By Elissa Heller, Membership Specialist
When researching child beauty pageants for my college capstone project, I was surprised by some parents’ reasons for supporting the contests. I had only expected to encounter mothers who were living vicariously through their children and believed women’s bodies are more important than their brains, but a couple of parents provided reasons that somewhat made sense to me.
A parent interviewed for the Ms. Magazine article “A Two-Year-Old in False Eyelashes” in 1976 (yes, child pageants have been around this long) pointed out the social benefits his daughter had gained from pageants. The father, referred to under the pseudonym Dick Atkin, said, “My nine-year-old daughter Nancy was originally kind of shy. She has an opportunity to meet a lot of girls from other parts of the country at the contests. And one thing I have seen her learn is how to take not winning.”
Having once been a shy kid myself, I know how performing on a stage and making new friends can boost your confidence — for me, it was community theater. Atkin’s other point, learning how to handle losing, is another important skill to master in childhood. The other comment I encountered that surprised me appeared in A&E’s documentary “Baby Beauty Queens,” in which pageant mom TJ Ray talked about wanting her kids to enjoy their childhood. Ray grew up in a foster home, and she said, “I don’t want my kids to say, ‘Well my mom was never there.’ I want them to say that my childhood was actually fun and they enjoyed being a kid.”
At the heart of it, these parents wanted their children to be confident, strong, and happy. It’s the method they took that I find completely misguided.
Atkin went on to say about child pageants, “Boys learn [how to take not winning] in athletics. I think that it is important to have that kind of poise both in girls and boys.” True, but girls and boys will never feel equal if they are learning the same skills in a segregated environment. Although many more girls play sports today than they did in the ’70s, child pageants are still dominated by girls who are learning that their main goal as females should be to become beautiful. In response to Ray’s comment, there are better ways to give a child a good time than entering her in a pageant. After all, pageants are competitions, so any child past infancy is surely going to worry about winning and feel ashamed and disappointed if she doesn’t.
Ultimately, pageants teach girls that appearance and getting everyone to like you is of the utmost importance. Bodies must look a certain way, even if that means getting a fake tan or wearing false teeth, both of which you can see on “Toddlers & Tiaras.”
Experiences for children that are truly fun are ones in which every child feels welcome to participate regardless of what she or he looks like. Girls and boys need to be able to play and learn lessons together so they can see that they are not so different from each other. Childhood should be a fun and educational time, not one where girls struggle to fit sexist ideals.