The untold truth of childhood beauty pageants

It's no secret that childhood beauty pageants are pretty controversial. From their link to devastating tragedies like the murder of JonBenet Ramsey to quintessentially "trash television" shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, pageants have given rise to serious questions regarding child exploitation — and the sometimes thin line between exploitation and harmless entertainment. 

One can certainly argue that child beauty pageantry is nothing more than a form of playing dress-up and having a good time. Yet, there does seem to be a difference between the good old-fashioned fun of putting on pearls, lipstick, and a sparkly dress and being made to dress like a "sexy" Las Vegas showgirl. Which begs the question: what is the actual truth behind the psychology of childhood beauty pageants, and how do they ultimately impact the development of young girls?

Read on to find out what some experts, some parents, and some former contestants think about the whole issue.

That controversial TV series

When the television series Toddlers and Tiaras premiered, it almost immediately became a major point of contention. The program's detractors accused its adult participants of a range of highly questionable behavior. 

Some of the show's most notable controversies included an instance when a 4-year-old, tasked with impersonating singer Dolly Parton, was padded with fake breasts and an ample rear end. Another little girl was dressed like Julia Roberts' famous prostitute character in a Pretty Woman-themed performance. Honey Boo Boo's mother Mama June Shannon was criticized for giving her daughter what became known as "pageant crack" — a combination of Mountain Dew and Red Bull. And one little girl "smoked" on stage during a number in which she was supposed to be a leather-clad Sandy in Grease — even though the "cigarette" in question was actually candy.

Think that sounds bad? Just wait…

Do pageants sexualize children?

According to some experts, many pageant performances do, in fact, have disturbingly sexual undertones. 

Of course, many little girls have loved Barbies and beautiful dolls, in general — and Shirley Temple started tap-dancing across stages long ago. All that's nothing new. But some argue that the concepts that the pageant circuit promotes are considerably less innocent.

Harvard sociologist Dr. Hilary Friedman gave an interview to the Deseret News in 2012, and, on the matter, said, "On (these) reality shows … people start to think that's OK, like an everyday occurrence … you can go out as a 6-year-old and wear a ton of makeup and have a bare midriff. So many see these girls on TV, and as they are watching that and when they see it become suggestive, it seems OK."

Again, that's a matter of opinion. But some things — like a small child wearing a gold cone-tipped bra — really do seem to be a bit much.

Some kids get Botox and other plastic surgery

Why would a child want to erase their "wrinkles?" It's a good question, and one that was answered by pageant mom Kerry Campbell in 2011, after she admitted to injecting her then-8-year-old daughter Britney with Botox.

According to ABC News, Campbell claimed that Britney herself had asked for the injections. In a televised interview with Good Morning America (via The Young Turks), young Britney stated, "I just, like, don't think wrinkles are nice on little girls." 

As ABC News described, the elder Campbell said, "They [the other pageant moms] were just telling me about the lines on her face, and how, you know, a lot of the moms are giving their kids Botox, and it's pretty much, like, a thing." She went on, "I'm not the only one that does it. A lot of moms do it."

That doesn't make us feel any better…

Child beauty pageants could be banned

Of course, the ethics of child beauty pageants are more than just an American issue. The French Senate voted to outlaw pageants for girls under age 16 in 2013. Other countries have considered taking similar measures, with Phillip Block, chairman of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, saying that he would support a ban in Australia because he doesn't believe that little girls should be judged on "sexualized ideals."

According to USA Today, sociologist and author Hilary Levey Friedman of the Harvard Kennedy School said such a ban would probably never go through in America, because "historically and legally, our system defers to parents to make the right decision for their child." She continued, "We see the family as more of a private entity."

Karen Kataline, a "mental health professional" and former child pageant contestant herself, agreed, though she believed that the problem lies with parents not setting up age-appropriate boundaries, rather than with the pageants themselves.

Some former child contestants have mixed feelings

Despite what some might think, not all former child beauty contestants regret their pasts in the pageant world. In 2012, The Cut interviewed six women who had once been pageant "stars," and their reports were mixed. 

According to Robbie Meshell of Louisiana, who did over 100 pageants between the ages of 3 and 7 and then 14 and 27, the pageant circuit was great. "I love everything about pageantry," said Meshell. Because she lost her mother at a young age, she claimed that the publicity surrounding the events brought her confidence and the chance to share her mother's story.

Tamara Tobin, who started doing pageants at age 7 — and whose children are doing them today — had similar feelings. However, not everyone had strictly pleasant experiences. Heidi Gerkin, who entered the childhood beauty pageant world at 7, recalled how her interactions with other contestants caused her to feel insecure. "In the world of pageants, you might perceive someone as your friend, and then they seek out weaknesses and turn that around on you," she said. "You never knew who was really your friend."

Some say that pageant moms are a bit unsound

Some experts have suggested that pageant dynamics might be more about the parent than the child. In 2012, the University of Arizona cited a study authored by Martina M. Cartwright, a registered dietitian and adjunct professor who works in that institution's department of nutritional sciences. 

Cartwright, who was present for two live filmings of the show Toddlers and Tiaras, observed many pageant parents engaging in what she dubbed "princess by proxy" behavior. She defines this as "achievement by proxy distortion," which involves parents being essentially obsessed with the financial (and social) opportunities the pageants provide. Any risks to the child herself are secondary, or not aptly considered. She also pointed out that child pageants are a billion-dollar industry, which seems shocking, as many likely consider them to be a niche field.

"I think if the public understands why the parents are doing that then they won't pay as much attention to these pageants," Cartwright observed.

Playing dress-up vs. competing in pageants

Playing dress-up is a time-honored tradition for children. It's not unusual for a little girl to want to throw on a Disney princess dress and play pretend. The key, however, is to have fun with it.

That, some say, is the main difference between dress-up and pageantry. As psychologist David Carey put it, via an article in The Irish Examiner, "The work of childhood is play … let children be children. Put the parents on the catwalk if they want to compete and see how they feel about it at the end of the day."

On the other hand, some pageant moms — and, of course, even pageant dads — maintain that pageants are "no different to other hobbies that children have." That's what one pageant dad told This Morning in 2017. "When it comes to, you know, sort of dance; ballet," he said, "they're the same sort of things in the same sort of arena."

There are tutorials on making it in the industry

The theory that pageants may be more about industry than innocent playtime seems to be reinforced by many online tutorials about how to prepare a child for the beauty pageantry world. On the website We Have Kids, for example, one contributor recommends starting children in pageants while they're still babies, because it's "a lot less stressful for the parents in both time and money." The writer continued, "You won't have to go through the labor and expense of tasks like tanning, makeup sessions, modeling, flippers [false teeth] or intricate hair-dos."

Some pageant advice columns, like this one from Pageant Planet, detail more about flippers, which are generally used when a child has lost a tooth. They also get into the importance of massively teased hair ("The bigger the hair, the closer to the crown").

Other YouTube tutorials show pageant mothers applying heavy makeup on children who don't look too thrilled about it.

The difference between 'Natural Pageants' and 'Glitz Pageants'

Childhood beauty pageants aren”t necessarily all about spray tans, heavy makeup, and elaborate hairdos on children. According to Pageant Planet, Natural Pageants focus more on "internal beauty than external," and makeup — with the exceptions of maybe lipgloss and a little mascara — isn't even allowed. Fake nails and teeth, as well as false eyelashes and hairpieces, are also prohibited, and the cost of entry fees tends to be significantly lower.

Often clothes appear to be "off the rack," meaning that they're more like everyday garb — not sparkly costumes. The All American Girl National Pageant is one such an competition, and it seems to be a family-friendly venture that encourages children to play on their own terms, so to speak.

Still, as Chicago Business noted, "Feminist groups and other critics argue that these pageants, just like glitzy ones, teach girls the wrong lessons about womanhood and make them overly sensitive about their body image."