Do an internet search on “child beauty pageant” but be prepared. Not just to be depressed by images of overblown, cap-toothed, heavily made-up under-fives but the obvious yet rarely commented upon fact that all these kids are girls.
This issue is red hot in Australia right now, as the June date for the first American-style child pageant to be held in this country approaches. But as psychologists predict future insecurity, eating disorders and depression for participants, and religious pseudo-feminists rhapsodise about lost childhood innocence, it’s critical we separate the hyperbolic wheat from the chaff. What is the real problem with child beauty pageants and what, if anything, should be done about them?
Hard data is thin on the ground and so far doesn’t support the future mental illness thesis. But what one US study found when interviewing 41 pageant mums – and it is nearly always mothers who push girls as young as one into competition – is that often social class and female life experiences are behind the choice.
Some pageant mums are living out their own dreams of “go[ing] somewhere in life”, as one mother put it, rather than being “stuck at home” due to early childbearing. While self-focused female ambition continues to be stigmatised in Western societies – with the ambitious working woman always contrasted unfavourably with the mum who sacrifices her career to stay at home – pageant mums justify their application of false eyelashes or even Botox to their children as evidence of a competitive desire for their daughter to win.
A winning child’s booty – including cash, cars, cruises and holidays – was sometimes essential to the income of some families, as was the walking advertisement they provided for family businesses that provided pageant-related services such as costumes and photography.
Parents who propel their children into after-school study say they want the experience to teach their kids confidence and the value of practice. They also want their sons and daughters to learn how to follow a schedule, to develop the speed necessary to perform well on standardised tests and to become more disciplined and focused. This contrasts with the wish-list pageant mums have for their daughters which includes becoming comfortable on stage, learning poise, how to present themselves and to dress appropriately.
One only has to imagine a father bemoaning his lost future due to early child rearing or a mother parading her elaborately costumed son on a stage in the name of his future poise and dress sense to see the gender-based nature of the pageant problem. In the long term, only a society that allows women to fulfil their own ambitions – rather than sublimating them by living vicariously through their kids – will see off the beauty pageant bogey for good.
Meantime, child beauty pageants should be banned, but a gender-equitable alternative supported. Something like a child talent show, which is pretty much what pageants become once the beauty/formalwear competition – and appearance-related palaver – is removed from the mix. Such a competition must be open to, and be designed to appeal to, boys and girls in the same way adolescents of both sexes are drawn to So You Think You Can Dance.
The child beauty pageant issue must not become fodder for the seemingly endless mummy wars, or be used to satisfy the rapacious desire of evangelical Christians to have influence over other people’s children. Instead, we need to support parents to have the same aspirations for their daughters’ development and future success as they do their sons.
This article first appeared in Fairfax newspapers.