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Child Beauty Pageants: Do They Promote Sexualization of Minors?

11:48 AM, Sep 22, 2013   |    comments
Karmen Walker, 6, center, competes in the Southern Celebrity Beauty pageant in Charleston, W. Va., in a scene from 'Toddlers and Tiaras' on TLC.(Photo: TLC)
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Michelle Healy, USA TODAY

The world of beauty queens and pageants was in the hot seat last week, and not just because of the racist online comments hurled at Nina Davuluri after she became the first woman of Indian descent to be named Miss America.

In France, legislators moved to ban child beauty pageants on the grounds that they promote the "hyper-sexualization" of minors. A measure even proposes jail time and a fine for violators - including parents and organizers - who sponsor or encourage "access to these competitions" for anyone under age 16, the Associated Press reported.

The French Senate approved the bill on Tuesday, but it must be passed by a lower house of parliament before becoming law.

According to The Guardian, the attention to the "Mini-Miss" beauty pageants was prompted by debates over a 2010 photo spread in French Vogue featuring a 10-year-old girl in heavy makeup, high-heeled shoes and tight clothes and pouting provocatively.

Such a ban wouldn't fly in the USA, says sociologist Hilary Levey Friedman, a research associate at the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and author of the new book Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture.

"Historically and legally, our system defers to parents to make the right decision for their child," she says. "We see the family as more of a private entity."

Karen Kataline, a mental health professional near Denver who participated in child beauty pageants in the 1960s, says she understands the motivation to ban the competitions, but doesn't think that's the answer. The problem "is not just the pageants, it's the parents" who support and encourage the sexualization of their children, Kataline says.

"I'm not against children singing and dancing on stage, but you want them to sing and dance and perform in age-appropriate ways," she says. "Today, we've pushed the envelope to ridiculous degrees."

"People need to be educated as to why exposing and displaying a child in sexual ways beyond their years is wrong," says Kataline, author of the memoir FATLASH! Food Police & the Fear of Thin - A Cautionary Tale.

The proposed penalties of up to two years in prison and $40,000 in fines "seem a bit extreme" but the concerns are certainly legitimate, says Martina Cartwright, an adjunct faculty member at the University of Arizona. Her research on child pageants was published last year in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

A task force of the American Psychological Association noted that "girls who are sexualized early will tend to gather their self-worth as an adult based on their appearance," says Cartwright. And there's also the issue of certain adults who "make the assumption that the girls have the ability to make adult decisions just based on the way they look rather than their actual age."

She doubts, however, that a ban will adequately address the issue of girls and women "being judged solely on appearance, and the idea that self-worth is only based on how they look."

As seen on the hit TLC reality show Toddlers & Tiaras, and its spin-off, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, child beauty pageants put a premium on appearance. And in the case of so-called "high-glitz" pageants it's an appearance that requires girls to dress up and perform like pint-size adults, complete with fake hair, spray tans, full makeup, ornate costumes and even artificial teeth (known as flippers).

Glitz pageants are a multibillion-dollar business now, having exploded since Toddlers & Tiaras came on in 2009, says Cartwright, a registered dietitian who started researching pageants as a result of her work with young performers and athletes.

The average total cost of participating in a single competition, according to Cartwright's research: $3,000 to $5,000.

That research included attending live tapings of the reality show and traveling to other child pageants, where participation typically drops off between ages 7 and 9. Tears and temper tantrums were common, she says, with many parents denying young children naps or breaks during grueling pageant schedules for fear that sleeping might mess up the child's hair or makeup.

Cartwright also recounts parents giving their kids caffeinated beverages and Pixy Stix candy, often referred to as "pageant crack," to keep their energy levels high.

The addition of television cameras and the desire to be noticed at the competitions only heightens some parents' and contestants' over-the top behavior, says Friedman, who has studied pageants for more than a decade.

"I've seen terrible behavior on the part of people associated with child beauty pageants, but it's (increased) when a TV crew is there," Friedman says. Often the adults are "looking for 15 minutes of fame" for themselves and the child, she says.

Cartwright has labeled this drive by parents for social or financial gains earned by the child's accomplishments - regardless of the risk involved for the child - "princess by proxy."

Honey Boo Boo star Alana Thompson, 8, symbolizes the potential benefit. A reported 3.2 million viewers (a record for the show) tuned in to watch its season finale on Sept. 11, and more shows have been ordered. Thompson recently inspired a line of merchandise, including posters, apparel and accessories.

Toddlers & Tiaras alum Isabella Barrett, 7, is a reported millionaire with her own fashion line and TV show in Germany. Another breakout "star" from the show, Eden Wood, 8, had her own reality show (Eden's World) and was the subject of the recent tell-all book, Unleashing a Momster: A Peek Behind the Curtain at the Tragic Life of America's Most Successful Child Pageant Star, written by her former manager.

The often sassy, over-the-top personalities that make for eye-catching TV have influenced local pageants, says Cartwright. "Parents think that's how their child should behave in order to win. What they see on TV is what they want to create in their own reality."

Although child beauty pageants have been around since 1880, the last time they were the focus of such attention was following the death in 1996 of JonBenet Ramsey, a 6-year-old beauty pageant veteran, says Friedman.

Back then, the world of child beauty pageants was still very much "a subculture limited to geographic pockets," she says. In today's wired world, however, anyone anywhere in the country inspired by watching the shows can get on the Internet and find out where to buy the best dress, get coaching on Skype and find a competition.

Fans of pageants point to the poise, presence and confidence that participants (both girls and boys) gain, as well as the parent-child bonding, says Cartwright. For those who enjoy the dress-up factor for their daughters but in a less overdone setting, many turn to so-called "natural" pageants that restrict "the glitz, makeup and risqué dresses," she says.

Some parents see benefit in the pageants. Anna Berry of Littleton, Colo., told CNN.com that her daughter Ashley, 13, "was so shy she couldn't even order for herself at a restaurant. After she started appearing in 'natural' pageants ... she blossomed."

Her daughter "has developed skills and confidence that will benefit her for a lifetime ... just as they did for me growing up in pageantry," said Berry.

Valerie Best, who runs The BEST Shining Stars Pageant in southern Indiana, told the website: "A pageant (run) properly is no different than a young girl competing in gymnastics, a school function or anything else that has a score kept or judged upon. Teach these girls to be strong, confident individuals and see how far they go in life."

Child pageants, like all competitive child activities, would benefit from regulations, says Friedman.

Making sure that pageant operators are legitimate businesses will help reduce "the scam aspect" that parents often complain about when putting out large sums of money for their child to participate, she says.

Regulations should also address issues of health and safety, she says.

"I've been to pageants where there's an outbreak of pinkeye because the same products were used on all the kids."

And parents need to think about and talk about the impact these competitions have not only on the participants, but the kids who watch them on TV, says Cartwright.

"TV images have a huge impact on little girls and the type of messages they internalize about what is normal, how they should look and how they should behave."

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