It's Wednesday-- one of my favorite TV nights. But, alas, no new episode of Toddlers & Tiaras tonight. This post is in honor of the conclusion of the third season of the TLC hit.
Everyone who has been making money off of child beauty pageants, like TLC, owes a huge debt of gratitude to JonBenét Ramsey. As morbid as it sounds, without her tragic death, it's unlikely the media coverage would have exploded the way it has over the past decade. I've often said that if JonBenét had been a competitive cheerleader, cheer would have been vilified for many of the same reasons-- its hyper-sexualization and focus on physical appearance/beauty. (Check out this interesting piece on young girls who do competitive cheer that ESPN The Magazine ran last month. A coach is quoted: "For parents who wouldn't want their daughter to do a very unisex sport and miss out on the girliness of other activities, like pageants, this is a good balance.") Ditto for baton twirling, rhythmic gymnastics, and the like.
But JonBenét did do pageants, so when the talented Peggy Orenstein decided to take on today's princess-industrial complex, she naturally turned to the much-maligned activity. In her latest bestseller, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Orenstein visited a child beauty pageant with Taralyn Eschberger, a two-time star of Toddlers & Tiaras (if you want to follow Taralyn's pageant career, you can via Twitter or Facebook). While Orenstein only described her attendance at a particular pageant, she presents a more nuanced view of the participants' families and her own reactions than any other account I've read-- consistent with some of my own work and writing on pageants.
I consider myself a child beauty pageant expert because: 1) I've attended 19 child beauty pageants and formally interviewed over 40 pageant moms; 2) I've seen, and own, almost every child beauty pageant documentary made (one gap in my library is Little Miss Perfect, because I don't get We); and, 3) I grew up around the pageant world, though I never competed (Why? Click here and here for more info).
And, Orenstein gets it mostly right. (One notable exception-- on page 93 she says Taralyn stands with her feet in "third position." Any good child beauty pageant expert knows that is called "pretty feet!" Or, if you kick it old-school pageant style, "model stance." I know she would have picked up the lingo if she'd gone to other pageants!) She not only presents a more complete view of the Eschberger family, making visible her older brother who is developmentally disabled and clearly an important part of the family despite his invisibility in the TLC coverage, but Orenstein also shows how a mom can get "sucked into" this world. She writes that while at the pageant she couldn't help but think that her own daughter, Daisy, could do this. Orenstein also talks about being impressed by some of the contestants' ability to mimic their parents, which is quite developmentally mature given their ages. Being simultaneously attracted yet repulsed by the magnetic and complex world of child beauty pageants is normal if you spend longer than a few hours critiquing them on television. It's easy to forget that every contestant's family has a story-- though perhaps not as dramatic as the Eschbergers'-- and many of those familial tales are ignored or edited for effect for media consumption.
For this, and many other reasons (like it's funny, well-written, thoughtful, honest, and informative, using a lot of relevant social science research), you should check out Cinderella Ate My Daughter. You should also check out TLC's latest take on sometimes-disturbing parenting techniques, and princess culture. Tune in Mondays at 9:30 for the new series Outrageous Kid Parties (last week's Princess episode was truly over the top). I'm sure the backstories of many of these families are also complicated, but, let's face it, complicated doesn't always sell well on TV. We need writers to present the messier reality of growing up today.