An Inside Look At the Creepiest $5 Billion Industry in America
Although we could all agree that a French Honey Boo Boo would probably be very entertaining, don't expect to see one on your television any time soon. The French Senate voted Wednesday morning to ban beauty pageants for children under the age of 16 for reasons blatantly obvious to anyone who's ever watched Toddlers & Tiaras: Pageants disturbingly hypersexualize children.
France's debate on child beauty pageantry was sparked in December 2010 after this spread featuring 10-year-old Thylane Loubry Blondeau was published in French Vogue. The pictures feature Blondeau in adult-like poses with makeup, jewelry and high-heels. One of the pictures even shows her topless, with only her hair covering her chest.
Wait, so spray-tanning your infant until she's as orange as a Cheeto is bad? I guess that's the difference between France and America. While one is concerned with the long-term effects of dressing up our children like strippers during their formative years, another has turned that idea into a $5 billion industry. Turns out the whole "freedom fries" thing was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to cultural differences.
Google Toddlers & Tiaras and you'll be confronted with images that cannot be unseen. You'll find a mother dressing up her 3-year-old girl as a prostitute, a woman admitting that she has spray-tanned her 2-year-old at least 50 times, another who regularly gives caffeine to her 2-year-old, one putting breast enhancements on her 6-year-old, and a mom personally (and illegally?) injecting Botox in her 8-year-old child to reduce the appearance of "lines." If that's not enough to convince you that many of the practices that go on in the child beauty pageant industry are child abuse, maybe this video of a mom coercing her daughter to undergo an eyebrow wax session at the ripe age of 5 will. (Take note that this is after the child's skin was already ripped off once because the "wax was way too hot.")
Warning: This video has a trigger alert.
The popular TLC show has sparked more than one custody battle over alleged sexual and emotional child abuse. These legal challenges come as no surprise, since an overwhelming amount of research shows that beauty pageants disrupt the healthy development of children. That's why researchers like Lindsay Lieberman have found that children who are subjected to pageant culture "are prone to persistent lifetime challenges, including body shame, perfectionism, depression and eating disorders."
Pageants trains young girls to believe that their best and most important feature is their body, no matter how tiny as it might be. The result is that Todders & Tiaras contestants like Daisy Mae state national television that "facial beauty is the most important thing in life."
Why would Daisy think otherwise? If her looks weren't as critically important as she thinks they are, then why would her parents invest so much money and time to maintain them?
When girls are prematurely groomed to be hyper-vigilant about their appearance, diet and posture, the harm can be irreversible. Women already spend their entire adult lives being told they're not good beautiful enough. Why not spare girls from this oppressive social pressure when they are still young enough to be ignorant of it?
As if the pressure placed on contestants weren't enough, the beauty pageant industry is largely unregulated. Child labor is illegal in this country, after all, but children involved in beauty pageant world fall between the cracks. Child labor laws don't include its scope of the pageants industry. There's no system in place to help those who are being coerced of exploited. That's why advocates like Lindsay Lieberman are demanding statutory regulation of child beauty pageants.
Behind the scenes at Southern Celebrity Beauty Pageant in 2009. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Drobis/TLC on NBC's blog.
Sometimes, contestants are too young even to understand what being in a beauty pageant means. Children as young as 6 months old, who can't walk or even talk, can't possibly be willfully participating in these activities. Scenes from Toddlers & Tiaras show children screaming, crying and resisting. Why doesn't that alarm us? Why do we just keep passively watching or simply just flip the channel?
An image from a clip in Toddlers & Tiaras showing a baby being spray-tanned.
These kinds of pageants also cater to a parcel of child sexualization. There are members of the physical or virtual audience who may be getting off on these children, but that doesn't seem to be a strong enough disincentive for some parents. Susanna Barrett, a mother featured on Toddlers & Tiaras, said, "If people are looking at a child in a sexy way, then there’s something wrong with them." But isn't the point of pageants to make these girls look sexy and grown-up? Doesn't it normalize child sexualization at its very core?
If permanent psychological harm, the issue of child abuse and the sexualization of children aren't enough to convince you that it should be regulated, maybe Sasha Baron Cohen can. Watch these parents' abysmal responses to fake questions during a staged casting. Their answers show the deeply disturbing lengths some parents are willing to to go to achieve money and fame in the pageant industry.
Now that France has taken a bold step towards banning child pageants and child-size clothes such as padded bras or high-heels, will America follow suit? Judging by the proliferation of pagent reality shows, I highly doubt it.
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