Child Beauty Pageants

Protesters against child beauty pageants rally in Canberra.

Mention “child beauty pageants” in conversation, and you can expect some fairly polarised responses. Google it and you’ll be bombarded by images of heavily made-up young girls in glitter as well as a long list of angry stories and blogs.

Ever since Universal Royalty Beauty Pageants, the Texan outfit behind some of the attention-grabbing pageants featured in the addictive reality-television series Toddlers & Tiaras, announced it was coming to Australia, there’s been vigorous discussion about children’s beauty pageants in the media, in childcare car-parks and at dinner tables around the nation.

In May, a series of ‘Pull the Pin’ rallies protesting against children’s beauty pageants were held across the country, and many psychologists, feminists and even the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists have come out in vehement opposition to the shows.

Meanwhile, Australian mums are signing up their daughters, sons and even themselves (in the ‘Mrs Division’) to compete in the contest when the Universal Royalty show rolls into Melbourne on July 29 and 30. ›

Those in favour
It’s a difficult task finding anyone except the Australian organisers of the Universal Royalty pageant to come out in support of these events. It seems that for many, a major stumbling block (although there are many), is the use of the word ‘beauty’ in relation to kids.

But the Australian contact for the event, Kristin Kyle, who runs a children’s modelling agency in Melbourne, has signed up her
three daughters, aged three, nine and 12 years, to take part in the pageant. Though the competition is open to boys, too, her son has chosen not to enter.

“We are all very excited about it. As a mum, I would never let my children be involved in something that wasn’t a positive experience. I know this is going to be a fun opportunity for my girls,” Kristin says.

The US website promoting the Melbourne event also promises that it will be a great time for all. “We continue to be the leaders in maintaining pageants in a positive, fun-filled atmosphere and by encouraging positive self-confidence, education and striving to be your very best!” spruiks Universal Royalty.

Kristin admits she’s been shocked by the “nasty and unpleasant” backlash the pageant has received in Australia. “It’s been extreme and quite shocking the amount of hatred that’s come from the anti-pageant people,” she says.

“They’re basing their opinions purely on what they’ve seen on Toddlers & Tiaras. But that’s a reality show which had to show the more extreme side of pageants in the US so people would watch the program. The pageant in Melbourne will not be like that. It will have a distinctive Aussie flavour. I think if some of the people who are anti-pageants could see one before passing judgement, they would be surprised what a positive experience they actually are.”

Nastiness, protests and insults aside, it seems that the controversy has not completely hurt the pageant – at the time of writing, more than 100 contestants from around Australia had registered for the event.

Those against
The list of people and organisations opposed to glitzy children’s beauty pageants being held in Australia is long and loud. Catherine Manning, a mum of four and director of the children’s-rights advocacy group Say No 4 Kids, has mobilised nationwide protests and petitions against children’s beauty pageants by launching the Pull the Pin campaign.

“It’s one thing for little girls to play dress-ups… parading around the lounge room – but when adults come along and turn it into a fierce competition for money and prizes, complete with professional make-up artists, hairdressers and photographers, that’s just creepy and every kind of wrong,” she says in an article for Enlighten Education, which runs programs to help girls develop self-esteem and confidence.

“I don’t think it’s acceptable for parents to have girls as young as three years old coiffed, waxed and primped, then paraded in a competition against other little girls. Girls are already constantly bombarded with narrow beauty ideals in our culture,” she says, pointing to examples such as music video clips that tell littlies “they should look and behave like grown women”.

“We should be combatting the message society sends our children that they’re ‘not enough’ – not foisting beauty competition culture upon them.”

Expert opinions
Many psychologists and experts dealing with children’s mental health have also weighed in on the debate, with education consultant and parenting expert Kathy Walker describing the concept of child beauty pageants as “outrageous”.

“Anyone who pretends that this sort of thing builds confidence must be deluded. It perpetuates the myth that you have to have beauty and a good body shape to be a winner in life,” she says. “These young children are not able to make informed decisions to enter this competition – it is their parents. It is disempowering and gives [kids] a message that life is about competing against each other instead of developing their own sense of self and learning to like who they are – not what they look like.”

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists’ Faculty of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has also officially voiced its opinion, when chairman Dr Phillip Brock said that the pageant objectifies and judges children “against sexualised ideals”.

“[We] would like to emphasise the potential developmental harm that can be associated with the sexualisation of children and tweens.

Sexualisation is a process whereby a child’s value is based on their appearance or behaviour to the exclusion of other characteristics, and attractiveness as a child is equated with being sexy,” he says. “There are many healthy contexts for dressing up, parading, role rehearsal and participation in school performances… where children can act out their development in an age-appropriate manner.”

What’s a mum to do?
So many parenting issues are contentious, and the beauty-pageants debate is yet another to add to the list. In the end, it’s up to you
if you want to enter your child – or yourself – in any pageant or contest.

Clinical psychologist Andrew Fuller has one request for mums and dads considering taking part in a ‘glitz’ pageant, though: do your research.
“While I’m personally not a supporter of child beauty pageants, I understand some parents may want their children to take part. If possible, attend one first purely to observe. And make sure you read the rules and conditions of entry,” he advises.

For more on this issue, pick up a copy of this month's Practical Parenting, on sale now.

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