Australian politics, society & culture

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Sparkle and shine

Child beauty pageants in Australia

By Julia Baird 
Cover: July 2011July 2011Medium length read
“I would have girls regard themselves not as adjectives but as nouns.” –Elizabeth Cady Stanton, c.1870

There’s nothing particularly remarkable about the adjectives used to describe the winners of child beauty pageants: pretty, beautiful, lovely. They can’t just be cute, though, these girls; they have to sparkle, shine, glow and glitter as they smile determinedly on stage, parents wringing hands in the wings. With all the torturous grooming involved – fake tans, capped teeth, false eyelashes, synthetic hair and thickly laid make-up – these pageants seem to be a parody of foolish, self-involved adulthood, and have little to do with childhood at all.

Which is probably why the debut of the Universal Royalty Beauty Pageant in Melbourne at the end of this month has sparked such a ferocious response from Australian psychologists and children’s welfare activists who decry encouraging young girls to aspire to a false kind of beauty while sporting borderline sexy clothes. Glamour should have no place in childhood – nor, of course, should sexiness. Indeed it is offensive to teach children to hurt themselves for display purposes, and to applaud them for looking nothing like their real selves, even if you do get an “ice-crystal rhinestone crown”, a teddy bear and a laptop if you win.

But what’s also fascinating about the reaction to the Texas-based group invading our shores is how much of the criticism is anti-American. As performance poet Kate Wilson, who spoke at one rally, bluntly told the Sydney Morning Herald: “I don’t want the American beauty pageant culture to come to Australia.”

It’s not an exclusively American phenomenon, though. Baby parades originated in the UK, and began in the prudish Victorian age. The man credited with starting the movement is art critic John Ruskin, who decided to host ‘May Queen’ festivals for young girls in the spring of 1881: the girl who would be made Queen was to be the “likeablest and loveablest”. The festivals quickly became competitions, where the prettiest and bonniest babies received prizes.

What’s creepy about these origins, given the nature of today’s pageants, is that Ruskin is suspected to have been a paedophile; biographers have argued over the allegations for decades and it is certain that his view of, and behaviour with, some young women was inappropriate. As was later revealed, Ruskin was so disgusted by the sight of pubic hair on his adult wife that he was not able to consummate his marriage.

No one knew of this then, of course. The baby parades were so popular that they quickly spread across the Atlantic to the US, where pageants have flourished ever since, especially in the South – although there was a marked decline in their popularity after the six-year-old beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey was murdered in 1996.

It was at this point that a serious debate about the sexualisation of children in the name of pageantry began. Were they sideshows or a sick excuse to doll up little girls to look like hookers? As the American media became saturated with eerie photographs of the coiffed, glamorous and innocent Ramsey in the mid 1990s, journalist Frank Rich reminded New York Times readers: “Pageantry isn’t a subculture – it’s our culture. But as long as we call it a subculture, it can remain a problem for somebody else.” And now it’s our problem, as Universal Royalty – guaranteeing participants television exposure, gasp! – is spreading to New Zealand and Australia. We should not have to argue for too long about the impact of high-profile shows that encourage toddlers to spray chemicals on their skin, wax their eyebrows, glue their bottoms into place and spend hours having hair extensions attached to their skulls. It’s shallow madness, given weight by a broader American culture in which one-third of girls in First Grade report being on diets, 12,000 teens get Botox each year and Abercrombie Kids market push-up bikinis for seven year olds. Anyone who has walked through a school playground knows an obsession with appearance gnaws at self-esteem. A 2005 study from the University of Minnesota found that childhood pageant participants were especially prone to body dissatisfaction and distrust of other people as adults.

The most worrying part, though, is what happens when we turn tiny girls into sex objects – wearing conical bras, just like Madonna’s, and midriff-exposing harem costumes, and posing in an alluring fashion. A recent study in the Journal of Children and Media found girls between nine and 11 felt “torn” between the “imperative” of “innocence and purity” and that of “beauty and seduction”. Another study, published in the journal Sex Roles in May, analysed 5666 items of clothing and found that one-third of girls’ clothing in sizes 6 to 14 was sexual; one-quarter of the pieces were both childlike and sexy, which is the most troubling part of the beauty pageants. Many pieces were designed to mimic the shape of full breasts or bottoms.

You have to wonder why we continue to insist our kids grow up faster than they need to – in many parenting guides there is a sense that children should be pushed, shaped, daily hammered into something more grown-up. We too easily forget what children can teach us, with their trust, openness, sense of both limitless possibility and adventure, and their freedom from the burdens of debt and time. Freedom, too, from knowing what sexy even means.

With pageants like these, though, what are we teaching our girls? What will they dream of becoming? Nouns, as feminist campaigner Elizabeth Cady Stanton championed, or mere adjectives? People, or pretty? In a fascinating study called The Body Project, historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg compared new year’s resolutions in the diaries of young American girls over the past century. She found that those at the end of the nineteenth-century wanted to be better people, not physically perfect: their vows were to be less self-absorbed, more diligent, kinder, more dignified and more disciplined. In 1892, the adopted daughter of a Pennsylvanian shopkeeper declared, “I am striving daily to build up a beautiful whole character. I fail often, but am determined to persevere.” A century later girls were still striving to improve but the focus of the promises had shifted. One girl swore she would “lose weight, get new lenses”, and declared she had “already got new haircut, good makeup, new clothes, and accessories”. I know we’re not the first generation to be narcissistic, vain and self-absorbed but surely this should give us pause.

One of the best defences we can have against a cult of young, overly groomed beauty is that it’s just not very Australian. Preening and prancing and getting trophies for it? Is this really something we could stomach in our kids? I’d rather imagine a little Australian like the quirky girl in Little Miss Sunshine, whose defensive mother asserts: “You’ve got to let Olive be Olive.”

When I think of Australian kids competing, I think of Hey Hey It’s Saturday Red Faces skits where people could display special skills such as breakdancing, burping the national anthem and making dogs jump through hoops. This dovetails nicely with the Australian legacy of getting up, having a go and not caring if you look like a goose. Let’s have some of these types of shows instead – let’s allow “Olive to be Olive”; tiaras will stop sparkling pretty quickly if the spotlight is somewhere else.

About the author Julia Baird
Julia Baird is an author and columnist. She is the former deputy editor of Newsweek and author of Media Tarts: How the Australian Press Frames Female Politicians.