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Are The Increasing Number of Children’s Beauty Pageants A Sign of Progress?

May 24, 2010

April Brilliant, a former Mrs. Maryland and the director of Maryland-based Mystic Pageants, says pageants give little girls a chance to play Cinderella. “It’s more like playing dress-up,” says Brilliant, who has coordinated the Little Miss and Mister American Pageant in Summerville, S.C. “Like if you were home doing your hair, doing makeup, dressing up in fancy clothes. Playing Cinderella for a day.”

These pictures don’t look like a child who has chosen to dress herself up and play Cinderella for a day. This is virtually an infant whose mother or beauty coach put her in a hair piece, painted her already beautiful baby face with foundation, blush, lipstick, eye liner, mascara and eyebrow pencil. It also looks like her eyebrows were plucked and shaped. The rest is bad enough, let’s hope that’s not also true.

The Children’s Beauty Pageant Industry

It is true, however, that her mother probably carried her onto the stage, a scene that is becoming commonplace in the burgeoning children’s beauty pageant industry. Children’s competitions attract an estimated 3 million children, mostly girls, ages six months to 16 years vying for crowns and money. But most of the money flows outward to those who market clothes, beauty products and talent expertise to the children’s families.

The Cost of Competing

Money’s spent to bleach and color the hair of young girls.  Add the cost and time to apply hair extensions and false eyelashes. There are also fake teeth purchased, called flippers, to hide stained or missing baby teeth. Entry fees range from $10 to $200. Dresses can cost up to $5,000, with most averaging $1,000. At the highest contest levels, contestants are required to wear multiple outfits appropriate for the different categories a la Miss America or Miss Universe. Coaches, modeling lessons, and travel also add to the enormous price tags. This is big business.

Beauty And Self Esteem

“‘They love this! They love the glitz and the glamour!‘ says Joy Clark, grandmother of 5-year-old Jayleigh. Clark’s spent the last four years taking Jayleigh to 100 pageants, perfecting her presentation. She is jubilant about her granddaughter’s interest and pooh-poohs the suggestion that children might be getting the wrong message about the importance of their looks.”

In fact, the parents will argue that the beauty competitions help build self-confidence; the children learn how to carry themselves on stage, how to speak in public, how to deal with losing, and how to rally from a mistake.

For the winners, there’s money and scholarships.  Jayleigh, Joy Clark’s granddaughter, earned $1,800 after winning a crown at the Summerville pageant, and was getting ready to sign a modeling contract. From those earnings, there was nearly enough money set aside to finance Jayleigh’s college tuition – money the family might not have had otherwise.

But I still disagree with Grandma Joy and the other parents. How can a child not get the wrong message about the importance of looks?  If you’re 6 months old, or 1 year or 2 years or 3 or 4 or 5 years old and already learned that you need beauty products and dye jobs, and fake hair and risqué outfits to win a beauty contest, how can you feel good about your self without those things?

What happens to these children when they get a dose of life’s normal passages: pimples? Hips? Crow’s feet? But we already know the answer don’t we – there are more products to buy, there are derm abrasions, there are body shapers to wear and cosmetic surgery to be had. I use to blame the parents, but they’re not the root cause of the problem. It’s a societal problem. We live in a media culture that touts an unnatural type of beauty  – one that can only be attained by Photoshop, veneers and bodily alterations. Not so different from the cultural practices we use to frown upon such as the binding of feet and elongating the neck. They weren’t natural either. So, have we progressed?

13 Comments leave one →
  1. May 24, 2010 3:14 pm

    You consistently raise issues that are in my mind, but that I never actually blog about. Thank you! There’s a show on one of the cable channels (Tiaras and something . . . .) that repels me (and my daughters!) to no end.
    No, we have not progressed.

    • May 25, 2010 12:16 pm

      Thanks for joining in on the discussion. Until another reader and you told me about that show I didn’t know it existed – and to think it’s on The Learning Channel. I would think publicity like that would drive more parents to try and get their child on the show. It just feels wrong, wrong, wrong. Cherry

  2. May 24, 2010 4:42 pm

    Cherry, I have no idea why beauty pageants even exist. And even further why kids pageants are focusing on making little girls look like well cared desperate housewives — creepy.

    All any person needs to be beautiful is a SMILE.

    “Beauty is not in the face; beauty is a light in the heart.” ~Kahlil Gibran

    Smile! :)

    • May 25, 2010 12:20 pm

      I’m with you Karmen, smile with an open heart and a respectful attitude and we are all uniquely beautiful.
      I don’t know why beauty pageants started but they are certainly perpetuated because they are big money-makers. As long as beauty has to be “paid for” and youth is revered anti-aging businesses, beauty businesses, diet programs etc. will thrive and make huge profits. HOpe to hear from you here again, Cherry

  3. Mary Wilson permalink
    May 24, 2010 5:00 pm

    Cherry, I have never been a fan of beauty contests of any kind, and I am especially not a fan of children’s contests. If we want little girls to develop healthy self esteem, there are so many other ways to do it–through sports, academic contests, music and drama performances, mentoring, etc.

    If you haven’t already seen it, “Little Miss Sunshine” is a must watch. Very funny but also makes its point about these contests.

  4. Jas permalink
    May 24, 2010 10:37 pm

    Great topic!

    I did some modeling as a child and, although that’s certainly a little different, it really did just feel like dress-up to me. However, I do remember feeling bewildered by how seriously the grown-ups took it, and getting yelled at by a photographer for accidently smearing my makeup. I remember that my parents pulled me out of it around puberty when sexuality began to creep into every shoot.

    The biggest thing that’s troubling to me about this is the rejection of childhood beauty, which is being replaced by a sexualized appearance that’s really not appropriate. I honestly can’t help but wonder whether we’re not accessories to sexual abuse by teaching our girls to look and act as if they’re sexually mature at age 5.

  5. May 25, 2010 10:04 am

    Yours is a case where a terrific post turns my stomach! The ugly backstory of these beauty pageants is so disturbing. The comments here are truly illuminating, adding even more fuel to this bonfire of exploitation. To say that a child finds this Cinderella game fun, week in and week end, is ridiculous. Kids are taught by this ritual to do what adults say. Adults make the rules…have the power…grant and withhold things kids want…provide them with a “sense of safety.” This game is not about “fun for kids,” it’s about money for adults earned through children. There’s a word for that.

  6. May 25, 2010 11:10 am

    These beauty pageants only serve to sexualize these young girls. It infuriates me. I wrote about that nasty show ‘Toddlers and Tiaras’ last year:

    This growing trend truly boggles my mind.

  7. Nicole permalink
    July 2, 2011 3:35 am

    How does it “sexualize” young girls? I wear make-up and pretty clothes, does that make me sexy? It is a confidence boost, and most of the girls love it. It is just like any other sport. Life is one big competition. We compete for spots in college, jobs, promotions, titles, etc. What is wrong with preparing children to compete? These girls learn to attack life with confidence and will-power. Beauty is important in life; sorry. Beauty does contribute to success in life sadly. Two women apply for a job, one attractive, one not so much. They both are equally qualified, so who will be hired? The pretty one…It’s just the way it is. People need to stop complaining about pageants and start complaining about media sexuality. I see “sexy” girls at the mall on posters, in movies, and in commercials… I don’t remember seeing any butts or boobs in pageants. (not the younger ones anyway). Pageants are about poise, beauty, confidence, and personality; not sex. So go worry about something less stupid. My daughter loves pageants; she can quit anytime she wants to, but I surely wont make her.

    • July 2, 2011 8:49 am

      Except for telling me to go worry about something less stupid, I appreciate your comment and your perspective. You bring up valid points. I still don’t completely agree with you, and If we were face to face would enjoy discussing the different perspectives.

  8. Nicole permalink
    July 2, 2011 3:45 am

    Dawn, you obviously don’t know much about pageants. Parents do not use their children to earn money. Do you not know how much these things cost? They pay way more than their child is going to win more than likely.. Your argument on parents having influence on what children think are fun, well that goes for everything, not just pageants. Not to mention, not all children think it is fun just because their mommies do. Your argument goes for any sport, football, basketball, golf, cheerleading, baseball, etc. Most of the success stories in sports are people who’s parents had them practicing at a young age. Are you saying that is bad too? What about girls who dance? They do their hair and makeup and dress up in tutus, that make them sexy?

  9. Amanda permalink
    July 18, 2012 5:47 pm

    I have put my 16 month old in one pageant and am getting ready to put her in another one. My desire to do this simply came from me believing that my daughter is the prettiest little girl in the world and wanting to show her off I guess. They are natural pageants. Apparently the natural pageants are a different ball game, the dresses are typicaly off the rack ( less than $500 ) and they keep things age appropriate and frown upon inappropriate clothing, makeup, hair ect. The scores are based mostly on the childs performance and personality. The first pageant I had her in had 50% of the score down as: “does the contestant appear to be having a good time?”…..but that is for the babies, not older girls. I am still not completely sold on the pageant life, as I do see other parents behaving similarly to the way the Toddler’s in Tiaras mommies do. You won’t hear “oh she’s so cute” at even a natural pageant, and your pretty baby might even get a dirty look from one of the more rediculous parents. I got the pleasure of meeting one of the nazi moms you see scolding her precious 3 year old for not doing well in front of the judges. I will NEVER be able to “out crazy” these moms, so we may not ever be pageant material if that’s what it takes. To be honest, I didn’t care for it at all, however my daughter really seemed to enjoy herself. She couldn’t wait to go out there and show off and didn’t even want me out there with her. So I can honestly say that some of the little girls may actually enjoy doing the pageants.
    I firmly believe that the day you find yourself spray tanning your baby is the day you need to seriously check yourself, so we are in agreement there. Actually, the reason why I’m here is because I just had to show my mother the picture of the infant with all the makeup on!! I’m not entirely sure the infant really has makeup on as these photos are very manipulated and air brushed……….but even so it’s still rediculous and creepy. The baby is obviously much more beautiful in the “before” photo. I do agree with the idea that the glitz pageants sexualize small children.


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