I remember when the Toddlers & Tiaras show began. Before I even watched the show, which did not happen right away, I was outraged by the idea that whole world of childhood beauty pageants were about to be more glorified than ever. I believed that the ramifications on society as a whole could potentially be astronomical, even though we may not even know these consequences for years down the road. This is because more studies need to follow these young girls, not only during their pageant years, but many years to follow. Being a mother to a teenage daughter who is a competitive athlete, a Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) and a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist (CEDS), and a woman who grew up in an environment where enormous value was placed on external appearance, the entirety of this whole child beauty pageant has never sat quite comfortably with me. Although I do not work with children under 12 years of age in my private practice as a therapist, I have actually worked with many adolescent girls (even young adults) who were part of the childhood beauty pageant phenomenon to some capacity. Unfortunately, I have seen the dark fall out instead of the confidence and growth that some speak of as being their experience after childhood beauty pageants. However, I also urge you to read the latest article written by Delesia Watson at theguardian.com as she speaks of the positive impact beauty pageants had on her life. There are many perspectives on this topic and I believe it to be important to hear from those who have had first hand experience being part of child beauty pageants.
Well now, I have read that France is the first to ban these beauty contests. According to the BBC News Europe, Parliament in France has moved to ban child beauty pageants on the grounds that they promote the “hyper-sexualisation” of minors. Before I even read the article in its entirety, I already felt this initial relief. This grave message that is being translated to our young girls that they are sexual beings and external validation is of the upmost and primary importance, is an outdated message which needs to be extinguished. The need for internal validation and beauty is definitely gaining immense awareness with this courageous step by France. The New York Times quoted, “It is extremely destructive for a girl between the age of 6 and 12 to hear her mother say that what’s important for her is to be beautiful,” Chantal Jouanno the ban’s champion, said Wednesday. “We are fighting to say: What counts is what they have in their brains.”
Following an internationally controversial Vogue provocative photo shoot of a ten-year-old girl, there was A French Government parliamentary report written. This report: against Hyper-Sexualisation: A New Fight For Equality, calls for a ban on child-size adult clothing, such as padded bras and high-heeled shoes for children, and an end to beauty competitions for the under-16s. The government report, published on Monday, criticized the marketing of padded bras for eight year olds, thong underwear, make-up kits, and leggy dolls, all aimed at pre-pubescent girls under the age of 12.
According to the www.guardian.com, Vogue defended the article, saying the young models were simply dressing up “like maman”, as all young girls do. Her mother, Loubry, defended the photographs in a blog at the time, writing: “The only thing that shocks me about the photo is that the necklace she is wearing is worth three million euros … my daughter isn’t naked, let’s not blow things out of proportion.” Specialists involved in the research concluded that this precocious sexualisation affected mostly girls and caused “psychological damage that is irreversible in 80% of cases”. At worse, said the report, it could result in eating disorders including anorexia. As the author of EATING DISORDERS: Decode the Controlled Chaos, I truly know these statistics are staggering and extremely concerning.
I do understand when parents or even girls who are now older adolescents or young adults state that these pageants helped them confidence and become empowered. However, what about these young girls were most likely not the 2nd or 3rd runner up or of course crowned? What about those young girls who are constantly exposed and continually “losing.” What message does that send to them? Are they ever good enough? The competition is simply mind-boggling. Then what happens when it is all over? Distorted body image? Eating disorders? Drug addiction? Cutting and other forms of self-harm? Sexual promiscuity? The pressures and the competitiveness may potentially become too much. While these consequences are not true for all, there is a greater vulnerability to falling into this possibility when you add in a child’s genetic predisposition, the type of parenting style taking place, the feedback from peers, the perception from media and advertising, and many other factors.
A critical piece for parents who are thinking about beauty contests for their child to look at is, if this is truly their own agenda. It does not benefit the child when the parent is projecting her own needs along with highly unrealistic expectations on their little girl. Push, push, push…. More, more, more… be better, and better until you are only the best, and sometimes it does not matter who you walk on along the way. Look better; be prettier but not just prettier but the prettiest. Be sexy, but not just sexy, the sexiest. Be thinner; but not just thinner, the thinnest. There are so many dangerous and conflicting messages being given to these girls at a time when they are most impressionable. This is not a dress rehearsal, this is a child’s life. The makeup, the hair extensions, the elaborate costumes, the eyelashes, and in the most extreme cases the venires and even the spray tans come off and on, but the internal turmoil can cause a lifetime of scars.
So I say felicitations! or bravo to France for the courage, determination, and willingness to ban child beauty pageants and let us hope that there are more to follow. There truly is power in every voice. In the meantime, let’s make sure to continue on an everyday basis to spread the message that is “all kids are beautiful.”