Mannequins and Marionettes: the world of child beauty pageants

Glazed eyes, shiny lips, plump cheeks, nervous eyes. The bodies of these young girls are dressed in lace, glitter and Lycra, illuminated beneath lights that betray their age, their innocence. Mums laugh and say things like ‘good looks are key to a successful life’, as if their only speech ability is to reconfigure inspirational quotes from Facebook and make them more cringe worthy. Child beauty pageants have been criticised for years for sexualizing children. Why then, is it still acceptable to parade our offspring’s prepubescent bodies in outfits that reduce their identity to two choices: a mannequin or a prostitute?

Growing up as a young woman, it becomes apparent that our only assets in life are those that enhance our looks. We are taught that being beautiful is a quality viewed above intelligence, compassion, or creativity.  Disney princesses boast heart shaped faces, dewy skin and tiny waists, their passive demeanor regularly applauding misogynistic behaviour (Ariel being totally chill when prince Eric is game for marrying her when he hasn’t even heard her speak), so no wonder young girls are lured into the pretense of success that beauty pageants bring; the competition represents the ultimate success: to be the fairest of them all.

The Little Mermaid/Disney (1989)

And this dream is not solely associated with Evil Queens from Disney movies; it is worryingly becoming the status quo that a woman’s only ambitions are to be beautiful. Not to develop her talents, pursue her passions, implement her wisdom or inspire others, but to resemble a blow up sex doll for a short period of time and then be awarded with a $500 cheque.

Jealousy and resentment 

Not only is it unhealthy that young girls are being judged based solely on their appearance, but the idea of being in competition with their peers sets them up with the notion of other women being a threat; other women’s successes preventing their own. This develops into jealousy and resentment between women as it focuses on one rule: there can be one winner and one winner only. And whether or not you’ve been involved in beauty pageants growing up, this rule finds itself leaking into the professional lives of grown women being labeled ‘bitchy’ or ‘catty’ in the workplace because we have been brainwashed to believe that not all of us can be successful.

When it comes to success and ambition, one of the most striking things about Child Beauty Pageants is their obsessive incessant focus on young girls and female bodies. There is little to no mention of young boys involved in pageants, reinforcing the idea that sexualisation is reserved for females only, and males are set up to be successful and provided with opportunities regardless of their aesthetics.

Image: Facebook.com/Toddlers-and-Tiaras-Pageants

In a nutshell, the pageant world upholds the antiquated patriarchal belief that female bodies exist either to provide male pleasure or to reproduce, and the most harrowing element of this societal attitude is that it’s being taught to young girls from as early as aged five. This focus on an unobtainable body image for young girls is abusive, many child pageant stars developing eating disorders or mental health issues as a result. And not only do these pageants dismiss the involvement of boys, but they cater specifically to male pleasure, the male gaze; a gaze that not only reinforces the sexualisation of young girls and women, but deems it to be the norm. Therefore, male parents involved in pageants endorse these attitudes and behaviours because the system of oppression from which it stems (the patriarchy) benefits them, and female parents endorse these attitudes because they believe that the only way for their child to be truly successful is to be beautiful. Beauty pleases men, and after all isn’t it a man’s world? And so the cycle continues.

Education over discrimination

This is why I believe we should provide education to young children in schools, to teach them about intersectional feminism and its diverse history and to encourage an open dialogue in schools about issues regarding gender and discrimination. We must stamp out the ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘if he hits you, it means he likes you’ attitudes; they’re detrimental to the development of young boys and girls and encourage fixed gender roles whose limitations damage the psychology and self-esteem of both men and women.

Despite the popularity of pageants in the USA, it’s reassuring to see that there has been a significant amount of opposition to them recently, both Russia and France banned the pageants last year, and many media outlets have reported issues that have arisen for young girls as a result of the pressure put upon them by the competitions.  

Child beauty pageants are under fire for oversexualizing young girls.

Posted by ATTN: on Sunday, 20 March 2016

Ultimately, the concerns of child beauty pageants stem from patriarchal gender roles, and this is the underlying issue that navigates the treatment of women, women’s bodies, and young girls. These children are children, they are humans with thoughts and ideas and dreams that go beyond diamante tiaras and bad lip liner. And it’s about time that we taught them so.

Share your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter @KettleMag!