26 Jan 2012
When Beauty Becomes a Beast
For years, child beauty pageants were fairly benign: girls wore frilly party dresses and satin ribbons. That innocent vision was permanently shattered in 1996 with the murder of six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey in Boulder, Colorado. Although seemingly unrelated to her death, much was made of JonBenét’s involvement in beauty contests. Provocative clips of this beautiful little girl singing and walking the runway were a staple on television news for months.
Fast forward to 2009, a mere 13 actual years and a million media light years away from that tragic time. In this first decade of the new millennium, sensationalism became standard and reality shows were crowned king. Enter TLC’s Toddlers & Tiaras. This television show took viewers behind the scenes of the unique world of child beauty pageants. Each wildly popular episode showcased the tears and tantrums of the “divaesque” toddlers and the extreme lengths pageant parents went to in order to claim the cash and crown. Nothing was off limits—not hair extensions, stage makeup, spray tans, fake teeth, padded breasts – nothing.
Recently, Toddlers & Tiaras managed to catapult the scrutiny and controversy surrounding child beauty pageants even farther – straight into the stratosphere. The catalyst proved to be three and four year old girls dressed like Dolly Parton or Julia Roberts’s prostitute character from the movie Pretty Woman.
Suddenly child development pundits and behavioral health professionals throughout the country began weighing in on the ethics of such contests. Whereas participants in adult pageants are there by choice, possess real talent and hope to possibly win a college scholarship to further their education, enhance their career opportunities and make a difference in the lives of others, those in child pageants are there due to parental influence, and therefore, are often unwitting participants in a highly exploitative world.
Two experts react
We asked two professionals to provide perspective on this topic.
Dr. Kim Dennis is a board-certified psychiatrist and Medical Director at Timberline Knolls Treatment Center just outside of Chicago. A nationally known speaker and writer, Dr. Dennis specializes in treating addictions, eating dis-orders and co-occurring disorders.
Kirsten Haglund, Miss America 2008 and eating disorders awareness advocate, is a community relations specialist at Timberline Knolls. Kirsten made eating disorders her platform during her reign as Miss America and continues to lead her own non-profit foundation to help educate and prevent eating disorders.
What message does a show like this send to young girls?
Dr. Dennis: The message can be very damaging to a child’s emotional and spiritual well-being, personality development, and eventually her physical health. It says they are nothing more than an object. Their worth is in their looks. Each girl is either better or less than her peers, based on her appearance. As a mental health professional, I find many of the things people do for this show to be abusive.
Kirsten: I think this show exposes a real perversion in our country of what is considered beautiful, and what value females have versus what value they are taught they have. In this show, they’re being taught their value is how pretty, tan, made-up, “perfect” they are, and whether or not they’re the best. Although this show is highly dramatized for impact, I believe it still sends a harmful message to young girls. When they see a show like this, they don’t understand, as adults do, that it is extreme behavior. This behavior is glorified, and ultimately dangerous.
What effects could this have once the girl enters adolescence or adulthood?
Dr. Dennis: The impact could be dramatic. When self-worth is wrapped up solely in looks, girls may try to exert strong control over their bodies as they enter adolescence. The goal would be to keep their bodies the same rather than allowing them to develop into natural woman bodies. This behavior predisposes them to developing clinically significant eating disorders, which can be fatal.
Kirsten: There is the reinforced belief that as a girl, the only worth you have, the only thing you seriously have to offer is your physical beauty. Of course, this lie is perpetuated by the media and advertisements. It’s not just kiddie-pageants that reinforce this. Especially if the young girl received lots of positive reinforcement and attention in pageants, once she gets older, this will lead to that constant need for the adoration of others for self-worth. What can be especially damaging is the introduction of so many false beauty enhancements to girls at such a young age: plastic surgery, veneers, tanning, heavy makeup and wigs. These girls might grow up thinking they are not created naturally beautiful enough. This can lead to behaviors such as substance addiction to cope with the pressure and stress to be beautiful, and eating disorders in the pursuance of this ideal that does not exist in nature.
What are the dangers of entering toddlers in these pageants where everything is based on physical appearance?
Dr. Dennis: Activities with an inordinate focus on physical appearance increase risk for developing eating disorders. We see this again and again at Timberline Knolls. Early sexualization also increases the risk of an eating disorder, as well as the risk of developing sexually compulsive behavior as a teen or adult. The parents of these young children desperately need help. Some of what they do can even be considered sexual abuse. A parent willing to sexualize and pimp out her three-year-old daughter needs treatment. A little girl that has been sexualized and adultified will also need help at some point to cope with the loss of her childhood and obliteration of self.
Kirsten: It impedes the girl’s own sense of what she enjoys. Girls should be able and encouraged to participate in a wide range of activities, so they can discover where their true talents and abilities lie. When they are pushed into pageants, they can get ‘stuck’ in the grind, never pursuing what their heart desires.
What about the mom who dressed her toddler as Dolly Parton or the prostitute from Pretty Woman?
Dr. Dennis: This is sexual abuse. Although covert, it is still sexual abuse. The only group to eventually gain from this aberrant behavior is the mental health community since these toddlers will need treatment for their eating disorders, substance abuse and trauma when they hit adolescence or adulthood.
Kirsten: The biggest tragedy here is the problems within the mothers that result in this horrible influence on their children’s lives. No child has dreams of dressing like a prostitute. The mother has failed in one of two ways, or perhaps both. She has either pushed this kind of costume or “image” on her daughter, or she has exposed her child to films, television shows and other media that are not age appropriate, so the daughter aspires to be like an adult woman at far too early an age.
These moms say pageants are no different than other sports that girls are involved in such as gymnastics. Do these claims have any validity?
Dr. Dennis: As a former college athlete, I think the comparison is ludicrous. Look up the definition of sport: an athletic activity requiring physical skill and prowess. To compare these child pageants to sports is absurd. Sports — real sports — are about what people can do, in many cases as a team, and not about how they look. And as much as proponents say they›re about doing good and developing talents, when was the last time anyone saw a talented, but ugly, winner in a pageant? Or even an average to overweight winner? Never. This is because pageantry is about how contestants look, about how they are objects.
Kirsten: As someone who was involved in dance and ballet, I can see how one might draw parallels. Dance schools sometimes dress children in costumes that are too sexy, or demand that they wear too much stage make up. This is not “OK” either. The sexualization of girls is occurring earlier and earlier, and many industries share a responsibility in this. It is ultimately the parents’ responsibility to monitor the things that a child is being asked to do or wear. I highly advocate for girls’ participation in team sports, so they can develop a sense of camaraderie and team work, and are not judged based on their appearance.
Read the full article at: http://www.together.us.com/2012/01/when-beauty-becomes-a-beast/