A Pageant Problem

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According to cable television, chronicling compulsive moms obsessed with priming their young daughters with glitz and glamour makes for good television. Having now been on air for two years, TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras is


revolved around the world of child beauty pageants, the child contestants and their families. Another recently debuted show is Lifetime’s Dance Moms which follows children in the dance show business and the mothers who support them.

Yet every time I attempt to watch either show, I barely make it to the next commercial break before changing the channel. And I’m not the only one bothered by the extremity of both the shows and the child pageant/performance industry.

The two primary objections I have are concerned with the future welfare of the child. As Melissa Henson argues in her recent CNN.com op-ed, subjecting young girls to child pageants contributes to the sexualizing of 3-year-olds.  For example, a recent episode of Toddlers and Tiaras contained footage of a mother dressing up her daughter like Julia Roberts’ prostitute character on Pretty Woman for a pageant. Furthermore, on both shows, parents are often applying layers of makeup and spray tanning their daughters for performances and dressing the girls in risqué costumes that are just part of the show. What kind of message do the parents’ actions give their daughter: You can only feel good about yourself when you win for being pretty? No wonder eating disorders are still a problem today.

Another objection stems from the parents’ pushing their child to win competitions that it brinks on the level of child labor. On these shows, drama usually arises when a child suffers an injury that interferes with their ability to perform. Television crews then capture the doctor’s visit where the physician advises it would be healthiest for the child to rest and then cut to a scene where the parent ignores such advice because “their child really wants to participate.” Our legal system presumes that parents act in the best interest of the child, but when watching these shows, I sometimes think such presumption should not exist. Because the current child labor laws provide no statutory language applicable to beauty pageants, they remain unregulated. In a recent article in the Journal of Law and Policy titled Protecting Pageant Princesses: A Call for Statutory Regulation of Child Beauty Pageants, author Lindsay Lieberman presents evidence on how child pageants interfere with healthy child development and argues that these detrimental consequences are reason for statutory regulation.

Though I am not a fan of both shows, I’m not necessarily advocating that no child should be allowed in the performance industry or that any parent who signs up their child for a pageant should be thrown in jail. I realize there are many different interests at play, so it’s a hard decision to make. But when that the decision likely has the greatest future impact on a young child’s development, I hope it’s made with the child’s interest first and foremost.

Read 4 comments

  1. As a former pageant participant, I think we must recognize that the families being portrayed on these shows are the outliers, not the average pageant participant. Even the pageants they focus on are the more extreme pageants out there.

    I did both “beauty” and modeling pageants and I didn’t learn that how I looked made a difference. I learned that how I presented myself, how confident I was both in my appearance and my speaking ability (which is usually a part of the pageant process), and how comfortable I was in my own skin, were qualities that judges looked at instead of what dress I was wearing. I think of myself as a feminist, yet I think pageants get way more flak than they deserve.

  2. I agree with everything said here, but I want to clarify a point. I’m not sure pageants tell little girls that they can ONLY feel good about themselves when they’re pretty. I only clarify that because pageant moms would tell you that their girls are smart and driven and they praise them for that.

    But I think the problem they can’t dispute is just as bad: it tells little girls that getting attention, praise, and rewards for their beauty and sexualization is a GOOD THING. It also takes ownership of their sexuality away from them — now feeling attractive isn’t about internal pleasure, but external reward. We don’t want to think about their sexuality when we think about little children, and I’ve heard pageant moms say WE’RE the ones being prurient. But of course, putting your head in the sand about the way your actions might affect your child’s future happiness isn’t pure-minded, it’s short-sighted.

    I think you make a very good point about the presumption that parents have their child’s best interest at heart, or that every parent is a competent judge of what that is and how to achieve it. I don’t advocate invading people’s homes, but we do a terrible job of educating parents about child development and psychology! I know some of these moms have their own compulsions that override their concern for their children, but I really think most just don’t understand how or why it might damage their child.

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