Sexualization in child beauty pageants
Sexualization occurs in child beauty pageants because the contestants compete for prizes and are judged on the way they look, their style, and how they act on stage, similar to the judgment criteria in adult beauty pageants. The way that the children look often detracts from their natural appearances due to heavy stage makeup and flashy attire, including false eyelashes, bright lipstick, and wigs or hair extensions.
Many parents attribute confidence-building as one of the reasons they enter their children in beauty pageants, but critics argue that the negative effects of beauty pageantry, including the over-sexualization of young children, outweigh any positive intentions.
There are several components to sexualization that set it apart from healthy sexuality. Sexualization occurs when a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics. A report by the American Psychological Association more specifically cites sexuality that is imposed on someone, rather than undertaken by choice, as evidence of sexualization. In the United States, legal adulthood and ability to give consent typically does not come until age 18, yet in child beauty pageants, the children's consenting parents permit them to participate, pay their entry fees, dress them, and train them to perform on stage in front of judges and an audience.
In preparation for these beauty pageants, children have their appearances altered by costumes, makeup, and other products to the point that they resemble dolls, which objectifies them at a very young age. The child perceives that sexuality is not only encouraged but can be a means to an end. The child pageant industry involves thousands of contestants and $5 billion a year in revenue, and television networks air in-demand shows like Toddlers & Tiaras and Little Miss Perfect. The viewership implies that many adults not only condone these activities but also the view of children as sexual objects.
Support for participation
Despite criticism of child beauty pageants, contestants' parents continue to argue for the positive impact these competitions have on their children's personal development. Supporters often cite self-confidence and poise as attributes that children learn during the pageant process, and still more defend pageants as being similar to other athletic, music, or educational programs. Since young girls like playing dress up and enjoy participating in beauty pageants, they argue, they are positive events. The Pageant Director for the Cities of America preliminary pageant system echoes these sentiments and argues that pageants are good for girls—they develop self-confidence by actively trying to be a part of something, they compete with others through a fair process, and they enjoy meeting others with similar interests. Being able to communicate and network with others is an important skill that children learn at a young age when participating in beauty pageants. Through pageants, children also learn how to communicate with adults.
One pageant mother insists that pageants have helped her daughter "gain poise, confidence, showmanship, discipline and grace." This may be true for some contestants, as the child's attitude typically derives from the parent. When the parents embrace a positive attitude, the children will follow. In these cases, pageants can teach children how to be gracious winners and good losers. They will learn the aspects of rules, and fair play. Thus, pageants teach children how to be calm, cool, and collected in front of crowds. Supporters believe participants learn tenacity when they fail and must move on, and they practice arduously trying to achieve something which proves even more valuable when they are successful.
From some child contestants' perspectives, pageants are fun and a way to make new friends, and they are able to feel good about their friends winning.
Criticism of sexualization in child pageants
One critic debunks these claims by questioning the age-appropriateness of these pageants, whether they achieve any positive outcomes or not. After all, playing dress-up does not result in one winner and many losers, and children may enjoy appeasing parents rather than the activity itself. A writer for the New York Times, criticized child beauty pageants because participants and viewers impose adulthood on children while still expecting them to radiate innocence.
As Vernon R. Wiehe, professor in the University of Kentucky College of Social Work, states, "sexualization occurs through little girls wearing adult women's clothing in diminutive sizes, the use of makeup which often is applied by makeup consultants, spray tanning the body, the dying of hair and the use of hair extensions, and assuming provocative postures more appropriate for adult models". Many view the child's appearance as obscene or inappropriate.
They are dressed in revealing clothes or evening gowns, and some children wear high heels. Children are in “Child Beauty Pageants” only because of their age. These children are judged along the same criteria as an adult pageant woman would be judged on. Stated by Laura Pappano, in a New York Times featuring child pageants, "beauty pageants in particular blur the lines between what is cute and what is sensual. "This is not about cutest baby contests, which most people would see as harmless enough, but rather about adult-like competitions featuring kids pretending to be sexy adults".
Carleton Kendrick, a family therapist out of Boston says, "At its core, [pageants are] teaching girls that the best thing [they] can do, and the most attention they can get is to view [themselves] as an assemblage of body parts. And that you will focus on drawing attention to those body parts sets them up for all manner of problems in their lives — self-esteem, eating disorders, relationships they enter into".
Consequences of child sexualization
In reports of children being sexually abused, research shows that the sexualization of children is a contributing factor to their abuse. Also, if the child is winning constantly in a competition that is based primarily on her looks, she is more likely to develop psychological issues later on in life.
"'Some critics contend that the child beauty pageant culture fails to acknowledge that "sexualized images of little girls may have dangerous implications in a world where 450,000 American children were reported as victims of sexual abuse in 1993."
As Lucia Grosaru states, in her Everyday Psychology article, “contests promote physical beauty as a main value, complimented of course by the “special talent” and “warm hearts”. A child, especially a female that is going to pay so much attention to her looks and that knows she is being assessed for it, is very prone to develop eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia”.
Hundreds and thousands of dollars are spent on costumes, cosmetics, and even beauty consultants. Some question what does, in fact, happen to a child's self-esteem if she loses the pageant after her parents have spent so much money on it.
Martina M. Cartwright, an adjunct professor of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Arizona, states in her article on child beauty pageants, “many experts agree that participation in activities that focus on physical appearance at an early age can influence teen and/or adult self-esteem, body image and self-worth. Issues with self-identity after a child "retires" from the pageant scene in her teens are not uncommon. Struggles with perfection, dieting, eating disorders and body image can take their toll in adulthood”. Mothers are usually involved in their child's participation in pageants, so there's a lot of information regarding their outlook on the contests. Social worker Mark Sichel believes that many mothers "push their daughters into pageants because of their own low self-esteem, or as compensation for a perceived lack of attention and admiration in their own lives". As a result of these mother's constant pushing, many of these young girls feel as if they let their mothers down by losing. To pull from a fathers point of view, an internet blog, "The Father Factor", has an interesting perspective on the topic of child beauty pageants. One father writes, "the mothers of the young pageant contestants all push their girls, some young as two, to emotional and physical limits. They parade the little girls around in makeup, big hairdos, and even bathing suits...I don’t see how a beauty pageant, especially at such young ages, promotes anything other than vanity." In France, after a 10-year old girl was featured on the cover of Vogue Paris in an inappropriate outfit- not fit for a child, lawmakers banned child beauty pageants all together.
So much effort and time goes into the preparation for a pageant. Children must constantly be practicing their routines, and creating their pageant look, so they have limited time to play. Through play itself, children develop skills they use the rest of their lives.
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