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Hidden Truth About Beauty Pageants for Children

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While flipping through television channels, someone may come across TLC’s reality show Toddlers and Tiaras, which documents the lives of those engulfed in the world of child beauty pageants. With the rise of this show and other similar shows, whether or not children should compete in pageants has become a popular controversy. Anyone who watches for even a few minutes can quickly recognize several red flags including disappointed parents, screaming children, and meticulous judges. Viewers may wonder, is it really in the child’s best interest to participate in pageants? In order to best protect children in both the present and future phases of their lives, children under the age of sixteen should not be allowed to participate in beauty pageants.

The idea of beauty pageants was initially introduced to America in 1854 when Phineas Taylor Barnum used women as a sideshow for his circus. By the 1920s, beauty pageants had evolved into attractions at Atlantic City casinos to determine the most physically attractive woman. It was not until the 1960s that beauty pageants for children came into play, but they quickly developed the same features as the adult pageants. At first, pageants for children were popular primarily in the South, but they now have expanded into a nationwide event. Despite its roots in adult pageantry, child beauty pageants alone have grown into a multi-billion dollar industry. Today, there are more than five thousand pageants with about 250,000 kids competing every year.

With such a large number of pageants, there are divisions that include everyone in the competition: males and females, newborn babies all the way up to adults. However, girls still constitute the majority of the participants. Each division competes in several different categories depending on the pageant. Some examples of these categories include formal wear, sportswear, talent, and casual wear. The participants are judged in each separate category, and the scores will later combine into one overall score. Judges take everything into account in hopes of finding the girl who has it all. They are looking for facial beauty, overall appearance, personality, hair, makeup, and clothes. At the end of the pageant, a crowning ceremony is held to announce the winners and distribute awards.

Although pageantry is a multi-billion dollar industry with thousands of competitors, the pageant circuit goes entirely unregulated by the government. The children participating in pageants do not experience protections like child entertainers. However, they all engage in nearly the same activities of singing, dancing, modeling, and acting. Children in both situations also succumb to the same obstacles. For example, “Both entertainers and pageant contestants face exploitation by parents, coaches, and employers/pageant facilitators. In both industries, the adults involved are focused on the prospect of fame and fortune”. Although pageant kids do not necessarily have a salary like those in the entertainment industry, there are still monetary awards associated with pageants, so they should still be able to receive the same protections. If the parents are incapable of solely keeping the child’s interests at heart, it is up to the government to make sure that children are being properly cared for.

Not only do pageant kids lack government protections, but beauty pageants are very expensive for children to compete in. All of the time and resources that go into preparing for pageants would much better be used to pay for the child’s education or other needs. The entry fee simply to be able to participate in the pageant can be upwards of two thousand dollars. Then, people must also take into account the other expenses like travel, hair, makeup, costumes, coaching, and voice or dance lessons. The embellished dresses the girls wear can cost close to a thousand dollars, and many of the pageants require contestants to have different outfits for each category. Parents who pay for pageant coaches can be paying hundreds of dollars hourly each time their child practices. Many parents also hire hair stylists and makeup artists to help get their child stage ready. In the end, it is easy to see how quickly the costs can add up and turn pageants into a multi-billion dollar business.

While high costs are a notable issue, the values emphasized in pageants raise much higher concerns. Beauty pageants teach children at a very young age to strive for beauty and perfection, which are two values that most people deem unattainable. With such an early emphasis on these values, they become qualities that the contestants will stress over their entire lives, even after their pageant days are over. According to Terry Real, these types of competitions can be very confusing to children because they might wonder if their self-worth is a result of who they are or their beauty. “A 2007 study by the American Psychological Association linked a premature emphasis on appearance with ‘three of the most common mental health problems of girls and women: eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression’”. If everybody always says nobody is perfect, then why create a competition where being perfect is the only option?

Since beauty pageants emphasize beauty and perfection, pageants can be physically and mentally detrimental to a child’s health. With such high ideals, it can lead participants to develop unhealthy practices in an attempt to attain these goals. In a study of 131 females who previously competed in beauty pageants: “48.5 percent reported a desire to be thinner, fifty-seven percent stated they were trying to lose weight, and twenty-six percent had been told or were believed to have an eating disorder”. In another study, eleven women who participated in beauty pageants as young girls were each matched with another woman who had the same age and Body Mass Index but had not competed in pageants. Even though participants were paired with someone of the same Body Mass Index, those who compete in pageants viewed their current body as larger and wished for their figure to be smaller than their matches. The beauty pageant women also reported greater feelings of ineffectiveness and were at greater risk for eating disorders, with these effects lasting well into adulthood. Children should not be exposed to or have to consider such harsh realities because they do not have the methods to cope with these feelings.

With such young participants, it is important to consider not only the potential health concerns but also the behaviors endorsed at pageants. Those who participate in beauty pageants are forced to act older than their age and are prematurely exposed to sexuality. Contestants get dolled up with elaborate hair, makeup, clothes, and shoes. However, there is no reason for a baby or toddler to wear false eyelashes, hair extensions, and heels. By the time they arrive on stage, they more closely resemble miniature adults than the children they really are. Also, the outfits the girls wear encourage premature sexuality between the skimpy swimsuits and short dresses or skirts. When performing for the judges, the girls have been coached to do flirty moves such as blow a kiss, wink, or take their jacket off and throw it over their shoulders. These actions are highly inappropriate for their ages, and the worst part is that parents encourage their kids to act in this way for complete strangers.

In the face of these valid concerns, proponents of children competing in child beauty pageants argue that pageants offer rewards and scholarships for the winners that they could put towards their education. These prizes can range from trophies and toys all the way to cars and cash. However, people must consider all the expenses that are associated with competing in the pageants, including entry fees, travel, costumes, and more. In many cases, the potential rewards are not even enough to cover all of these initial fees. It would be more beneficial for families to not compete in pageants and reallocate those funds towards their children’s education.

In addition to highlighting the opportunity to procure money, supporters justify pageantry by arguing that beauty pageants endorse competition and winning, which resembles the more positively-viewed sporting events. However, this is an unfair comparison. In pageants, a child is judged almost exclusively on their looks. If participants do not have the outfit, hair, makeup, or body type to live up to the judges’ standards, no amount of practice can save them. In contrast, the outcome in sports is determined by the individual’s skill level, which is influenced by their dedication to practicing and hard work. This makes it possible for the participants to control their own outcomes in the world of sports.

Regardless of the fact that sports and pageants are not created equal, many parents further claim that their kid insisted on participating in pageants and likes doing them. While this is certainly true in some cases, it does not apply to all of them. For example, a child that began pageants as a newborn would not have been able to say that they wanted to start competing. Plus, even if toddlers or young children did say that they wanted to be in pageants, they would not have been able to comprehend everything that goes into the pageant lifestyle and weigh the positive and negative effects. At such young ages, kids are simply incapable of making a rational decision for themselves. According to judges, it is obvious to them when a child is being forced to perform and does not want to be there. Therefore, it is more likely that it is the parents that wish for their children to compete in pageants.

Perhaps the reason why parents encourage their children to enter the pageant world is because those in favor of children competing in beauty pageants assert that participating in beauty pageants can help build strong parent-child bonds. Instead of being the typical sports parents, they are pageant parents. For example, some fathers get involved with their kids by coaching them, choreographing their routines, sewing their outfits, or even doing their hair and makeup. However, this is not the take all parents have when it comes to approaching pageants. V. J. LaCour, who is the publisher of Pageant Life, says, “‘I’ve seen mothers take young girls right off the stage before judging results even come in and yell at them in the bathroom about blowing it. I’ve even seen a mother yelling at her kid, and then the child wins the pageant. All of a sudden the child becomes a little angel’”. At the end of the day, can those few positive stories about parents bonding with their children really overshadow all the other horror stories?

In spite of the proclaimed benefits, it is ultimately in the best interest of children to not allow those under the age of sixteen to be eligible for participation in pageants. Families are wasting excessive amounts of money to provide their children with the necessities to compete in pageants. While there are awards and scholarships for the winners that can help pay for their education, the amount of these grants are typically not even enough to reimburse the family for all the expenses. Beauty pageants can have harmful physical and mental effects on children that may last well into their adulthood. These children also are taught to engage in behaviors that are too mature for their age. Pageants teach children to aspire for the unreachable qualities of perfection and beauty, which becomes ingrained in them for the rest of their lives. Even though supporters argue that pageants promote competition and winning, any amount of hard work and dedication can be overridden by the judges’ demanding preferences. Parents defend themselves by stating it was the child that proposed the idea to compete. However, no newborn has the ability to do so, and young children do not have the intelligence capacity required to make an informed decision. Although some parents use pageants as an opportunity to bond with their child, other parents get caught up in the nature of the competition. Despite essentially engaging in the same behaviors, those in beauty pageants do not get to reap the benefits of government regulations and protections that child entertainers have. In France, the lawmakers have already prohibited children under the age of sixteen from partaking in pageants. It is time for the United States to follow France’s lead and protect our children the way they deserve.

Works Cited

  • Bartolomeo, Joey. ‘Father Knows Glitz.’ People, vol. 74, no. 16, Nov. 2010, p. 64. 
  • ‘A Beauty Pageant Ban.’ Scholastic News, vol. 76, no. 10, Dec. 2013, p. 3. 
  • Canning, Andrea, and Jessica Hoffman. ‘On TLC’s ‘Toddlers & Tiaras,’ Little Divas Make Their Entrance.’ ABC News, ABC News Internet Ventures, 21 July 2009
  • Gleick, Elizabeth. ‘Playing at Pageants.’ TIME Magazine, vol. 149, no. 3, Jan. 1997, p. 48.
  • Lieberman, Lindsay. ‘Protecting Pageant Princesses: A Call for Statutory Regulation of Child Beauty Pageants.’ Journal of Law and Policy, vol. 18, no. 2, 28 June 2010, pp. 739-74. 
  • Ralston, Jeannie. ‘The High Cost of Beauty.’ Parenting, vol. 15, no. 9, Nov. 2001, p. 132. 
  • Wonderlich, Anna L., et al. ‘Childhood Beauty Pageant Contestants: Associations with Adult Disordered Eating and Mental Health.’ Eating Disorders, vol. 13, no. 3, May 2005, pp. 291-301. 

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