Most mothers wouldn’t think about dressing up their child as the prostitute in Pretty Woman or as Madonna with cone breasts, but most mothers aren’t pageant moms. Interest in and criticism of child beauty pageants has increased since the popularity of the TLC reality series Toddlers & Tiaras, which follows a group of young divas and their attention-hungry moms as they compete. Not only do the mothers dress these little girls up in inappropriate clothing, they cake their faces with make-up, tell them that winning is the only important thing, and treat them like products. Some have even gone as far as injecting their daughters with Botox. The show is both fascinating and disturbing. But what compels mothers to subject their children—who can be as young as 6 months old—to the high-pressure, perfection-driven contests? And what effects might these pageants have on those children?
First let’s look at how child beauty pageants started. Contests for the cutest and healthiest baby first became popular in America in the 1920s as business promotions, and the most attractive toddlers were awarded cash prizes. However, it wasn’t until 1961 that the first modern child beauty pageant was held. Thousands of families would flock to Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey every year to attend the Little Miss America pageant, where 6000 girls competed every week. It didn’t cost anything to enter the pageant, but the park made a fortune from the parents, who spent their money on rides and cotton candy. A sign at the park’s entrance read, “Through these portals pass the most beautiful girls in the world!” Little Miss America contestants did not have make-up caked on their faces, nor did their parents have to spend a fortune on dresses. It was all in good fun, and if a child lost, they at least got to go to the amusement park. By the early ’70s, hundreds of child pageants cropped up across the country, created by entrepreneurs who wanted to cash in on the trend. Even adult pageants created separate contests for children. The pageants still favored natural beauty over make-up, but each year they required parents to dish out more and more money. By the ’80s, parents began putting make-up on their darlings and dressing them up in extravagant gowns. Today, the child pageant industry is estimated to be worth $5 billion, with corporate sponsors and more than 5000 pageants.
In one episode of Toddlers & Tiaras, 2-year-old contestant Mia performs in front of an audience wearing an angel outfit, only to provocatively rip it off, revealing Madonna’s famous cone breasts costume as she struts across the stage. Did Mia’s mother go too far? Critics of child beauty pageants say that parents are exploiting their children, seeking fame and fortune from their child’s achievements, which explains why pageant moms sometimes cross the line from fun to inappropriate. Another explanation can be found in a condition called “achievement by proxy distortion” (ABPD). There are 2 forms of ABPD: benign and pathogenic. Parents with benign ABPD achieve pride and satisfaction by supporting their children’s development and abilities. They cheer on their child and provide them with emotional and financial support, but allow them to quit the activity if the child becomes disinterested, injured, or exploited. In the pathogenic form of ABPD, the social and financial gains of the child’s achievements become the parent’s primary goals. This is when parents start making questionable decisions for their children that may harm their well-being.
Some experts say that involving a child in beauty pageants can be harmful, teaching girls that their self-worth is directly related to how pretty they are. “What they are learning basically is that they have one characteristic which is of total primary importance, and that is their body and their attractiveness,” said Syd Brown, a child and adolescent psychologist practicing in Maryland, who believes child beauty pageants can breed narcissism. While a certain degree of self-confidence is healthy for a child, pageants can take it too far, causing children to put too much emphasis on physical attractiveness. Brown also worries about a child’s emotional well-being when a cute child grows up to be an “ugly duckling.”
However, a lot of parents view beauty pageants as a sport, teaching their children that if they work hard for something, they’ll win, comparing the contests to Little League or gymnastics. Parents also claim that the pageants boost self-confidence and build lasting relationships and that the benefits of the contests outweigh the negatives. Beauty pageants offer children a chance to win college scholarships, modeling contracts, and cash. But in reality, most parents put more money into child beauty pageants than they ever get back.
- Cartwright MM. Princess by proxy: explaining extreme pageant moms. Psychology Today website. November 5, 2012. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/food-thought/201211/princess-proxy-explaining-extreme-pageant-moms.
- Miet H. How child beauty pageants got weird. Vocativ website. November 6, 2013. http://www.vocativ.com/culture/uncategorized/child-beauty-pageants-got-weird.
- Schultz K, Pleshette Murphy A. Beauty pageants draw children and criticism. ABC News website. February 26, 2012. http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=126315.