Kids’ beauty pageantsare an ugly subculture

Provocative photos of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey have blanketed the media since she was murdered in her Colorado home and, reportedly, sexually assaulted. The national fury about the story is prompted not just by details of her murder, but by the photos from her life. The pictures show a disturbing image of a girl whose childhood was infused with adult sexuality. A tiny beauty queen, JonBenet is shown tarted up in fuchsia lipstick, yet smiling with her baby teeth.
There is no evidence that her murder and possible assault are linked to her “career” as a pageant princess, but the juxtaposition of the two is disturbing. It’s encouraged, in the world of pageants, to display a precocious Cosmo-girl glamour, with teased, tinted hair and flirtatious poses. When this carefully crafted, artificial seduction occurs before a panel of judges in a shopping mall, it’s touted by supporters as a self-esteem-boosting alternative to Little League. But offstage, children who are treated as sexualized objects are most often considered victims of abuse.
This is not to imply that little JonBenet brought this tragedy on herself. Nevertheless, the photos and accounts of JonBenet’s life as a child star have drawn attention to the disturbing aspects of beauty pageants, which are estimated to be a $5 billion industry in the United States. In a culture where an anti-Barbie-doll image of women is heavily promoted — think Gabrielle Reese, Nike commercials or “Xena: Warrior Princess” — it comes as a shock to realize that the old standby of “pretty in pink” still has currency. But it does, and in life, as in pageants, girls are judged by their looks all the time. That is something we should try to counter, not encourage. Pageants that reward little girls for their looks perpetuate superficial values.
Parents who defend pageants point out that little girls love to play dress-up and pretend they’re grown-ups. But pageants are not child’s play; they’re big business. These dress-up games are not played with mom’s castaway purses and oversized shoes, but with hand-tailored costumes that can cost up to $800 apiece. And though playing dress-up is a form of experimentation and imaginative exploration of adult roles, pageants conform strictly to a scripted version of attractiveness and appeal.
The image of femininity promoted by these contests is a disturbing one. The perfect little miss is a hybrid girl-woman. And the woman component consists of mascara, sequins and big hair. Grace consists of balancing on high heels while parading down a runway. This is not a progressive definition of womanhood in the ’90s, and it’s even more disturbing when promoted as an idealized version of childhood.
Parents of child competitors argue that the competitions promote self-esteem, which is a worthy goal. Studies show that although girls start out confident in school, their classroom participation wanes over time as they are discouraged from expressing themselves and taking chances. To counter this, girls should be encouraged to compete, just as boys are. But they need healthy competition to prepare them for the realms of school and work. Pageants are not healthy competition. Child beauty queens are rewarded for their looks, not their intelligence, thoughtfulness or community involvement — values more worthy of cultivation in a 6-year-old than the ability to wear tiny cocktail dresses.