ranged from age 21-56 and had to have been married for at least six months.
Merrifield met the requirements, but it was the purpose of the pageant that intrigued her most: the opportunity to promote positive role models and strong commitment to family.
Having never competed in a pageant before, though, Merrifield didn't know what to expect or how to go about competing.
"Just one day I was looking it up for fun, and this one came up," Merrifield said. "It said it was in Chicago in the summer, and we had just moved from Chicago, so I thought it would be fun. They had people from all over, so I thought, 'I'm going to see if they have someone for Mexico.'"
Merrifield was living in Mountain View, Calif., with her husband, John, and her daughter, Mari Skylar, but having been born in Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua, Mexico, she wanted to represent her home country.
"It just said to contact (the pageant director) for more information, so I did, and she emailed me back and said you need to prove you're from Mexico and have a platform," Merrifield said.
As a graduate from BYU–Idaho, Merrifield decided to promote the importance of education for her platform.
"So I applied and chose a platform. Choosing a platform wasn't a problem. I chose the importance of education just because that has always been very important in my family. It has always been important to my parents. They always tried very hard for all my siblings and I to gain an education," Merrifield said.
The application also required the contestants to list any community service they had been involved in, so Merrifield was able to discuss her service as an LDS missionary from 2009-10 on Temple Square in Salt Lake City.
As a possible candidate, Merrifield also participated in interviews with Pageant Director Mary Richardson in which they discussed her application.
"A couple months later, they emailed me back and said you've been selected as Mrs. Mexico International. It was very shocking," Merrifield said. "My husband and I talked about it, and we said we knew I was doing this for fun, but I also want to make an impact in the community."
Yet, after receiving the exciting news, Merrifield didn't immediately respond. She had some concerns.
"One of the things I was worried about was the dress standards. (Richardson) mentioned in the interview (they) pretty much choose all of our outfits — there was a fitness one and then there was a formal wear, but then she said the opening-number dress everyone wears the same one," Merrifield said.
"So I just asked her, I said, 'Well I just have to make sure what the dress looks like ... I just have a dress standard and need to have my shoulders covered and my back, and she said, 'Well, the dress is strapless, so that would be a problem.'"
But rather than giving in, Merrifield asked if she could make alterations.
"I asked her if I could use sleeves or something to cover up, like a cardigan or something to cover my shoulders, and she said, 'Oh, totally. We do not want you to compromise your standards,'" Merrifield said. "She was very understanding and allowed me to add sleeves to the dress. So I said 'OK, that's really my only concern.'"
Merrifield emphasized the importance of modesty, not only for herself to feel comfortable, but as a way to demonstrate what she believed to the other contestants, the audience and even her own daughter.
"That's always been on the top of my mind, especially now that I have a child," said Merrifield, who is pregnant with her second daughter. "I don't want my kids to go back and look at my pictures and see that I had a chance to be an example and I chose not to represent."
As the pageant drew closer, Merrifield strived to make the dress as modest as she could even though it was a difficult outfit to alter. She also got in contact with Mrs. Utah, Suzanne Plant, and Mrs. Idaho, Randi Ritchie, who were also members of the LDS Church. When she informed them of her dress alterations, they were surprised she had received permission.
"I guess we weren't allowed to do anything to the dress, so when I talked to Mrs. Idaho she said, 'Wow, I can't believe she gave you permission.' So she said, 'Well, if you're going to add sleeves, I'm going to add sleeves, too!'" Merrifield said.
Once Plant heard of the alterations, she also made the adjustments to her opening-number dress.
"I was glad I asked, and Mrs. Idaho was happy to know that we could do that, or at least that we had permission to do that," Merrifield said.
After altering three dresses, Merrifield, Plant and Ritchie quite obviously stood out from the other contestants.
"Everyone else was strapless, and us three, we were wearing sleeves," Merrifield said. "They started coming up to me and saying, 'Oh, wow, so pretty. Why do you have sleeves?' They didn't ask who gave us permission. They just asked why did we add sleeves. So I had a chance to tell them that I'm LDS, I have a dress standard and that I don't wear strapless dresses, that my shoulders have to be covered, and that that's a part of our religion.
"Some of them said, 'That's beautiful.' It was really cool for me to hear that from them, that they just made me think, wow, they're not judging me for the way I'm dressing. They just thought it was really cool that I kept my standard throughout the competition."
Coming into the pageant, Merrifield didn't know what to expect. While Mrs. Illinois, Amy Gregario, was awarded the title, Merrifield was happy she was able to give her best effort and make friends. She left feeling proud of what she accomplished and grateful for opportunity to be involved in something that promotes positive influences in the world.
"I felt good about everything. I really did my best," Merrifield said. "It was also kind of a testimony of how we're all God's children. We all have trials in our life. All of these women were so great and doing great things to try and make a difference in the world. We're all here trying to do our best and to help others along the way, no matter what faith we're from."
And although Merrifield's daughter is still quite young, only 18 months, she hopes that one day her daughter will be able to learn from some of the decisions her mother made.
"I hope that she learns that no matter where we are and what we're doing, there's always an opportunity to be a good example of who we are and what we stand for," Merrifield said. "Someone will always benefit from that example. I hope when she looks at my pictures, that she understands that Mom kept her dress standards throughout the pageant."