Divas in Diapers: The Ugliness of Children's Beauty Pageants
The stage is hers,
And she's to showcase--
Fishnetted legs work a well-known pace
Under that get-up of glitter and lace.
Kisses blown from painted lips,
Coy waves and hands on hips
Intention behind the cascade of curls
Capturing hearts as she twirls.
Staged smiles in the spotlight,
Striving for beauty makes a sickening sight--for you see,
That girl flaunting herself, she's only
Pageants often contribute to psychological problems that may manifest as disorders later in life, and participants grow up in an atmosphere in which they learn superficial, damaging values. The pressures of competition, tensions between contestants, and being subjected to judgment can have many emotional repercussions, and have even led to the labeling of pageants as child abuse. South Australia's Status of Women Minister Gail Gago declared that "young children should not be exposed to the risks and pressures associated with [pageants],'' and research has revealed these risks to be very real (Daily Telegraph). Self-esteem issues, feelings of inferiority, paranoia, dissimulation, and anxiety can develop in these girls, who are caught between two undesirable extremes (Grosaru). The habitual pageant loser may suffer self-doubt and confidence issues, whereas the continual winner may become a vain prima donna. Stemming from these psychological issues, full-fledged disorders may arise down the road. Low self-esteem and a physically-based conception of beauty make the perfect recipe for eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia, as well as depression (Reed).
Along with sparkly rhinestone crowns and sashes, there are other pageant take-aways that are more permanent and less worthy of celebration. The "glitz" lifestyle affects the mindset and beliefs of young girls, who are at a crucial formative stage in their lives. They pick up unhealthy messages and develop shallow, superficial values, such as the notion that "their looks are their currency and that it's ok to judge on physical appearance" (Pull the Pin). Subconsciously, they learn that appearance is most important, and that pressuring others to be perfect is acceptable. Being around oft-gossiping mothers and in the heat of competition, they may pick up the tendency to be two-faced and judgmental of others. Feelings of superiority can even lead to bullying (A Deeper Beauty).
Also concerning is the fact that "instead of celebrating individuality, pageants encourage girls to change their looks to fit narrow, invented standards of beauty" (O'Neill). Moms and makeup artists take drastic measures in preparing pageant girls, subjecting them to spray tans, waxes, teeth bleaching, fake fingernails, and layers of heavy makeup. "Flippers," partial dentures, are worn if a girl has lost a tooth- the hallmarks of youth and every last imperfection are concealed in favor of an adult-like appearance (O'Neill). These cosmetic procedures often reduce toddlers to tears and tantrums, but are necessary for them to be contenders for the crown. After hours of primping, these girls look much older than they actually are and more doll-like than human. Rather than being recognized for their uniqueness and special differences, girls are forced to match a certain imagined, unnatural idea of beauty.
In addition to a poor set of values, pageants also cultivate dependency. Decisions are frequently made for these girls because they are so young- including the decision to even compete in pageants. Sadly, often mothers get very pushy and live vicariously through their daughters. The mother of baby SamiJo on Toddlers and Tiaras claims that SamiJo's dream is to be Miss America, even though the little girl can barely mumble single words. She also outright admits multiple times that pageants were the reason she wanted to have a daughter (Youtube). In this instance and in many others, girls are born into pageants without a choice. As they grow older, they learn to be passive and to submit, to put on costumes that have been picked out for them, to learn routines created for them, to sit there while makeup is applied. This learned dependency extends past decisions, as they learn to depend on others' opinions to measure their own self-worth. They are vulnerable to the choice of pageant judges and in a desperate position where their beauty is someone else's to evaluate.
Competing in pageants often detracts from family life, and leaves little time for young girls to simply act their age or pursue other activities. Serious competitors spend many weekends away from home, and pageant costs can cause financial strains among family members. Entry fees can be hundreds of dollars, outfits are usually in the thousands, and travel, hotel, coaching, and makeup expenses rack up a hefty bill (O'Neill). Contentions can arise between parents over expenditures, and in addition to the monetary price, pageants have a cost on relationships. The pageant child may seem to be favored over her siblings, causing them emotional hurt and overridden wants and needs (A Deeper Beauty).
The large time investment in pageants reduces time spent with friends, exercising, or resting. Young girls need opportunities to enjoy their childhood and the ability to pursue other interests, having time to simply be themselves. Equally important is their education, which is often undervalued and cast aside in the unrealistic hopes of landing modeling contracts. A&E Network interviewed pageant girls between the ages of eight and ten, and none of them were considering further education (Nussbaum). The pageant world is exterior-oriented, valuing a pretty face over intelligence and earning over learning. At a time when women are becoming an increasingly powerful part of the workforce and still struggling to break stereotypes about their competence, this runs contrary to their progress.
Perhaps equally disturbing and detrimental are the adult-like outfits that pageant participants often wear. The objectification and sexualisation of such young girls is highly inappropriate, works to degrade the female gender, and even places them in danger.
In an episode of Toddlers and Tiaras, a little girl took the stage in a miniature mock-up of Julia Robert's outfit in Pretty Woman, a movie in which she played a prostitute. Other overtly sexual costumes included a nearly-naked, pose-striking Cleopatra and a coy cowgirl in an almost nonexistent gingham get-up (Youtube). Over-the-knee boots, tiny bared midriffs, and skimpy tot-sized tops broadcast the sex appeal of innocent girls, oblivious in their youth and years away from puberty. Worst of all, these outfits are chosen for them by mothers and coaches, who also come up with suggestive dance routines. Winks, kiss-blowing, and butt-shaking are meant to strike the crowd and judges as cute (and quite often do), but on a deeper level these moves speak sexual volumes about women's worthiness and work to further objectify females.
Women have endured centuries of denied rights and limiting misconceptions, and have only recently been able to overcome many of these, gaining their rightful and respected place in society. There is a continual fight against the perception of womankind as objects and the lesser sex, yet the pageant industry has retained this dated, destructive mindset: "Seemingly oblivious to advances in feminism that have brought women into Little League, military academies and the Supreme Court, the pageant world keeps churning out champions in singing, dancing and the timeless art of catching men's eyes" (Adler). Pageants are the pinnacle of objectification, limiting participants to looks, and young, impressionable pageant girls are being raised according to these ideals. The degradation of any woman is unacceptable, but it is especially horrendous if she is only a matter of years old.
Portraying young girls in this sexual light is more than disgusting: it can be downright dangerous. Advocating the banning of children's pageants, essayist Billy Reed claims that "dressing children up with adult clothes and makeup appeals to sexual predators, placing them at risk of falling victim to a pedophile". A more downplayed aspect of pageants is the occurrence of rapes and molestation, the horrific consequences of combining defenseless, unsuspecting sexualized youngsters and strangers (A Deeper Beauty). Murders have even claimed the lives of pageant girls, notably the tragic and unsolved killing of JonBenet Ramsey that ran rampant in the media. Ramsey was a well-publicized, successful six-year old pageant girl who disappeared the day after Christmas of 1996. A threatening ransom note was discovered, demanding $118,000 in exchange for her life. Her father, John Ramsey, found the body, brutally strangled behind the basement door: "When I found her it was a rush of relief. And then of course within moments, I realized that she probably was dead. But she was back in my arms." He recently opened up about regretting letting her compete in pageants, admitting, "I think about these things now and it makes me cringe. We were so naïve. I now believe with all my heart that it's not a good idea to put your child on public display" (Chang). Drawing attention to such young girls inevitably draws the attention and ill intentions of predators, and parading them in suggestive outfits only increases the risk.
There has been a backlash of arguments in favor of children's pageants, mainly by pageant moms and officials involved with the competitions, but many are ill-founded and easily discredited. A common claim is that pageant participants can win money and scholarships, which is indeed true. However, this is not a logical incentive, because the cost of competing often equals or outweighs the value of the potential winnings. Others attest that pageants build confidence and public speaking skills, but children's pageants involve very little speaking and can destroy confidence if a girl does not win. In fact, they may cultivate a sense of self-doubt and a dependency on the approval of others. Any confidence gained will be based on external qualities, and true self-confidence comes from the inside. Forming new friendships is another pro-pageant argument, yet frequently these are 'false' friendships tainted by competition, comparison, and gossip, especially on the part of the mothers (A Deeper Beauty). Lastly, parents liken pageants to sports due to the training and commitment that they entail. This is a flawed analogy because "beauty is not a talent or skill than can be enhanced with practice/determination/stamina" (Pull the Pin). Children are subject to the whims of the judges, and the deciding factors in this type of competition are potentially hurtful, being incredibly personal. In sports like swimming or soccer, winning means having the fastest time or playing to the best of your ability, and athletes can improve themselves through conditioning and practice. In pageants it comes down to judgments of the very person- face, body, personality. Titles include "Most Beautiful," "Best Personality," "Prettiest Eyes," and others (Tydd). Losing can be devastating because these are integral aspects of someone rather than an improvable talent.
It is unrealistic to demand that beauty pageants be banned, due to their popularity and the lives and industry that have been built up around them, but certain changes could lessen their negative impacts. Raising the minimum age limit for contestants would reduce the likelihood of their being forced into pageants, giving them an opportunity to decide for themselves. Installing firm dress codes could stop the trend of revealing, sexy costumes, and help to protect young girls against harm and degradation. Similarly, imposing rules on makeup and beauty product usage could shift pageant ideals to a more natural, age-appropriate image. Restructuring the judging criteria and eliminating solely physical competition categories would prevent self-image issues and disorder development. Altering these measurements of beauty to encompass non-physical qualities like kindness, intelligence, and charity would encourage their development and be much healthier standards. As for the awards, ensuring that every participant received one would help all pageant-goers to feel good about themselves.
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