Since 2009 when the popular television station, TLC, first conceived a show called Toddlers in Tiaras, the child beauty pageant circuit has become one of America’s obsessions. The circuit has also fallen under great scrutiny. Viewers of every age are fascinated by the captivating, sometimes strange and sometimes horrifying look into the lives of these children and their typically obsessive parents. The parents of the children, usually moms and the occasional father, will attempt to transform their daughter into a fairy tale princess, teaching them to dance in sequined outfits, flirt with judges during their routines, all while filling them with energy drinks, covering them in spray-on tanners, and copious amounts of makeup. Some parents stand by the fact that their children want to be in pageants, that it is a sport, and that it is a form of work. These facts are easy to overlook when all pageants really do is teach young girls that they are to be valued based on their looks, and should always attempt to act sexy not only in order to get attention, but in order to be rewarded. Child beauty pageants teach bad habits, bad values, and little girls should not be allowed to participate in them.
If there is one cardinal rule in marketing and advertising it is this: sex sells. This rule sees no age, race, or background. Sex is used to sell things to blacks, whites, Christians, and Muslims, as well as the elderly and even young children. Whether it is racy looking cartoon characters in a child’s favorite movie, or Barbie, with her well-endowed chest, impossibly small waste, and elegantly long dancer’s legs, sex is everywhere, even when we are young. Many adults do not think twice about when children see these images, thinking that they are far too small for the sexuality of an image, or a doll, or any action to be taken into context. However, according to Peggy Orenstein’s article, “Playing at Sexy,” published in the New York Times the fact that young children do not understand the sexuality behind many things is the entire problem. Exposing young girls to sexualized images and situations that they are unable to understand can have an effect on their sexuality as they grow, negatively impacting their sexual relationships. This is because at such a young age they were unable to make a connection between the action, image, or music to sexuality itself. The two become disconnected in the girl’s mind and Orenstein goes on to explain that this creates confusion later in life between being desired and desire itself. This confusion can lead to many harmful situations such as unplanned pregnancy, abusive relationships, or an inability to connect.
As if causing young children to have massive disconnections with their sexuality later in life was not bad enough, childhood beauty pageants also promote that your worth is only measured by how pretty you are. By extension it is also only measured by how thin you are, how nice a dress looks on you, how well you where your makeup, how well you did your hair, or how natural your fake tan can look. Hillary Levey explains in her article, “Pageant Princesses and Math Whizzes: Understanding Children’s Activities as a Form of Work” that pageant’s promote rewards based on a child’s looks as well (199). Many hours are spent practicing and perfecting the child’s dance routine, talent, walk, smile, and even their wave. Parent’s coach children every waking second to make sure that they act perfectly. The work that goes into perfecting routines, coiffing hair, and bedazzling dresses, can win the little girl and her mother anything from a trophy to cash or savings bonds. This is an admittedly terribly message to send to little girls. Rather than promoting characteristics such as intelligence and humor, which can last a lifetime and continually evolve or be improved, there is emphasis being put on how a child looks and behaves in order to garner rewards. Children should know how to behave but it is arguable that they should know how to flirt with judges as they prance across a dance stage in a $50 sequined bikini while they attempt to open their eyes against the weight of heavy false lashes and ignore the smell of self-tanner. Looks fade, hair thins and greys, and all of our bodies end up sunken and wrinkled. These little girls will grow into women who try to outrun age, doing whatever they can to defy it, instead of embracing it as the gift that it is.
Peggy Orenstein cites Deborah Tolman on the matter of breeding a generation that only uses their body to get rewarded, saying that women do not actually listen to how their bodies feel because sexuality has become an act them. Instead of listening to how their body feels, they think about if it looked good or bad, and the answer to that makes them feel good or bad, but it is not the answer to the question “How does your body feel?” Women who take on sexuality as an act, whether it is because it is what they think they should do, or what they do in order to gain rewards, can end up being very unhealthy individuals. If, “My body looks good,” is the answer to, “Does your body feel good?” women begin to rely on societal standards of beauty and sexiness not only in order to feel sexy, but in order to feel worthy. Low self-esteem and depression are all that await most of the women who travel down this path because, in order to achieve the impossible standards of sexy that society demands, one must do seemingly impossible things. Starvation and multiple surgeries are the tip of the iceberg for little girls who grow into these young women.
There are many atrocious things involved in childhood beauty pageants but somehow, some people still find it in them to overlook them. Many parents interviewed by Hillary Levey insisted that they were concerned with their children’s futures, and they believed that child beauty pageants were a way to prepare their daughters for adulthood. Mothers admitted that pageants were a way for young girls to get a motivational start in the world and they had entered them in pageants in hopes that they would go somewhere in the world and do something with their lives (204). Other parents equate beauty pageants to working, explaining that they have heard stories of little girls traveling swiftly within the circuit while making up to $40,000 or winning as many as three different cars throughout a series of pageants (205). Parents reason that most of this money can be used for a college tuition fund while many of the other prizes, such as smaller cash prizes, cruises, and Disney Vacations can be used to treat pageant contestants for all of their hard “work.” These points notwithstanding, child beauty pageants still attempt to promote bad values within children.
In sum, child beauty pageants are a terrible idea. Girls have a chance to win cars, but its their parents who will probably drive them. They also have the chance to win large sums of money that is said to be for college tuition but with the values pageants help teach, it is questionable of whether or not many of these young girls will want to go to college. Primarily beauty pageants over-sexualize young girls, which can lead to unhealthy sexual lifestyles later in life. Beauty pageants also seek to show young girls that their worth is in how pretty they look and how sexy they can dance. Not only that but it sets the standard of being rewarded for looks, an example that the young girls may chase after the rest of their lives. This can cause women to become pawns in a society that uses insecurities such as these against women in an effort to get more money. Even if pageants provide motivation for young girls, there are other ways to do that without damaging them; pageants are destructive to children and should be banned.
Levey, Hillary. "Pageant Princesses and Math Whizzes: Understanding Children's Activities As A Form of Work." Childhood (2009): 195-212.
Orenstein, Peggy. "Playing At Sexy." New York Times (2010).