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Child Beauty Pageants: Read the Warning Label

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Michele Berg: All right, I admit it... I Tivo both "Toddlers and Tiaras" and "Little Miss Perfect." And at first blush it would be easy to view the entire spectacle with a train-wreck mentality, heaping scorn upon all of these pageant parents. But is that really fair? What about the larger cultural forces at play here? Haven't these parents simply bought into the same bill of goods that we are all being sold day after day: That the way for a girl to find success in our culture is through her beauty and her body?

young child in beauty pageant dress

Clearly these parents love their children. And they speak of pageants instilling in their children positive qualities such as "confidence", "self esteem" and "poise." But what are the invisible costs of striving for these traits?

"Confidence?" Little girls in pageants are buried under fake tans, hair extensions,
false eyelashes, make-up, and fake teeth. The invisible message: You are not good enough as you are. The body is experienced as wrong. Possible effects: body shame and perfectionism.

"Self esteem?" These children often appear to be trying to please their parents above all else. The invisible message: put other people's needs and desires before your own. Possible effects: Depression, loss of identity and anxiety.

"Poise?" Smile! These little girls quickly learn that anything other than perfectly happy is unacceptable. Invisible message: Mad/sad feelings are bad, happy/content feelings are good. Possible effects: Girls learn to ignore their internal states, and may try to numb, avoid or distract the uncomfortable feelings. Possible effects: disordered eating, drugs, alcohol, even cutting.

So are these pageant parents villains or victims? Aren't they just caught by the same beauty promise that we all are? Instead of throwing stones, let's take this opportunity to look inward and see how we ourselves are caught by these ideas in less overt ways, and take a stand against them by talking about them with our children.



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19 comments so far | Post a comment now
ame i. April 1, 2009, 3:05 PM

I find it disturbing to see little girls with so much make-up on they look like hookers.
The toddler sister of 2 of my daughters’ friends was in a pageant last fall at our county fair and didn’t place. Her sisters kept saying she should have won because she was much cuter than all the other babies. Poor little thing, she wasn’t.
I can’t imagine having put either of my daughters in a pagent and having to explain why the judges didn’t think she was pretty enough to win.
Besides, pageants can be a pedophile’s playground. During the 7-10 & 11-13 group, I KNOW that all of the men lurking around did NOT know someone in the pageant.

Sharyn Grobman Korwin April 1, 2009, 3:35 PM

Ms. Berg makes many important points and raises important questions for us as a society and as parents. She is intelligent and articulate, and obviously this is an issue close to home, as she is the parent of a young (clearly talented!) girl.

Gail Cooke April 1, 2009, 4:05 PM

Personally, I feel it’s terrible that mothers pimp out their children. It’s terrible how they sexualize their toddlers. Shameful.

Anonymous April 1, 2009, 6:47 PM

I DVR both those shows. I have such a sick fascination with the delusional mothers. There is nothing anyone can say to convince me that these glitz pageants are ok.
I feel like I’m watching “The Girls Next Door: The Grade School Years”
WHAT a bunch of FREAKS.

Nancy Gruver April 1, 2009, 7:18 PM

Putting so much pressure on “perfect” appearance and behavior is harmful for anyone. And it’s even more so when it’s a young child who natually wants to please her parent. I’m so happy to see this piece!

alyssa April 1, 2009, 7:28 PM

i love little miss perfect the little girls are just so adoralble

lynn k. April 1, 2009, 8:15 PM

What a thought- provoking article! As the mother of a 12 year old girl, I find this subject to be critically important. Thank you for raising this issue and for starting this conversation. As parents we need to help out girls feel valued for all the wonderful inner qualities they possess.

mollysmom April 1, 2009, 8:30 PM

those mothers scare me

Tanya April 1, 2009, 10:19 PM

THOSE MOMS ARE PEDOPHILES AND PIMPS! Why do they try turning their kids into lolitas, why cant they do it to their shameful selves

Tracy April 2, 2009, 6:13 PM

Ms. Berg hit the nail on the head in all respects. It’s easy to sit in judgment of the parents who push their daughters into pageants. The real challenge is introspection, asking ourselves how we have succumbed to or may be reinforcing gender stereotypes that negatively impact our daughters in the short and long term.

Rachel May 21, 2009, 8:27 PM

I agree! How is it teaching ANYTHING other than you just aren’t “good enough” as yourself? It’s beyond disturbing to me, as a mother, a grandmother and a woman.

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L.Holmer April 5, 2011, 6:28 PM

Pageant parents say the biggest benefit is “building self esteem”. My mom put me in them from the time I was 5 until I finally broke down at age 12. Pageants hurt your child’s self esteem. They only lead to self-doubt and self-consciousness and sadness. I always thought everyone was always looking at me at school and out in public and judging me. I never thought I was good enough. My classmates got to play soccer and do theater and music and they are actually happy and educated. Their self esteem came from their real achievements, not tacky dresses and fake wigs and makeup. I struggle with weight issues every day and continue to resent my mother for forcing me to please everyone who shows me the slightest bit of kindness. I was taken advantage of by lots of people. I don’t even know what I want or who I am.

L.Holmer April 5, 2011, 6:39 PM

Pageant parents say the biggest benefit is “building self esteem”. My mom put me in them from the time I was 5 until I finally broke down at age 12. Pageants hurt your child’s self esteem. They only lead to self-doubt and self-consciousness and sadness. I always thought everyone was always looking at me at school and out in public and judging me. I never thought I was good enough. My classmates got to play soccer and do theater and music and they are actually happy and educated. Their self esteem came from their real achievements, not tacky dresses and fake wigs and makeup. I struggle with weight issues every day and continue to resent my mother for forcing me to please everyone who shows me the slightest bit of kindness. I was taken advantage of by lots of people. I don’t even know what I want or who I am.

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