Most Americans have in one way or another been exposed to the hilarious yet shocking hit TLC show Toddler’s in Tiaras whether by watching the show itself, seeing absurdly funny Youtube clips of three year olds wearing makeup having meltdowns, or playing dramatic GIFs on buzzfeed featuring a little girl with larger than life hair rolling her eyes and saying she “can’t even”. Clearly, child beauty pageants, largely thanks to TLC, have become an entertaining source of over the top drama and superfluously made up nine year olds in the broader American culture. However, while most of us see these pageants as over the top, amusing, and totally ridiculous, thinking a bit harder about them made me realize they may actually be detrimental to the young girls and boys competing in them as well as society as a whole. I started wondering the purpose child pageants serve and what they are teaching America’s children, and I started researching the claim of some that pageants can actually be a form of child abuse and should be outlawed in the United States. After conducting my research, I am able to see both sides more clearly and assemble my own opinion on child beauty pageants and whether or not they should be considered child abuse, serve any positive purpose in society, and should be allowed to continue in the United States.
If you have ever watched Toddler’s in Tiaras, you have probably seen a frazzled pageant mom desperately trying to get her little “diva” ready for competition while battling her daughter’s total meltdown temper tantrum. These moms often get upset with their daughters and try to plead with them the importance of the competition or how hard “we’ve worked for this”. While these meltdowns make for extremely good television, they are also a reminder that the contestants of child beauty pageants are in fact children. According to the ABC news article “Beauty Pageants Draw Children and Criticism”, children are the fastest growing segment of the pageant market. An estimated three million children, mostly girls, ages six months to sixteen years compete in these pageants with the goal of winning crowns and cash prizes. Countless psychological studies have shown childhood to be very formative years in which a person’s self esteem, personality, and ability to form secure attachments are developed. This makes pageants a source of extreme influence on young girls competing in them, and may be harmful in the long run, so much so that many are calling child beauty pageants child abuse. According to Syd Brown, a Maryland psychologist, pageants teach young girls “they have one characteristic which is of total primary importance, and that is their body and attractiveness”. Studies have shown this to have detrimental effects on young girls; girls that compete in pageants tend to express that their body types are “large” while actually having very healthy BMI’s. In a nation in which one in four women struggles with an eating disorder or diet issue, this could be an extremely harmful effect on young girls and youth culture. The most alarming thing about this effect is the source: often times a child competitor’s own mother. Lucy Wolfe argues in her article “Darling Diva’s or Damaged Daughters” that children are victims of their mother’s obsession to live vicariously though them because the mother does not feel pretty or sexy enough, and that this parenting style should be considered child abuse and prosecuted in a court of law. Although I think her charges are a bit extreme, in many ways I agree. Nearly every episode of Toddler’s in Tiaras displays an obsessed mother, treating her daughter as more of a baby doll than an actual person. This could have detrimental effects on a child’s self worth, esteem, and attachment. Growing up in an affluent California suburb, I often saw my friends, even those that did not compete in pageants, be scrutinized by their mothers for their outward appearance. I noticed that my friends that had mothers who behaved this way tended to be insecure and turn to potentially dangerous things like boys or drinking in their post adolescent life. Pageants offer these kind of borderline emotional and verbally abusive mothers an outlet in which critiquing her child on her appearance, behavior, and disposition is not considered a bad thing, bur rather a necessity. Clearly the emphasis pageants place on a young girls body as her most important feature and the often obsessive and scrutinizing pageant mother offer a slippery slope towards psychological effects and behavior that could be considered child abuse.
One hundred years ago, the role of women in American society was vastly different; a woman’s appearance was arguably her most important asset in order to accomplish her purpose in life: get married. Today, the role of women has evolved to be vastly different. Young girls can realistically aspire to any career or occupation she wishes, and society is more ready to accept a woman’s intelligence and personality as having more value than outward appearance. However, while most of society has progressed, pageants have seemed to stand still in time, even getting worse. According to “Beauty Pageants Draw Children and Criticism”, competitions only required a party dress and a satin hair bow”. Now, it is not unusual, even necessary, to completely alter and sexualize a child’s appearance in order to be competitive in child beauty pageants. One hired pageant coach even claims he wants his young contestant to look like Snooki via spray tanning. So what, if any, positive effects can child beauty pageants have on society? Some argue that competing in beauty pageants instills values into a child, such as how to be a humble winner and a respectful loser, and allows young girls to develop confidence in presenting themselves and communicating with others. Pageants can also provide children with some important benefits like college scholarships, modeling contracts, and money. But if pageants intention in society was to help women progress as young girls, why then must they compete after being severely altered and sexualized? This has no effect in society except reinforcing invalidated beliefs that a woman is only valuable if she is done up, hyper sexualized, and objectified. The thing I have found the most shocking about child beauty pageants is that they are organized and designed extremely similarly to adult beauty pageants, pushing young girls into the realm of sexuality and selling the sex industry to younger and younger Americans. According to Henry Giroux’s scholarly article “Nymphet Fantasies: Child Beauty Pageants and the Politics of Innocence”, child beauty pageants are a force robbing children of their innocence, causing considerable harm to society as a whole. Beauty pageants, Giroux argues, are one of the main entities used by “corporate culture” to sexualize children at earlier and earlier ages. This is easily seen in modern society. In my own family, I have noticed that my middle-school aged cousins, less than one generation apart from me, are acting more sexualized and grown up than I ever behaved at that age. Giroux claims this sexualized youth surge has detrimental effects on society, and I believe we have already seen these effects through the increase in eating disorders and teen pregnancy in the United States.
Beauty pageants can be an alarmingly close form of child abuse, and they seem to serve little purpose in society. But are they dangerous enough to be outlawed? France seems to think so. In fact, in 2013, the French Senate voted to outlaw participation in beauty pageants for children under 16, even proposing jail time and heavy fines up to $40,000 according to USA today. The French justified this view by claiming that these pageants sexualize young girls. While I in part commend the French by taking such a tough stance on something they perceive is harming their society, I am skeptical that this is the best way to handle the growing problem in America. The author of the USA Today article “Could Child Beauty Pageants Be Banned in the US?” argues, “letting girls compete in a well run pageant is no different from letting them do a sport like cheerleading, dance or gymnastics.” In many ways I agree. Pageants have been grossly dramatized by pop-culture via shows like Toddlers in Tiaras, contributing to the popularity to more extreme, heavy makeup type pageants seen on the show. This, combined with nearly abusive parents that attempt to live vicariously through their children by sexualizing their eight year olds, are the problems with pageants, rather than the pageants themselves. Beauty pageants were not began with the intention of harming children, but rather give young girls a platform in which to gain self esteem and social graces, much like the popular practice in the south of holding debutante balls. In fact, most pageants began as what is referred to today as “natural pageants”, pageants that do away with the use of glam, spray tans, hair extensions, and makeup, to focus on natural beauty and a young woman’s ability to carry herself. According to many blogs I consulted, these pageants have often been a positive influence in young girls’ lives, inspiring confidence and poise in young women to carry into adolescence and adulthood. I do not believe that child beauty pageants should be banned in the United States as they are attempting to do in France. Instead, we need to change the culture of beauty pageants, discouraging the ridiculousness of Toddlers in Tiaras type behavior and placing value in more natural, character building pageants. These types of pageants display young women in the way they are meant to be displayed: as beautiful, innocent, little girls.
What I discovered about child beauty pageants is that they are not in and of themselves harmful, but can be easily used a platform for abuse and sexualization of children by the media and psychotic mothers who are trying to relive the glory days by making their child appear to be a twenty year old young woman instead of cute, innocent little girl. These type of pageants that allow for exploitation would not be run if they were not in high demand, not only by parents of contestants, but also by all of us who watch Toddlers in Tiaras as a source of entertainment. I hope that more people become aware of the detrimental effects that pageants can have on society and inspire a social movement to reform pageants to their original intention: to improve young women.
Dante. “Psychological Effects of Beauty Pageants.” Web log post. Ultius. Ultius, 2013. Web. 9 Feb. 2014. <http://www.ultius.com/ultius-blog/entry/psychological-effects-of-beauty-pageants.html>.
Giroux, Henry A. “Nymphet Fantasies: Child Beauty Pageants and the Politics of Innocence.” Social Text 57 (1998): 31-53. Print.
Healy, Michelle. “Could Child Beauty Pageants Be Banned in the US?” USA Today 25 Sept. 2013: n. pag. Web. 9 Feb. 2015. <http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/09/22/beauty-pageants-children–ban/2842431/>.
Schultz, Kristen, and Ann Pleshette Murphy. “Beauty Pageants Draw Children and Criticism.” ABC News. ABC, 26 Feb. 2013. Web. 9 Feb. 2015. <http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=126315>.
Wolfe, Lucy. “Darling Divas or Damaged Daughters? The Dark Side of Child Beauty Pageants and an Administrative Law Solution.” 87.2 (2012): 427-55. Print.