Beauty Pageants and Children: It’s Not Always Pretty

Rhinestone tiaraTwo weeks removed from a Halloween that inspired thousands of people to dress as reality television’s Honey Boo Boo, child beauty pageants have again entered the national consciousness. From small festival- and fair-based competitions to elaborate, expensive, national endeavors, child beauty pageants are a $5 billion industry. Parents who enroll their children in such pageants fiercely defend them as the child’s choice, and many participants—particularly on pageant-centered shows such as TLC’s Toddlers & Tiaras—seem thrilled to be involved. But what effects do beauty pageants have on children and their impressionable minds?

Why Children Enter Beauty Pageants

Children are the masters of fantastical ideas, so it’s no wonder that many girls involved in the pageant circuits relish spending a few days a year as Cinderella. But children can’t enter pageants without their parents’ blessing, so involvement ultimately hinges on parental choice rather than the child’s. In a new paper published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, University of Arizona professor Martina M. Cartwright emphasizes this point. She calls the phenomenon “princess by proxy,” explaining that the real attraction of pageants is for parents who can gain social status, self-esteem, and money when their children participate.

Potential Effects of Beauty Pageants: Eating Disorders and Body-Image Distortion

Pageants, particularly those designed for younger children, focus primarily on appearance, attire, and perceived “cuteness.” Talent competitions occur in some pageants and often are a secondary component of the experience. Thus, pageants suggest to young children that there is value in focusing on their appearance as judged through the eyes of others. This can lead to significant body-image distortions, and adults who once participated in child beauty pageants may experience low self-esteem and poor body image.

As with most adult pageants, child pageants often require crash dieting. Parents may encourage children to quickly lose weight so they can fit into small costumes or display tiny bodies in swimsuit-centered fitness competitions. Some parents put their kids on crash diets designed to help them gain energy and enthusiasm. These diets may consist solely of sugary snacks and sports drinks for several days. This can harm both short- and long-term health and teaches children unhealthy approaches to food that can contribute to the development of eating disorders.

Beauty Pageants and the Sexualization of Young Girls

Sexualization is the tendency to view oneself as a sex object, and children who participate in beauty pageants are sexualized very early. Children may dress in highly suggestive costumes and learn that they gain attention and status when sexualized. This may lead to premature sexual activity and can teach the unfortunate lesson that women’s worth is determined at least in part by their status as sex objects.

The Unhealthy Values Built by Beauty Contests

While some pageants are brief events that require little preparation, the world of pageants can be cutthroat and extremely competitive. Children learn a host of unhealthy values, including the desire to defeat their competition at all costs. Tantrums and meltdowns—by children and parents alike—are common backstage at beauty pageants, and long-term participation in pageants can teach children that their primary source of worth is how many pageants they win and how “beautiful” they are perceived to be. Academic achievement, empathy, social skills, athletic pursuits, and other age-appropriate activities may take a backseat in the world of pageants. And because precious few pageant participants grow up to become models or entertainers, this early experience can stunt their development by focusing their attention on something they are unlikely to be able to do as adults.

References:

  1. Giroux, H. A. (2009, May 11). Child beauty pageants: A scene from the “other America.” Truthout. Retrieved from http://archive.truthout.org/051109A
  2. Sinpetru, L. (n.d.). Child beauty pageants foster adult body dissatisfaction, eating disorders. Softpedia. Retrieved from http://news.softpedia.com/news/Child-Beauty-Pageants-Foster-Adult-Body-Dissatisfaction-Eating-Disorders-302540.shtml

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  • Jonny

    Jonny

    November 15th, 2012 at 3:33 PM

    I have seen some girls go through the pageant circuit and be really successful and then I have seen others who totally go off the deep end. Every kid is different and how they react in a large way is determined by just how much sense their parents have. If the parents are not stable then there is a very good chance that being in pageants could be ruinous to a child. There is so much pressure to look a certain way or to be something that they may or may not be, and quite honestly there are some kids who can’t take being a part of the system.

  • louis

    louis

    November 15th, 2012 at 11:29 PM

    it’s not bad to encourage your child but if he or she wants to go for something that would negatively affect them then the parents need to take a stand and say no.afer all that is in the best interests of the child.

  • beth t

    beth t

    November 16th, 2012 at 3:55 AM

    don’t you see? they continue cause more moms are trying to live through their kids, experience what they never experienced

  • ASHTON

    ASHTON

    November 16th, 2012 at 6:52 PM

    Beauty pageants for children? Sure. Reality shows that have no element of reality in them? Sure. Science and math? Heck, no!

    I think we are really dumbing down our future generations through things such as these while the real growth and improvement factors are being pushed to the back burner. How long this will go on nobody knows. But the amount of damage it will cause? Surely a lot!

  • Alana Fowler

    Alana Fowler

    November 17th, 2012 at 9:39 AM

    They aren’t all bad, you know, There are a lot of girls winning scholarships to go to school something that they would not have been able to do without being in pageants.
    I ask that you not judge the reality without at least observing it on more than “reality” tv.

  • collin

    collin

    November 19th, 2012 at 3:50 PM

    There are bound to be pros and cons to any situation.

    Any time that you have a child involved in something like this it is important to recognize when the child enjoys being a part of it for themselves or if they are just doing it to try to please the parent.’

    If this is all about making mom and dad happy then that is the time to say it’s over and let them find their own unique way to shine.
    If they genuinely enjoy doing it though, then I guess I see no problem with letting them continue.

  • Veronika

    Veronika

    January 23rd, 2013 at 4:26 PM

    Beauty pageants are okay if you understand that it’s not all about how you look but how you act. But as a child you don’t fully understand these concepts and beauty pageants can change you for the worst!

  • VERONICA

    VERONICA

    February 25th, 2013 at 7:41 AM

    BEAUTY PAGEANTS MAN…YEAH WHOA HOO !!!!!!!!!

  • kirsty

    kirsty

    March 5th, 2013 at 6:08 AM

    why not there just trying to be mad lads

  • Catherine Cruz

    Catherine Cruz

    June 14th, 2013 at 4:22 PM

    Thanks for the article. This year my own 9 yr old participated in these pageants. Sure they were just small, natural pageants (with purpose), but I did see some negative things. It is a business. As parents we are BUYING that little tiara and sash and title. I honestly did try to keep my thoughts grounded, but the fact that I shelled out as much money for this as I did-well something is very wrong with me. My daughter did make it to State Level in all three that she entered. She enjoys being on stage. She did gain confidence, but at the same time, I found out just how it truly is a money pit. You pay for every competition and the more competition you enter the better. I am going to allow her to complete the endeavor she started, but then we will look for other more enriching things she can do. Honestly, she was just as happy on stage at the local library doing Reader’s Theater. She plays two instruments and loves to give talks at church. It’s all good. I would be happy to order a trophy, sash and tiara on line if that makes her happy. I love her regardless of her beauty titles. The best thing about her is her heart. Her beauty shines brightly to me. My desire is to see her become a happy, well adjusted, self actualized, faithful and fulfilled woman. Yep and we all like to live vicariously through our kids. the best way to do so is to play with them, ride a waterslide with them, face that rollercoaster with them. Ride a bike next to them. See the sunset and rise in their eyes.

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