The ugly side of child beauty pageants

CHILD beauty pageants aren’t new — they started in the 1920s when an enterprising hotel owner in Atlantic City created a ‘Most Beautiful Child’ event to boost tourism.

What is new about the modern child beauty pageant is the transformation of a simple competition to find an appealingly plump and pretty toddler into a slick professional industry that transforms small girls into miniature beauty queens replete with garish make-up, big hair and sequined costumes that are more Bratz than traditional Sleeping Beauty princess.

The first Little Miss America was staged in the 1960s and has now evolved into the modern child beauty pageant industry with 250,000 pageants that generate $20 billion annually.

However the murder of child beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey in 1996 and the attendant screening of her performance tapes by CBS, which were dubbed “kiddie porn”, led to critical attention being focused on this strange subculture where a four-year-old in sequins performing dances with flirtatious poses is deemed “cute”. HBO’s 2001 documentary Living Dolls: The Making of a Child Beauty Queen also focused on the world of junior beauty pageants and the relentless pressure driven parents put on their small children to compete and succeed.

The lady responsible for the first Irish child beauty pageant this month is Annette Williams of the Universal Royal Beauty Pageant. She has previously asserted (on ABC News) that in Texas, “We like all the glamour, we like the rhinestones, we like the sequins, we like the big beautiful hair”. Williams describes her pageants as being a “fun family time” and that they allow contestants to develop “individuality, capability, poise and confidence”. One suspects upon examination of her website, where successful contestants flourish fans of dollar bills, that rather than being driven by altruistic motives, Williams’s motivation is guided strictly by the bottom line. The public will know her from Toddlers and Tiaras, the US reality TV show that reveals the intensity of pageant life as a whirlwind of skimpy costumes, temper tantrums and pushy parents.

Another star of that show, Eden Wood, one of the most successful American child beauty pageant queens, has been quoted as claiming: “Make-up makes me happy. I like being pretty on stage with my make-up on.” She will be making a special guest appearance at the Dublin pageant on September 21. Eden is a mini-entrepreneur with a burgeoning film career, clothing line and spokesperson contracts. Now retired from the pageant circuit as a contestant she is selling her expertise to aspiring hopefuls who aim to emulate her success. She has been competing in pageants since she was a 14-month-old toddler.

Despite criticism that the pageants exist to provide an outlet for the narcissistic ambitions of parents through their offspring, the pageant industry thrives. In 2009 it was estimated that 250,000 children competed in 5,000 pageants stateside and that some spent up to $3,000 on their dresses. Entry fees can run into hundreds of dollars and the top pageant divas travel with mini-entourages, including hair and make-up as well as professional coaches.

Not surprisingly some competing families go into debt prioritising pageant costumes, fees and grooming over expenses such as rent: some have confessed to spending up to $30,000 on the competitions.

Apart from the financial costs associated with pageants, there are concerns that the premature emphasis on appearance for small girls may be detrimental to their long-term mental wellbeing and development.

Irish psychologist, David Carey observes: “I am not aware of any research about the impact of these pageants on the children involved. However, as a psychologist with an interest in children’s development I think that over-emphasis on beauty and feminisation is counter-productive to the development of a girl’s ability to integrate into society as a whole person rather than an object of beauty.”

A 2007 study by the American Psychological Association asserted that pageants teach young girls “to see themselves as objects to be looked at and evaluated for their appearance”. The three most common mental health problems for girls: eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression, may be fuelled by exposure to a culture that promotes performance-based esteem and a judging criteria that views highlights, fake tan and heavy make up as appropriate for girls who can’t even read. The more extreme parents subject their little girls to botox, facial threading, waxing, hair and nail extensions and fake teeth. All this gender socialisation to re-enforce traditional limiting female stereotypes forces little girls into the adoption of a veneer of premature precociousness that is profoundly disturbing.

The strange surreal world of child beauty pageants must be confusing for a toddler’s brain to absorb, never mind the skimpy costumes more suited to womanly curves than children’s physiques. On this side of the Atlantic, the British Journal of Psychology recently reported that half of all six-year-olds think they are fat, and that by nine, half have been on a diet. For girls of 11 to 17, being thinner is their biggest wish.

In a society that places so much emphasis on physical attractiveness girls are very quick to absorb the message that looks are more important than any accomplishment or talent they develop. In a pageant environment the criteria for success is a blend of “sassy” attitude, “cuteness” and precocious glamour, which even an adult brain would find hard to assimilate.

Balancing grooming and performing with the requisite amount of “star’ quality must be an onerous task for a four-year-old who is still tackling her ABCs and 123s. David Carey makes the point that “Dressing children up in adult makeup and clothes robs them of childhood. Dress up is part of child’s play: it should not be forced on children. I think it is a step too far to say this is sexualisation of children but it certainly is a failure to recognise the child as a child rather than a miniature adult.”

Is it any wonder that the children on Toddlers and Tiaras sometimes have dramatic meltdowns? If you as a small child were forced to wear false breasts to perform as Dolly Parton, an approximation of Madonna’s conical breast costume or Julia Robert’s Hollywood hooker costume a la Pretty Woman, wouldn’t you feel peevish? Pageants are exempt from Child Labour Laws in the USA so contestants can travel and compete without the interference or protection of State or Governmental agencies. To keep contestants fresh and perky some parents have been observed giving their daughters “pageant crack” (a liquid mix of sugar, energy drinks and high end sweeteners), prior to performing.

It will be fascinating to see what level of interest the first Irish child beauty pageant will arouse — are the Irish too sensible to entertain the idea or will there be stage mothers ready to enter their little girls lured by the promise of celebrity and prize money?

The organisers of the €20,000 event obviously think that there is money to be made and the guest appearance by Eden Wood will attract fans. Looking at this primped and preened child with her heavy make up, frozen smile, false eyelashes and bouffant hair I feel incredibly sad. Girlhood is under siege everywhere — Barbies, Bratz, sexualised children’s fashions, Princess mania and now beauty pageants all erode girlhood with fierce intent.

Beauty isn’t an achievement it’s merely an accidental attribute — making little girls compete in these pageants creates a perception that seeking perfection is a valid ambition. What a sad life lesson to give them that being pretty is the most important thing.

David Carey summarises the conflict for these miniature beauty queens: “The work of childhood is play … Play teaches children how to learn. Play is fun, not competitive. Children compelled to dress like little adult models, strut on a catwalk like models and smile at an adoring group of mothers, all hell bent on seeing to it that their child “wins” is the antithesis of play.

Let children be children. Put the parents on the catwalk if they want to compete and see how they feel about it at the end of the day.”


Lifestyle

Overshadowed by its giant neighbours it may be, but the smallest of the main Blasket islands, Beginish, is no less impressive in its own right.The Islands of Ireland: The miracle of Beginish

‘The days of our years are threescore years and ten — Psalm 90How to tell an animal’s age in a heartbeat

We often hear how nature will do well, even come back from the brink of extinction, if given a chance and some human help.Birds of prey on the rise

In our country we still have places that bear no evidence of disturbance by man, that are in their pristine state and rich with all the elements that feed the spirit and deliver us into the world beyond the skin of the time and circumstances we live in.Unique ambience of Dursey Island under threat

More From The Irish Examiner