Latasha Haskins has been crowned 2015 American Beauties Plus ELITE Queen

Credit: L by Elenna

American Beauties Plus is not your typical pageant – it invites full-figured women of all ages, races and backgrounds to participate, and it focuses on accomplishments, community involvement and service to others.

This year, 34-year-old Latasha Haskins of Seattle was crowned Elite Queen, an experience that she says “changed her life forever.”

“I’m impressed by their ability to have a more inclusive approach,” Haskins tells PEOPLE of the American Beauties Plus pageant. “I was so impacted by the sisterhood and overall positivity that overflowed from everyone involved.”

While Haskins is a pageant veteran now, she wasn’t always comfortable with her appearance.

“It was not until my mid-20s that I started to feel feminine and accept my body type,” she says. “I’ve always favored my father facially, and I’ve been 5’10” since I was 10 years old, so basically I thought I looked like a man for many, many years. I looked in the mirror and did not see a feminine beautiful woman at all.”

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The single mother says her self-esteem was also compromised when she experienced abuse very early in life from extended family members.

“It made me question my worth, because how could something so horrible happen to me if I was pretty and valuable?” she says.

Pageantry helped Haskins gain confidence in her body and herself.

“Not until I started competing in pageantry at age 27 – wearing a size 24 – was I exposed to women all across the country who were curvy and extremely confident,” says Haskins. “It started transforming my mindset, and I realized that all the things that I thought made me manly and ugly were actually the characteristics that made me exotic and beautiful.”

Throughout her life’s hardships – including the death of her father and brother, a divorce, and even homelessness – Haskins says participating in pageants helped her get through.

“Pageantry has gotten me through some of the darkest seasons of my life,” she says. “My character has been challenged, buffed and sharpened over the past eight years.”

Haskins hopes she can inspire others while serving as the reigning Elite Queen.

“People need to see someone in the spotlight who does not have the appearance of perfection,” she says. “In spite of what you are facing, you still matter, and are still destined to do great things if you choose it.”