Over the weekend I was contacted by the group Australians Against Child Beauty Pageants. I have been reading about their protests of a child beauty pageant that will be held in Melbourne in July for a few weeks now.
Basically a US pageant system, Universal Royalty (which I write a bit more about below), is hosting a pageant and bringing over Eden Wood, who has been featured several times on Toddlers & Tiaras (her mom thinks of her as a star in the child beauty pageant world-- I've written about her before here). A group of Australians, upset over this development, have formed a protest group that is circulating an online petition and planning a rally. Others have have counter-organized, supporting the pageants in Australia, and Eden Wood.
[After watching Kate Gosselin and her eight in Australia for the past two weeks on TLC, I can't help but wonder if the producers of these popular TLC reality shows featuring kids have some sort of relationship with/affinity for Australia?! Don't get be wrong, Australia is definitely on my bucket list of places I must see in my lifetime, but it seems like a strange publicity coincidence.]
One of the organizations members sent me a thoughtful email, which you can read by clicking HERE. Below is part of my response. Note that I can't say if Australia should or should not allow this event to be held, but I do not believe that by US law child beauty pageants are illegal or child abuse. Do people do things around child beauty pageants that could be considered illegal and or/child abuse? Sure. But I've seen the same things around soccer clubs and chess tournaments.
Thanks for contacting me and asking the questions you ask. I really appreciate you pointing out that it is difficult to discern my exact stance on child beauty pageants! When I was doing this research as an academic I went out of my way to be objective. The purpose of my academic work on child beauty pageants was not to judge, but to really try to understand how and why people get started with child beauty pageants. In this message I want to share some research with you, and also offer (part of) my opinion on child beauty pageants.
Essentially, Eden Wood's manager is correct. We do not have good data on the long-term effects of participation in child beauty pageants. This is also true for many childhood activities, like football, gymnastics, soccer, chess, dance, etc! The main problem, which I have written about a bit before
, is that it is very difficult to get truly randomized experiments involving children, so it is then very difficult to figure out what the selection effects are and the omitted variables (essentially, we don't know if someone who participates in child beauty pageants might have lower self-esteem as an adult because they had lower self-esteem going into the pageants, perhaps because of an overbearing mother, so the cause and effect are all mixed up). Child beauty pageants are particularly tricky when it comes to "research" for another reason-- we simply don't know what the full population of all participants in child beauty pageants looks like. You can go to a pageant and talk to all of the contestants and their families, but you are really only talking to people who participate in that pageant. Because child beauty pageants don't have a national organization that regulates the events, or keeps track of participants, we don't know how many families participate, what they look like, etc. This also makes it near to impossible to track participants over time.
That being said, I know of one piece of peer-reviewed academic research that looks at the long-term effects of participation in child beauty pageants. This 2005 article in Eating Disorders
finds that a small sample of women seem to have higher body dissatisfaction in young adulthood, but not more serious problems like eating disorders and depression. This result does not surprise me as I believe child beauty pageants can be problematic, but that they also can have positive effects on children.
What might those positive effects be? I think the biggest one is learning how to be confident in front of an audience. When children start young, they never learn to be nervous. While many moms do have aspirations that their daughters will end up as entertainers (about half of those in my sample who had ambitions announced at a pageant), this skill can also apply to other careers. One mom told me, "No matter what profession or role my child chooses she will more than likely, at some point, need to be able to speak and conduct herself confidently in front of others – whether it be on the PTA, as a stay-at-home mom, or in front of a Board of Directors of a large corporation." Another mom explained, "Having done [pageants] as a child, you get the feeling that the audience is not the bad guy. They are your friend." I believe that some children will never take to being in front of a crowd, but for many others participation in activities like child beauty pageants can help they overcome shyness and help develop skills that can help later in life.
Now, do you need to wear fake teeth (aka "flippers"), hair extensions, and false eyelashes to do this? No. Are there potential negative effects in wearing them? Yes. Do we know for sure? No. However, based on what we know about psychological development I can suggest two potential problems. The first to think about is: what happens when a child (especially a young one) looks in the mirror and doesn't recognize herself? This could be confusing, and even psychologically traumatizing. Second, and a related point: what happens when a girl is constantly told how beautiful she is when she is wearing make-up, sporting a fake tan, hair and clothes done to the nines? When she does not wear those things, even if she is told that she is pretty, does she really believe this? Is it possible to believe "natural" beauty is acceptable when you win a prize for enhanced beauty? And, of course, there are potential physical consequences to using make-up, hair products, fake-tans, etc. at a young age.
I want to emphasize an important point. Despite tears (which you will always see if you are around kids this age), child beauty pageants can be fun. It can be fun to get "all dolled up" for some kids. It can be fun to make new friends from different parts of your state and the country. In the US one of the biggest parts of most child beauty pageants is getting to go swimming in the hotel pool. The girls are often more excited about swimming in January with their friends than doing the pageant. But if you only watch television shows about child beauty pageants, instead of attending, you would miss this. Plus, the pageants the shows focus on are, not surprisingly, the most extreme. I call these high glitz pageants, but there are also hobby glitz and natural pageants. Not all child beauty pageants are created equally.
Of course, like most things in life, anything taken to an extreme is bad. I have met wonderful people who are involved with child beauty pageants and I have met some pretty nasty people. It is usually the moms who cause problems, not the kids, and that often takes place on the Internet after an event (also something only glossed over in most of the recent child pageant shows).
Now, as for child beauty pageants coming to Australia it's worth pointing out that, historically, the precursors to child beauty pageants were exported to the US from the UK back in the 19th century. So blame your fellow Commonwealth country! :-) No question though that since the mid-twentieth century the home of child beauty pageants has been the US. And, clearly, Universal Royalty is a US-based pageant. I have never been to a Universal Royalty event, but I can say that even before the TLC series Toddlers & Tiaras,
Universal Royalty's director went out of her way to be featured in the media. One example is an old A&E series called The Competition,
which featured an Austin, Texas pageant in 2001. I mention this because I believe that while Universal Royalty isn't the "glitziest" on the pageant circuit, it does have a media focus that many others don't. I'm guessing your group might feel a little bit different if it was a more natural, and low-key, pageant system like Cinderella
, proposing an event in Australia?