April Brilliant, a former Mrs. Maryland and the director of Maryland-based Mystic Pageants, says pageants give little girls a chance to play Cinderella. “It’s more like playing dress-up,” says Brilliant, who has coordinated the Little Miss and Mister American Pageant in Summerville, S.C. “Like if you were home doing your hair, doing makeup, dressing up in fancy clothes. Playing Cinderella for a day.”
These pictures don’t look like a child who has chosen to dress herself up and play Cinderella for a day. This is virtually an infant whose mother or beauty coach put her in a hair piece, painted her already beautiful baby face with foundation, blush, lipstick, eye liner, mascara and eyebrow pencil. It also looks like her eyebrows were plucked and shaped. The rest is bad enough, let’s hope that’s not also true.
The Children’s Beauty Pageant Industry
It is true, however, that her mother probably carried her onto the stage, a scene that is becoming commonplace in the burgeoning children’s beauty pageant industry. Children’s competitions attract an estimated 3 million children, mostly girls, ages six months to 16 years vying for crowns and money. But most of the money flows outward to those who market clothes, beauty products and talent expertise to the children’s families.
The Cost of Competing
Money’s spent to bleach and color the hair of young girls. Add the cost and time to apply hair extensions and false eyelashes. There are also fake teeth purchased, called flippers, to hide stained or missing baby teeth. Entry fees range from $10 to $200. Dresses can cost up to $5,000, with most averaging $1,000. At the highest contest levels, contestants are required to wear multiple outfits appropriate for the different categories a la Miss America or Miss Universe. Coaches, modeling lessons, and travel also add to the enormous price tags. This is big business.
Beauty And Self Esteem
“‘They love this! They love the glitz and the glamour!‘ says Joy Clark, grandmother of 5-year-old Jayleigh. Clark’s spent the last four years taking Jayleigh to 100 pageants, perfecting her presentation. She is jubilant about her granddaughter’s interest and pooh-poohs the suggestion that children might be getting the wrong message about the importance of their looks.”
In fact, the parents will argue that the beauty competitions help build self-confidence; the children learn how to carry themselves on stage, how to speak in public, how to deal with losing, and how to rally from a mistake.
For the winners, there’s money and scholarships. Jayleigh, Joy Clark’s granddaughter, earned $1,800 after winning a crown at the Summerville pageant, and was getting ready to sign a modeling contract. From those earnings, there was nearly enough money set aside to finance Jayleigh’s college tuition – money the family might not have had otherwise.
But I still disagree with Grandma Joy and the other parents. How can a child not get the wrong message about the importance of looks? If you’re 6 months old, or 1 year or 2 years or 3 or 4 or 5 years old and already learned that you need beauty products and dye jobs, and fake hair and risqué outfits to win a beauty contest, how can you feel good about your self without those things?
What happens to these children when they get a dose of life’s normal passages: pimples? Hips? Crow’s feet? But we already know the answer don’t we – there are more products to buy, there are derm abrasions, there are body shapers to wear and cosmetic surgery to be had. I use to blame the parents, but they’re not the root cause of the problem. It’s a societal problem. We live in a media culture that touts an unnatural type of beauty – one that can only be attained by Photoshop, veneers and bodily alterations. Not so different from the cultural practices we use to frown upon such as the binding of feet and elongating the neck. They weren’t natural either. So, have we progressed?