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Susan Cody: Child Beauty Pageants - Choice or Chattel?

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The words "child beauty pageant" sound to me like the words "you're on a vegetarian diet" would sound to Hannibal Lecter.

There have been a few documentaries about these pageants and they are disturbing. I'm not talking about the so-called "natural" pageants where the children wear 'minimal makeup' and have natural hair, although I'm not a fan of those either. I'm talking about the popular ones, the ones that most of the kids are entered into. I'm talking about the 'real' beauty pageants for children that have mothers north and south, vying for their future Miss America to win Miss Grande Belle or Miss Queen of Elegance or [insert any old Trite Title Here]. Not only do the toddlers wear more makeup than Tammy Faye (bless) but they have a swimsuit competition in the pageant. 4 year old girls in bikinis! And then you see the judges - middle aged to older women and men. I have questions - What exactly are these older men judging? How they fill out their bikini? Who offered them the job? And why did they take said job?

The mothers. The ones running these things are primarily the mothers (although the fathers are often just as proud of their princesses). These overly competitive ladies, living vicariously through their little ones, pushing their sons aside (no sense in wasting time with a kid who doesn't wear mascara, right?) and yelling at the child when she is tired, telling her that coming in second doesn't count and warning her to suck in her belly when she is in her swimsuit and her $500 formal gown. Incidentally, that was what my wedding dress cost. Like me, most of these kids will only wear it once. Their photos and head shots are airbrushed so much they almost look like cartoons. Unrecognizable from the fresh-faced, freckled cuties they are in real life.

Websites boast that winning these pageants will give the girl the "recognition she deserves." I would have thought that a hug from her parents and a gold star from her teacher would have done that. We want our daughters getting recognition for their kindness, their efforts and hard work, and for their sportsmanship and artistic endeavors. Not from being thin in a swimsuit and nervously wailing "Summertime" while Mom mouths the words of the song from the back of the audience.

The entrance fees are enough to feed a family for a week and the prize money is often far less than the cost of entry with costumes.

So then what's the point of these events? The point is that Mom wants to win. Which means her daughter has to win. And these Moms get what they want.

It scares me. I have two girls, ages 2 and 1. The thought of parading them out in swimsuits horrifies me. The thought of their 4 year old brother watching me do it is equally horrifying. Not to mention the hairspray, the hair extensions and the false teeth. The false teeth that their moms swear are necessary. Well, of course! Wouldn't the whole room just keel over and die if a 6 year old had a gap in her gums...

The spray tans are done a couple of days in advance so that it has time to settle. The girls need to look bronzed in their swimsuits and evening wear.
It just wouldn't be right for a Caucasian four year old to look, well, Caucasian. Or indeed, to look like a four year old.

HBO made a documentary several years ago called "Living Dolls - The Making of a Child Beauty Queen." It won an Emmy and is worth watching. VH1 also made a documentary called "Little Beauties: Ultimate Kiddie Queen Showdown". The title says enough.

The mothers were pretty open about their kids having to "shake it" on the runway.

We talk about how "other cultures" keep their women down, don't let them have rights and force them into a life of subservience.

I wonder how those "other cultures" would feel, watching us trot our 3 year olds out in bikini's and makeup, hair weaves and false teeth. With Mom to the side, mouthing at her to "work it, baby!" and "strut your stuff" as her baby wiggles her bottom and grins at the judge old enough to be her grandfather.

So how are we more advanced? How are we more caring and cultured and nurturing? How are we smarter?

In this context, we're not. Child beauty pageants are not something that most parents do. Most parents are against them. But there are enough parents in this business of baby beauty to make me a tad nervous. The parents that are involved are avowedly so. They swear blind that their child suggested entering the contest and that she is a natural and loves it - even though she first entered at 6 months old. Apparently the child is also outstandingly advanced for her age.

Mom insists she'd quit the whole thing if she even suspected that her kid wasn't happy. But when Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy, and her little Princess knows it.

And so she sucks in her gut, fixes her wig and makes sure her mascara isn't running. And it's off to the runway to show her mom that she's worth it.



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