Please, please keep your child out of beauty pageants
Blonde hair tumbling, cheekbones contoured, fake tan on point, she sashays down the runway all short skirts and swagger, pouting like a model with years of experience. This is her big moment, the one that she’s been working towards for months; every tear, every tantrum, every ounce of sweat shed at body bootcamp has been worth it. Her parents look on, proud of their little girl. Because this is not the Victoria Secret Fashion Show; it’s a child beauty pageant in Texas, America, and that little girl is just seven years old.
She is just one of an estimated 250,000 girls, some as young as six months old, who take part in child beauty pageants across the country every year. No longer a uniquely American oddity, their popularity is expanding as pageants take place in more and more countries. In the UK, the pageant industry - which is now worth over $5bn in the USA - is booming. But is it irresponsible to subject children to this kind of competition?
It doesn’t take a detective to figure out that these pageants come with inherent risks, and the sexual objectification of children is often at the forefront of the criticism levelled at such shows. Children are dolled up to look well beyond their years, with parents spending exorbitant amounts of money on stylists, make-up, fake hair, spray tans, false eyelashes and manicures, dentures to cover gappy childhood teeth. Some even go as far as to use collagen sprays and get waxed - you know, for all those wrinkly, hairy seven-year-olds. Once hair and make-up is complete, girls slip into evening gowns worth a small fortune, skimpy shorts and knee-high boots.
Fulfilling every trick and cliche of a grown woman, it's hard to see how organisers can deny that these same connotations don't exist simply because it's children. This attitude is supported by France, which has already made child beauty pageants illegal, citing this sexualisation as a key motivating factor. In 2016, it introduced prison terms and steep fines for any parent found to be entering their child into any kind of underground pageant. Yet in America, over 20 years after the unsolved murder of six-year-old pageant queen JonBenét Ramsey drew attention to potential implications of the sexualisation of children by pageants, some still feature swimwear rounds, which are quite literally designed to show off their childlike bodies.
Aside from the early sexualisation of children, there is also a strong argument to made that these pageants are - at best - more outdated than ever. More to the point, they actively damage efforts to break down traditional gender stereotypes and encourage equality. To tell girls that they’re worth no more than the length of their eyelashes or the sway of their hips only serves to reinforce the idea that women are there to please, not to partake. And it does so from a worryingly young age. While talent rounds claim to give some kind of vocational credibility to the pageants, and I am sure those involved work hard to succeed in these, the majority are made up of equally performative talents; please show me a girl that takes to the stage with a science set, rather than a cheer routine.
Young boys are not exempt from this pressure to conform to outdated gender roles either, because while pageants remain predominantly female, there is also an increasing number of male competitors. In these, young boys are expected to be equally "male"; bronzed, buffed and sexualised, albeit to a significantly lesser extent. The only difference is, the boys often win when entered into mixed-sex pageants because, as one mum puts it, of their "natural charm". Which kind of begs the question - can't women be naturally charming too? Moving on.
As much as the underpinning of gender norms is an issue, an even greater issue is the lasting psychological impact of such competitions on the children involved. Naturally, not every child can win every competition, and after spending your childhood being told that you’re not good enough, it's only understandable your self-esteem also takes a battering, with pageant life now linked to increased risk of depression and self-harm. Among those who know about the pressures and pitfalls of success-hungry parents is Brooke Breedwell, who, despite having won 75 pageants by the time she was five years old, felt the impact of her own participation: “Since I was three I was pressured by my mum to be perfect. But living up to her expectations was impossible," she told the British newspaper, The Sun. She is now vocal in her criticism of such events.
The correlation between competing in child beauty pageants and the development of eating disorders in later life, also appears to be high; "The emphasis on physical perfection may put young girls at risk for adult body dissatisfaction, and potentially eating disorders" said Martina Cartwright of the University of Arizona's Department of Nutritional Sciences. But with parents now sending daughters as young as five to “body bootcamps” to prepare them for the swimwear rounds, it’s hard to see how this problem is going to be stemmed unless someone steps in and forces it to.
The excuse given by many pageant parents is “oh, but it’s her decision", "she wants to do this”, "she enjoys it" - but is this attitude really something we should be applying to seven-year-olds? After all, you wouldn’t let her get dressed up and go clubbing, just because she wants to, would you? In reality, the driving force is often competitive, power-hungry parents, rather than their kids: “Is your daughter the most beautiful child in Texas? Prove it!” reads the website of the Universal Royalty Beauty Pageant, which even accepts babies, because apparently: “You're never too young to start competing in pageants.” Call me cynical, but I don't quite believe that your two-year-old piped up and demanded to do this.
So, pageant parents: please, stop living vicariously through your child. A seven-year-old doesn’t need fake tan; she doesn’t need to be in a skimpy dress and she doesn’t need heels. She absolutely does not need to go to body bootcamp. And she absolutely does not need to be paraded in front of strangers. But if you won’t listen to me, at least think about the words of a kid who's been there: "If I could say anything to British mums who are thinking of doing to their daughters what my mum did to me, I would say never do it, as I hated every minute."