Just Say 'Non!' to Child Beauty Pageants

We're already sexualizing our little ones with strident messages from their (barely) elders, sort of the top(less) down. France now wants to stop the process from the bottom up.
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(PHOTO: ALAN BAILEY/SHUTTERSTOCK)

(PHOTO: ALAN BAILEY/SHUTTERSTOCK)

While the legislation still must make it through the National Assembly, France looks to be set to ban beauty pageants for kids under age 16, arguing that the events “hyper-sexualize” their contestants.

The potential penalties for putting on a “Mini Miss” pageant are stiff—jail time and a fine up to 30,000 Euros—but the move was predictable following a widely publicized parliamentary report last year that described pageants, advertising, and clothing marketing as treating young girls as “sexual candy.” Besides a ban on pageants, author Chantal Jouanno called for ending sales of make-up and provocative clothing—padded bras for eight-year-olds, thong underwear—to the young and for stopping fashion magazines from using models under age 16.

As Jouanno told the French newspaper Le Figaro:

This phenomenon is a real concern for society. Today, children are building their identities amid a regression of sexual equality and on the return of stereotypes contained in music clips, games, reality television programs. The danger is not only individual but collective.

It’s a matter of opinion, I suppose, but child beauty pageants are kind of creepy. Years ago I had a friend who pushed her daughter through a series of pageants. Eye of the beholder and all, but her daughter didn’t strike me as a particularly adorable or talented tyke. Still, as long as mom and dad could foot the increasing costs to advance through the pageant hierarchy, their cupcake kept rising. The costumes the kids wore were outré for tots, but I glossed over that at the time, more focused on seeing the industry exploiting the parents than their progeny. Then came the JonBenét Ramsey murder case in 1996, when images of the dolled-up six-year-old victim flouncing across pageant stages paraded constantly on cable TV news eventually turned my stomach. Her mysterious death was an object lesson (or perhaps lesson in objectification) in what University of South Australia’s Philip Darbyshire dubbed “the perils of precocity.”

In Little Miss Sunshine, the 2006 comedy that made out pageants as more cruddy than creepy, a key scene features our seven-year-old hero doing a strip routine to Rick James’ “Super Freak.” The point was satirical, but the incident believable both a decade after Ramsey’s killing and today.

Education professor and cultural critic Henry A. Giroux, writing at Truth-Out.org three years ago, cited this sanctioned salaciousness as an unfortunate public trait:

[The Ramsey furor] opened to public scrutiny another high-profile example of a child succeeding at the make-believe game of becoming an adult, but in terms that made visible a dark and seamy element in the culture -- one that seemed to belie the assumption that the voyeuristic fascination with the sexualized child was confined to the margins of society, inhabited largely by freaks, pedophiles and psychopaths. ... Whereas the blame for the often-violent consequences associated with this eroticized costuming has been usually placed on young women, the JonBenet Ramsey affair made it difficult to blame kids for this type of objectification and commodification.

To see a caricature of this sexualization of childhood in action, look no further (as if you could avoid it) than the Miley Cyrus saga, where the metamorphosis from wholesome if yet still objectified Hannah Montana all the way to fully sexualized "Wrecking Ball" is currently playing out. (“If you look at my eyes,” she said of her unclothed ride in the video, “I look more sad than actually my voice sounds on the record.” A record number of viewers have the opportunity to take her up on the offer, but it’s an open question whether they’ll switch back to her eyes once her breasts are in play.) Even without reaching Lohan-esque extremes, “Wrecking Ball” cuts a familiar arc of pretty-enough child star putting full stop to her childish image with a sexualized exclamation point.

Roughly midswing in Cyrus’ career transition was a “pole dance” performance at the 2009 Teen Choice Awards. Cyrus was clothed if skanky in the bit; she was also 16. "She's sending this message that this is OK to do, and I don't think it is OK to do," child psychologist Wendi Fischer commented to Newsday at the time. "Miley's only 16. Why is she rushing it?" Three psychologists at the University of Massachusetts—Sharon Lamb, Kelly Graling, and Emily E. Wheeler—examined reactions to that event in a January paper, "'Pole'-arized Discourse," appearing in the journal Feminism  & Psychology. They suggest that Miley’s gyrations, among other cultural mileposts, amplify the message of overt sexualization that’s being established via, ohh, beauty pageants:

The argument around child sexualization is that the culture is becoming so sexualized, and commodification of sexuality so rampant, that it spills downwards to younger and younger children who are not only commodified and sexualized but given the tools to self-sexualize at too young an age.

Commodified is perhaps the most important word in that excerpt. To quote from a 2007 paper by Darbyshire that also works in the cascade metaphor:

The corporations and advertisers know that the ‘tweenies’ or ‘tweenage’ market is one of the fastest growing and profitable market sectors, and they also know that it is impossible to capitalize on this market by selling the fashion and cultural equivalents of ‘sensible shoes’. Sex sells, even to five-year-olds. Kate and Ashley Olsen are not famous by virtue of unique talent, but because they could deliver a generation of pre-teens with disposable income – and parents who cannot bear the thought of their little treasure’s disappointment at not having everything that they want – into the waiting arms of the corporate world.

Just as it has become something of a social faux-pas to suggest that children and adults are different and that perhaps their worlds should be so, it seems quaint and old-fashioned (if not actually demeaning) to think that there should be what [David] Elkind calls ‘societal markers’ between younger children and adolescents. ... Just as the markers between adolescence and adulthood have disappeared (the cringeworthy, ‘My son/daughter is my best friend’ syndrome), so the ripples spread downstream.

What about pageants, though? With an estimated 250,000 participants in the U.S., are they genuinely one of the “real concerns for society,” or just fodder for tsk-tsk’ing? We’ll let a sentence from a thorough 2010 report from the American Psychological Association Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls answer that:

Although relatively few girls actually participate in such pageants, they have become a topic of interest in the news, documentaries, and advertising, in particular regarding whether this precocious sexualization is problematic for these or other girls. In this way, the participation of a few may in fact contribute to the sexualization of many.

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