Toddlers, Tiaras, And The Sexualization Of Little Girls
My daughters sat down to watch Sweeney Todd on the computer the other day, and in surfing through the sites, ended up on a program even more horrifying. Murderous barbers and human-meat pies were forgotten amid the human train-wreck that is TLC’s Toddlers & Tiaras.
I’ll be the first one to admit that it’s fun to dress up little girls. There’s just so much you can do, from ball caps to ball gowns. And little girls just sparkle with personality, so parents can’t be blamed for wanting to show that off a little. More than a few of us have been guilty of making our daughters stand up and perform in front of the family at Thanksgiving. “Show them how you sing Itsy-Bitsy Spider! Go on, show them!”
Children’s Beauty Pageants Are Sexualizing Little Girls
So, maybe kid beauty pageants are a natural extension of that. Maybe these little girls should, for cuteness sake and to our collective delight, sing Itsy-Bitsy Spider and wear a frilly dress in front of a larger audience than just Grandma and Grandpa. Maybe these events are for moms reliving their childhood and dressing up their own life-sized Barbie dolls.
Maybe—but unfortunately, I don’t think so. I think the inspiration for children’s beauty pageants comes from the other direction, trickling down from adult women’s pageants and male dominated societies’ comfort with the idea that it is fine for women to dress themselves in flesh-baring clothes, make themselves up beyond recognition, and prance around so that others (i.e., men) can judge them.
Of course, there are those, mostly pageant moms and directors, who insist that pageants are not about sexualizing the children involved. Oh, really? How about the 3-year-old dressed up as Julia Roberts’ character from Pretty Woman? Or the 4-year-old dressed up as Dolly Parton—complete with fake breasts and padded bottom? Or the 2-year-old in the gilded-cone bustier, dressed like the outrageously sexual Madonna?
The issue of sexualization is one that can’t be ignored when watching these events. These little girls are literally dressed like prostitutes, in clothes that are specifically designed to declare, “I am sexually available,” even when “I” am only 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 years old.
The American Psychological Association formed a task force to discuss this issue, and released their answers in a 72-page document called Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. They define sexualization as meeting 1 of the following 4 criteria:
- a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appealor behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
- a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
- a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision-making;
- sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.
Child beauty pageants meet not 1 but all 4 of these criteria.
Other Problems Also Exist With Children’s Beauty Pageants
There are other problems with these pageants and the families who participate in them. Many of the children are so poorly disciplined that they scream at and hit their parents if they don’t get their way. Their natural competitive spirit is exaggerated and inflamed to such heights that they motivate themselves by calling the other girls, in the pageant, fat and ugly. And some pageant parents, like the mom of 5-year old Alexis, lose all perspective. She made her daughter undergo eyebrow waxing on camera even after Alexis had been previously burned in an incident where the wax was too hot and her skin had been ripped off. Alexis’ mom admitted that ever since that incident her daughter has been terrified of eyebrow waxing. This fact, however, did not stop her from making Alexis undergo the procedure again ignoring her emotional state while blithely declaring ”Normally, I would just hold her down and ripped it off.” I assume she means ripping off the wax and not the skin.
What Can We Do?
Fortunately, most rational people are appalled by these exploitative events (which is, of course, why we watch them). My 15-year-old daughter, appalled at the show’s content informed us, “This is one thing I would protest about. I hate what they’re doing to those little girls.”
If we all hate it enough, will it go away? Not just the pageants, but the whole culture of treating our daughters like junior prostitutes? Probably not—because this is obviously selling to someone. These pageants have created a $5 billion industry. But, at the very least, we can refuse to participate. We can stop watching these shows. There is nothing like low ratings to cut a show’s life span. We can also dress our own daughters appropriately, set firm boundaries about self-expression, and steer them toward the development of a healthy sexuality that cherishes every part of their remarkable selves. And when we want to teach them how to be strong, beautiful, successful women, we won’t turn to The Learning Channel for help. Apparently, The Learning Channel still has a lot to learn.