Today I have a guest post written by Catherine Manning. Catherine is an Enlighten Education colleague of mine based in Melbourne. She is also the director of the children’s rights advocacy group Say No 4 Kids, which campaigns to end children’s exposure to highly sexualised material in the public domain. Catherine started the Pull The Pin (Against Child Beauty Pageants) campaign in Australia earlier this year and together we are coordinating Pull The Pin New Zealand.
Pull The Pin is campaigning to end all child beauty pageants. It is our view that pitting young girls against each other in a competition based on physical beauty is potentially harmful to their development, and can lead to lowered self esteem and other conditions including eating disorders and depression. We are also concerned with the adultification and sometimes sexualisation of pageant entrants, and their engagement in adult cosmetic treatments such as waxing and spray tanning. We are calling on the government to legislate to stop parents and pageant organisers from exploiting children by enforcing age restrictions on beauty pageants and adult cosmetic procedures (unless for medical reasons). We'd love for you to support us by signing our petition and joining our Facebook page!
Catherine has issued a media release on why she thinks Victorian Child Safety Commissioner Bernie Geary has got it so very wrong in his recent statement that the recent Universal Royalty pageant in Melbourne was not sexual:
The Victorian State Government thinks by sending Child Safety Commissioner Bernie Geary to the Universal Royalty Pageant in Melbourne last month, that they have done enough to investigate the harms of beauty competition on children. Are they seriously trying to say that a visit to the pageant by Mr Geary with no input from any other interest group or experts, is valid enough consultation to make an informed decision about the impacts of pageants on children and our culture?
The State Government are ignoring the concerns of many thousands of people who want to see regulation of child beauty pageants not only in Victoria and around Australia but overseas, including The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, numerous Women’s and Children’s Rights organisations, child development experts and academics, and the majority of the community (around 95% according to numerous polls and callers to talkback programs overwhelmingly in support of action).
Could it be due in part to the fact that some commentators focused heavily on sexualisation rather than the core issue?
It’s easy to be outraged by the sight of a four, five or six year old waxed and coiffed to resemble a thirty year old, then encouraged to gyrate around a stage winking and blowing kisses to adult judges. If there’s one thing we can thank the show Toddlers and Tiara’s featuring popular child beauty queens and over enthusiastic mothers for, it’s bringing the issue of the sexualisation of girls in pageants to the fore.
But is sexualisation in pageants really any different to other realms of children’s performance? Just recently I saw young girls at a local junior school performance sashay up centre stage before turning with a ‘booty slap’ to lyrics far more appropriate for their older audience than the performers’ six years. It did make me wonder who the performance was supposed to be for. Attend just about any children’s dance recital, calisthenics concert or cheerleading competition, and you’re guaranteed to see just as much sexualisation, if not more, than a few cutie patooties shakin’ their booties at a pageant. To focus on sexualisation as the argument against pageants misses the point.
It’s not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned and speak out against young children being encouraged to emulate pole dancers. I am certainly a strong and active advocate for children being allowed to explore and express their sexuality in their own time and way. The infiltration of porn culture and the narrow sexual ideals foisted upon the lives of young children deserves more than a shake of the head from all of us, but I do despair when all of a sudden the sight of a little girl dressed as Lady Gaga or Sandy from Grease at a pageant is enough to send some commentators into a complete spin and lose focus about what is inherently and uniquely wrong with child beauty pageants. I for one as an impressionable nine year old idolised Olivia Newton John’s Sandy, and at the time would have loved to don some leathers and parade around singing ‘you’re the one that I want’ on a stage, complete with fag hanging out of my mouth. What I wanted to do and what my Mum let me do were often two different things.
Sexualisation wasn’t the reason I started the ‘Pull the Pin (on beauty pageants for children)’ campaign, in fact I hadn’t ever even seen an episode of Toddlers and Tiaras. My motivation was the issue of beauty competition. Would you stand your two daughters or nieces side by side and tell one she’s more beautiful than the other? Whether they’re primped, preened, waxed and dressed in leathers and cone bras or straight out of the dress up box in their own creation with no make-up, for most people it’s a resounding ‘no’, on the basis that it would be a cruel and horrible thing to do - to both girls, but that’s exactly what beauty pageants do.
I work in-schools delivering self-esteem, body image and media literacy workshops to teen girls (through Enlighten Education we reach over 20,000 girls per year), and I can tell you that 100% of them feel they’re not pretty/hot enough. Their negative self talk comes from the onslaught of media and advertising messages. We see on average between 400-600 ads per day (TV, internet, billboards, bus stops, etc.). One out of every 11 ads has a direct message about female beauty. That’s not counting the indirect ones. Most children aren’t media literate. Not enough adults are either. A media literate can see the toxicity of the ‘compare and despair’ messages behind the beauty industry. At a time when mental health issues around body image and self-esteem are on the rise with Eating Disorders Victoria reporting a 270% increase in the number of girls hospitalised with eating disorders over the past 10 years, with some girls as young as seven years old presenting with anorexia directly related to body image, and four year olds are calling each other fat and talking about diets and cosmetic surgery, we have to question a culture that condones pitting young girls against each other in a beauty competition. As a society we’re saying it’s okay to judge and reward our children for their physical beauty. We’re teaching girls that their physical beauty is their currency. We are actively marketing an industry to them that feeds off the insecurities created by a narrow beauty ideal. We’re telling them that to be worthy and to win the crown, they must fit that narrow ideal. Wax your eyebrows, spray tan your skin, put in fake teeth - Botox for children isn’t that farfetched an idea. Beauty isn't a talent or skill they can practice, enhance or improve. No other competition for children compares.
We should also consider why it is that the majority of participants are female. When asked where all the fathers are on this, one talkback caller said ‘they’re taking their sons to watch the footy’. Can of worms indeed. As the beauty industry widens its sights to capitalise on the male market driving men to spend more time in front of the bathroom mirror, will we eventually see more boys thrust in to beauty competition? You bet.
To trivialise the importance of legislating against child beauty pageants is to trivialise how beauty obsession impacts on the status of women and the myriad of mental health issues around body image facing young people today.
Interestingly after many months spent spruiking the praises of pageants and spewing vitriol toward our campaign, Kristin Kyle the very woman who organised bringing the Universal Royalty pageant to Melbourne, has now conceded she agrees with Pull the Pin after her middle child didn’t win a prize at the pageant. ‘My heart broke for her that her sisters were ultimately told they were prettier’ she said. Perhaps Mr Geary should speak with Ms Kyle now.
It’s a disgrace that the Victorian State Government let go an opportunity to at least investigate these issues. In the meantime, other companies here in Australia are soldiering on with their Toddlers and Tiara’s style full-glitz pageants with categories including Most Photogenic (can edit/airbrush), Prettiest Smile, Best Hair, Bright Eyes and Most Beautiful.
Physical beauty should never be a competition – especially not for children.
Rachel is a writer and educator whose fields of interest include sexuality education, gender, feminism and youth development.