Shrinking and Pinking: "Little" League Edition

The Little League World Series is upon us. While we will have to wait until August 28th to find out who the champions of the sandlot are this summer, the qualifying games are already in full swing. But "little leaguers" have been busy all summer, participating in a variety of sporting activities around the globe. 1. Eight-year-old "Princess" Jasmine Parr faced a shrinking and pinking backlash after a June kickboxing fight against Georgina "Punchout" Barton.  The seven- and eight-year-olds duked it out in Australia, where their fight was ruled a draw.  They kicked and hit one another in front of nearly 500, some of whom gave them cash tips.  Girls and competitive activities have created quite a furor in Australia this summer (see some of my coverage of this summer's child beauty pageant conflict in Australia). What's interesting is that many of the complaints between the two activities are similar-- claims of child abuse, along with concerns about physical and emotional harm (although the immediate physical danger of potential brain injury is clearly far greater in a kickboxing match).  In both cases calls for government investigation and intervention were made; and, in both cases, the parents of the involved girls defended their decisions citing the child's enjoyment and preparation for the realities of life.

What's interesting to me is that I think there would have been an issue whether it was girls or boys participating in child beauty pageants in Australian. I'm not so sure the reaction would have been so similar if this was a bout between seven- and eight-year-old boys.  Of course, many would have been appalled, but I don't think the reaction would have been as strong as young girls fighting, because "Princess" and "Punchout" trangress gender norms in a very different way than Eden Wood (child beauty pageants can be said to over-emphasize femininity).

Australia seems to be at the forefront of confronting issues of competitive childhoods. Many Aussie parents seem to be moving in a more "American-style" direction with structured childhoods, while others resist it. Case in point: I've been fascinated for some time that Peggy Liddick was brought to Australia from the US to run their women's artistic gymnastics program (Liddick had coached World Champion and Olympian Shannon Miller, among others).  The US has famously made us of coaches from the former USSR, but now American coaches are being exported to help jumpstart aspiring programs. Will Australia tend to follow in competitive parenting traditions of the US, or establish her own patterns?

2. In an example of how even the most quotidian childhood game can turn competitive, look no further than reigning queen and king "mibsters" Bailey Narr and Brandon Matchett. After seeing their accomplishment written up in the August 8th Sports Illustrated, as part of "Faces in the Crowd," I had to look up the National Marbles Tournament. I discovered that those who are serious about competitive marbles are called "mibsters" and that these eleven- and twelve-year-old members of marbles royalty each won $2000 scholarships.  The National Marbles Tournament has been held since 1922-- a time when many other competitive children's activities also got their start (like the National Spelling Bee, for example).  Yet more evidence that the American tradition of transforming children's games into serious, money-making endeavors is nothing new.

3. It is Little League Baseball which has, arguably, most successfully transformed a youthful, summertime pastime into a highly competitive and lucrative enterprise.  The Little League World Series  (LLWS) is evidence of the spread of American-style youth competition across the globe. And it seems that the World Series does help identify future Major Leaguers. As a recent piece in the current SI Kids shows, professional athletes often get their first taste of high-stakes competition in Williamsport, including current Major Leaguers Jason Varitek (Red Sox catcher, LLWS 1984) and Colby Rasmus (Cardinals centerfielder, LLWS 1999).  Most interesting is that Chris Drury played in the 1989 LLWS-- helping lead his US championship team from Connecticut to victory.  Drury pitched and hit in the Series. Yet Drury is now a star in the NHL, playing center for the Rangers.  Drury's success just goes to show that young athletes don't have to specialize so young.  They can, and should, pursue multiple sports and activities in childhood-- including kickboxing and marbles, of course.

Glitz and Drama Down Under (on The Huffington Post Style)

The tension has been building for months -- the online protests started in April, and then there were the rallies in May. Not to mention the Facebook threats and numerous complaints to public officials. Despite all the brouhaha, an "American-style" child beauty pageant sponsored by Texas-based Universal Royalty took place over the weekend in Melbourne, Australia. About 80 girls competed and 200 people attended the pageant. The event was not open to the general public, but it was covered by Australia's A Current Affair. All in all it seems the event was a success.

The pageant was not drama-free though. But it wasn't the protesters, demonstrating about 3 km away, who caused a fuss. Rather it was Eden Wood, the "child beauty pageant star" from the U.S. who had traveled to Australia to meet her fans and help promote the event.

Eden Wood was a no-show over the weekend.


ETA: I was contacted by Heather Ryan, Eden Wood's manager, about my story. I wanted to present her perspective-- some of which, but not all of which, has been presented in other media accounts.  A correspondent for the rival TV show to A Current Affair, Today Tonight, which covered the "Wood family entourage," has offered his own version of how the events of last weekend went down. You can read his account by clicking HERE; his account has been endorsed by Heather Ryan.

Two weeks ago today...

My husband and I moved into our first home. Very exciting, but moving is such a drag-- and it kept me away from blogging. But I'm back now, with lots to say!

Also two weeks ago today, on May 24th, Australian child beauty pageant opponents, and some supporters, held rallies across the country.  These protests were organized in response to Texas-based Universal Royalty organizing an "American-style" child beauty pageant to be held in Melbourne next month (I've written more about this here).  Although several protests were held in capitol cities, and the press covered the events, my sense is that they were not received as well as organizers had hoped.

The goal of the opposition is to actually get child beauty pageants deemed illegal in Australia.  Or to at least institute a minimum age requirement (like 6-years-old instead of 6-weeks-old). Without an overwhelming turnout at the rallies, and for other legal reasons like the privacy of the family, Australian lawmakers have offered a lukewarm reaction.  It seems unlikely that such legislation will pass, at least at the moment.

Another issue is that the story has somewhat morphed-- if not into a pro-pageants stance, then into a sympathetic angle for some pageant mums. Why? All the opposition and press coverage led to some mothers receiving death threats. For example, this story details the hate mail one mother received.

At the same time, as has happened with child beauty pageants before, all the attention actually helps the business end of the enterprise. Now, not only will pageants be organized in Australia, but now events will also take place in New Zealand. All press is good press, right?  Increased media coverage of the UK pageant circuit also seems to be heating up-- and at least one contestant entered due to all the press interest (I have some thoughts on a journalist mother entering her daughter in a child beauty pageant for research purposes-- none of which are positive).

While the press has eaten the story up, and lawmakers have seemingly ignored it, another group of professionals has weighed in-- the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists. On the day of the rallies the professional organization released a statement saying child beauty pageants are detrimental to children's mental health. I don't necessarily disagree with many of their sentiments, but as I've explained before we simply don't have the data to back-up statements like, "The mental health and developmental consequences of this are significant and impact on identity, self esteem, and body perception." To be considered medical research, and worthy of publication in peer-reviewed journals, more work must be done.

That said, comments made by Dr. Phillip Brock, Chair of the Faculty of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, in this newspaper article deserve further thought and clarification.  Dr. Brock states his opinion on child beauty pageant headshots, like those I show below: "That is a photograph that can be interpreted as alluring and appealing to the sexual instincts of the observer, and if that observer is an adult then it's voyeuristic."

Pageant photographers use a technique known as "airbrushing" to achieve the glassy, wide-eyed look in the eyes, the perfect lips, and the flawless skin.  You can see a proof before airbrushing, and then the final product, at this website: 

What is the purpose of airbrushing? Besides trying to create a particular "pageant look," I have to agree with Dr. Brock that these changes are ones that are purely sexual.  When I say sexual I mean that certain biological triggers cue a response that is hardwired into our brains. As I've mentioned before, The Survival of the Prettiest by Dr. Nancy Etcoff has a good explanation of some of these, as do books by historians Lois Banner and Kathy Peiss on the history and development of make-up and beauty culture in the US.

What are these sexual triggers? First, the eyes. Wide eyes, with long lashes, are a sign of sexual arousal, which signals a healthy partner for mating.  Some have called retouched eyes in pageant pictures "spider eyes," which doesn't sound very sexy to me, but they are. Similarly, darkened lips and cheeks are signs of arousal as well-- and the lips and cheeks are always colored in these retouched images.

As a sociologist I don't think all things at child beauty pageants are sexually hardwired (for example, many criticize girls blowing kisses as sexual, and I believe such an action totally needs to be interpreted in its social context-- which is NOT sexual, but rather seen as cute and precocious at child beauty pageants).  However, when it comes to these pictures, it's hard to disagree with the science.

In any case, the child beauty pageants steam ahead in Australia, and in the US, as Toddlers & Tiaras returns to TLC on June 15th. Believe me, my DVR is set. Is yours?

The Evolution of American-Style Child Beauty Pageants

This piece originally appeared on The Huffington Post on May 10, 2011.

The Australian press and public have reacted strongly to plans to hold an "American-style" child beauty pageant in Australia this summer. Since I wrote a summary and a response to the "Australians Against Child Beauty Pageants" situation, the media attention has increased. Last weekend numerous articles appeared about this issue in Australia's newspapers. Now some in Ireland have raised concerns about having an "American-style" Miss Princess Ireland pageant. [Note added: This pageant in Ireland recently took place without a hitch, and reportedly more pageants are being organized for the near future.]

What are the historical roots of these "American-style" child beauty pageants? Having studied these events for over a decade, first as an undergraduate and now as a professional sociologist, I can offer some insights. Somewhat ironically, the first event that would evolve into an "American style" child beauty pageant actually started in a Commonwealth country.

A British art critic and historian named John Ruskin got the idea to hold a springtime festival for young girls, honoring their girlish innocence (Ruskin was actually rumored to be a pedophile...). Ruskin called his events May Queen festivals, since one girl would be selected queen, the "likeablest and loveablest" of all the maidens. The first of these festivals was held in England in 1881 and they quickly spread to North America, where they found a strong reception in the United States.

These competitive festivals soon developed into more systematic baby competitions -- baby parades and better baby contests -- which rewarded children for their looks and their costumes. The historic Asbury Park baby parade was arguably the most famous of the baby parades and contests that started at the turn of the twentieth century. It was the first baby parade ever held on the East Coast and in its heyday, in 1893, it drew 30,000 spectators. It was so popular that Thomas Edison made one of his first movies of the event, on September 12, 1904.

The fame of the Asbury Park Baby Parade set off a string of imitators in Hoboken, Jersey City, Newark, Long Island, and, of course, Coney Island. Coney Island started its famous baby parade in 1906. The Coney Island baby parade had 1200 participants in its first year, 600 of whom competed for the title of "most beautiful baby."

Coney Island's parade continued to thrive into the 1920s. The 1923 and 1928 events boasted around 400 entrants who won in a variety of get-ups. A three-year-old girl won in a harem costume, a two-year-old won as a "Vanity Girl," and a six-year-old won dressed like a "Show Girl." Clearly, children dressing up like sexual adults started long before the twenty-first century. And in spite of, or perhaps because of, these little nymphs, audiences turned out in large numbers. The New York Times reported that the 1929 Coney Island Baby Parade had 500,000 spectators.

Click HERE to keep reading!

Brains vs. Beauty: Considering Kids' Participation in Beauty Pageants, Chess, and Football

In response to yesterday's post on child beauty pageants in Australia (or not) I received a variety of thoughtful comments. One of them was from The Family Factor who wrote, 
So what happens to the girls' views of the audience when they realize the[y] did not cut it? The idea that outward appearance is what gives you the edge in life is further entrenched and each time the girls become more self-conscious about what the audience is feeling about them compared to someone 'prettier'. To me this creates further insecurity rather than confidence.
Collett's point is a very important one.  We enroll kids in activities that are meant to be fun, educational, and constructive.  But what happens when the kids just can't cut it and aren't "good enough?"

When I was studying elementary school kids who play scholastic chess I confronted this question directly.  The following exchange is from an interview with a first-grade boy who played in local chess tournaments:

Hilary: Do you want to play at a really big tournament someday, like the Nationals?
Jun: Not really.
Hilary: Why not?
Jun: Well, because, I'm thinking that Nationals are good, right? And smart. So, right now, I'm not smart enough... I just feel it.

I was concerned by Jun's reaction and asked one of the chess coaches if this is a usual response (especially because Jun in fact was a talented chess player and a smart kid).  The coach told me, "Of course when you start losing then you ask yourself questions. Why do I lose? Maybe I am not smart." Because chess is a mental game, when you fail, you worry that you are simply not smart enough to participate and succeed.  
Parents were also aware of this issue. A chess mom told me she worried this notion could really damage her third-grade daughter's self-esteem, and in the process push her away from math and science. She explained, "Unlike soccer or baseball or a team sport, it’s just you [in chess]. You can’t blame it on a teammate...It’s your brain.  I think it could be a very weird thing and potentially devastating to say that my mind wasn’t working well."
Even though we celebrate athletic talent in our society, the brain still reigns supreme. I believe this is part of the reason why concussions have been the focus of so much media attention (which I've discussed before here). An ACL tear can heal, as can a broken bone. But a broken brain? That's something else entirely.  Should we risk long-term damage to the brain for fleeting athletic glory?
This one was one of many great questions raised in last night's Frontline documentary called Football High. The episode focused on Shiloh, a small, private, Christian high school in Arkansas that has rocketed to the top of national high school (American style) football rankings. In telling Shiloh's story the producers  illuminated important questions about the current state of youth sports: the rise of private coaches, the professionalization of high school sports on television, the use of elaborate ranking systems for middle school and high school players, and the recruitment of collegiate players younger than ever. What does all this mean? High school athletes spend more hours in practice than NCAA athletes, with basically no regulation and often under the supervision of adults who aren't properly trained to care for their health. The consequence? More injuries, like heat stroke and concussions.  We hear about the tragic stories of Tyler Davenport, a high school football player who died of heat stroke this past fall following a football practice, and Owen Thomas, a football captain at University of Pennsylvania who had signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in his brain after he committed suicide last spring.  When they were told to push themselves harder, to be "good enough," they did.

Given what I study people often ask me what activities I will enroll my own kids in someday, when I have them. I can say with 95% certainty that if I have a son, I would not let him play football, especially if the game and its safety standards don't change.  It's just too risky to the brain and future development.

Which brings me back to beauty pageants and the question raised by The Family Factor.  The truth is that I am also 95% sure that if I have a daughter I wouldn't let her participate in a beauty pageant (too much family history, given that my mother was Miss America 1970).  However, in terms of damage to the brain (both physical and psychological), I don't see how beauty pageants are much worse than football.

In fact, on the point of sending girls a negative message about not being "pretty enough," I'd like to raise two points essentially in defense of pageants.  First of all it would be nice to think we live in a society where looks and appearances don't matter.  Many people work to change the fact that looks, especially women's looks, are so consequential, and this is definitely a worthy enterprise.  But the fact is, for both men and women, how you look matters-- if you think how much you earn matters or who your partner is matters (I say this in seriousness as some people value different things, like happiness, which is not always related to income or romantic partnerships).  As a sociologist I believe standards of beauty are partly determined by our society; but I also believe that some of this is biological.  For a great discussion of these issues check out Nancy Etcof's Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of BeautyWe know from numerous studies by economists and psychologists that taller, and better-looking people are paid more and people are nicer to them. I'm not saying this is right, but it is the way it is.  That parents want to advantage their kids-- in this case mainly their daughters-- by emphasizing how to look their best starting at a young age is then not irrational.  Of course, spending thousands and thousands of dollars to teach that lesson is not so rational-- and girls could learn how to improve their appearance in various ways from other activities that aren't beauty pageants.

In terms of concerns about girls' self-perception, I think this is a serious issue around pageants, as I wrote about yesterday. However, somewhat paradoxically, when it comes to concerns about not being "pretty enough," I worry about this the most when it comes to natural pageants. In natural pageants a girl wears no make-up, doesn't wear super fancy dresses with lots of rhinestones, etc. Often at natural pageants girls walk on stage and model a bit, but the routines are not at all elaborate. At glitz pageants, by contrast, "total package" competitors do best. It doesn't matter if you aren't the most "facially beautiful," using only what you were born with.  Instead, you can work to "enhance" that beauty.  On top of that, and more important here, you can work to become a good model, practicing choreographed routines, and working on specific skills for the routines like triple turns.  In other words, girls can learn the value of practice and hard work from glitz pageants, rather than just coasting on natural good looks like in some natural pageants.

Given that I am a person who lives more of an intellectual life, I likely will teach my children how to play chess. I don't know if they will ever play in a chess tournament because I don't know if they will be any good. Of course, they can always get better through hard work and practice.  But some kids are just better suited to different activities with different skill sets. I'm determined to find out what my children enjoy and what they can be best at by exposing them to various activities (I intend to parent using my "childhood is a buffet" metaphor-- though football and beauty pageants won't be on my child's spread). I believe everyone has something they are good at, where they can "cut it," and it's our job as parents to help them discover their passion and what that might be-- whether it be chess, football, beauty pageants, or any other number of other endeavors like music and art.

What sorts of activities are off limit for your kids and why?