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‘Pull the Pin’ on children’s beauty pageants

By Catherine Manning - posted Tuesday, 23 August 2011


The Victorian Government thinks by sending Child Safety Commissioner Bernie Geary to the Universal Royalty Pageant held in Melbourne in July, they have done enough to investigate the harm beauty competitions have on children. Are they seriously trying to say that a visit to the pageant by Commissioner Geary, with no input from any other interest group or experts, is enough to make an informed decision about the impact of pageants on children and our culture?

The Victorian Government is ignoring the concerns of thousands of people who want to see the regulation of child beauty pageants not only in Victoria, but nationally and internationally. Opponents include The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, numerous women’s and children’s rights organisations, child development experts and academics, and the majority of the community: about 95 per cent according to numerous polls and callers to talkback programs who are overwhelmingly in support of action.

It’s easy to be outraged by the sight of a four, five or six year old waxed and coiffed to resemble a thirty year old and then encouraged to gyrate around a stage winking and blowing kisses to adult judges. If there’s one thing we can thank the show Toddlers and Tiara’s for is its’ featuring of child beauty queens and over enthusiastic mothers. It brings to the fore debates about the sexualisation of girls in beauty pageants.

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But is sexualisation in pageants really any different to other realms of children’s performance?  Just recently I saw young girls at a local junior school performance sashay up centre stage before turning with a ‘booty slap’ to lyrics far more appropriate for their older audience than the performers’ six years. Attend just about any children’s dance recital, calisthenics concert, or cheerleading competition and you’re guaranteed to see similar sexualisation, if not more than at a children’s beauty pageant. However, to focus solely on sexualisation as the argument against pageants misses the point.

It’s not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned and speak out against young children being encouraged to emulate pole dancers. I am certainly a strong and active advocate for children being allowed to explore and express their sexuality in their own time and way. Yet, I do despair when all of a sudden the sight of a little girl dressed up as Lady Gaga or ‘Sandy’ from Grease at a public pageant is enough to send some commentators into a complete spin and lose focus about what is inherently and uniquely wrong with child beauty pageants.

Sexualisation wasn’t the reason I started the ‘Pull the Pin (on beauty pageants for children)’ campaign, in fact I hadn’t ever even seen an episode of Toddlers and Tiara’s. My motivation was the issue of beauty competitions. Would you stand your two daughters or nieces side by side and tell one she’s more beautiful than the other? Whether they’re primped, preened, waxed and dressed in leathers and cone bras or straight out of the dress up box in their own creation with no make-up, for most people it’s a resounding ‘no’, on the basis that it would be a cruel and horrible thing to do, to both girls. But that’s exactly what beauty pageants do. 

I work in schools delivering self-esteem, body image and media literacy workshops to teen girls (through Enlighten Education we reach over 20,000 girls per year) and most lack confidence about their image. Their negative self-talk comes from the onslaught of media and advertising messages. We see on average between 400-600 ads per day (TV, Internet, billboards, bus stops, etc.). One out of every 11 advertisements has a direct message about female beauty. That’s not counting the indirect ones. Most children aren’t media literate. Not enough adults are either. A media literate person can see the toxicity of the ‘compare and despair’ messages behind the beauty industry. 

Mental health issues around body image and self-esteem are on the rise. Eating Disorders Victoria reports a 270 per cent increase in the number of girls hospitalised with eating disorders over the past 10 years. Some girls as young as seven years old are presenting with anorexia directly related to body image. Four year olds are calling each other fat and talking about diets and cosmetic surgery. In this context, a society that condones pitting young girls against each other in beauty competitions should be questioned.

In condoning beauty pageants we are saying it is okay to judge and reward our children for their physical beauty. We’re teaching girls that their physical beauty is their currency. We are actively marketing to them an industry that feeds off the insecurities created by a narrow beauty ideal. We’re telling them that to be worthy and to win the crownthey must fit that narrow ideal. Wax your eyebrows, spray tan your skin, put infake teeth. Botox for children isn’t that farfetched an idea. Beauty isn’t a talent or skill they can practice, enhance or improve. No other competition for children compares. As the beauty industry widens its sights to capitalise on the male market, driving men to spend more time in front of the bathroom mirror, will we see more boys thrust into beauty competitions.

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To trivialise the importance of legislating against child beauty pageants is to trivialise how beauty obsession impacts on the status of women and the myriad of mental health issues around body image facing young people today. 

Interestingly after many months spent spruiking the praises of pageants and spewing vitriol toward our campaign, Kristin Kyle the very woman who organised bringing the Universal Royalty pageant to Melbourne, has now conceded she agrees with ‘Pull the Pin’ after her middle child didn’t win a prize at the pageant. ‘My heart broke for her that her sisters were ultimately told they were prettier’ she said. Perhaps Commissioner Geary should speak with Ms Kyle now.

It’s a disgrace that the Victorian Government let an opportunity go to at least investigate these issues. In the meantime, other companies in Australia are soldiering on with their Toddlers and Tiara’s style full-glitz pageants with categories including Most Photogenic, Prettiest Smile, Best Hair, Bright Eyes and Most Beautiful.

Physical beauty should never be a competition – especially not for children.

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About the Author

Catherine Manning is the Coordinator of Pull the Pin (on beauty pageants for children).

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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