The weird phenomenon of child beauty pageants is coming to Quebec, at long last. On November 24, little Quebec girls, some under a year old and under the watchful, intense eyes of their mothers, are to be trotted out on stage and judged by a group of...
photo by Jennifer Marie Puglia via
The weird phenomenon of child beauty pageants is coming to Quebec, at long last. On November 24, little Quebec girls, some under a year old and under the watchful, intense eyes of their mothers, are to be trotted out on stage and judged by a group of grown up strangers. Hooray!
The National Canadian Girl Pageant will be holding its preliminary event in Quebec for the first time in Laval (naturally). And a lot of people here are getting really creeped out.
An online petition against the pageant has nearly 50,000 signatories—many of them prominent, like TV host Guy A. Lepage, host of Tout le Monde En Parle, a must-watch for brainy types on French CBC, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, one of the firebrand leaders during last year’s student demonstrations, and Laure Waridel, a well-known eco-sociologist. The petition was started by Dr. Alain Vadeboncoeur, a cardiologist who, when not working at the Montreal Heart Institute, is writing for newsweekly L’Actualité.
Plenty of media personalities, sexologists and feminists have also signed the petition. By signing, they are denouncing pageants for “reinforcing wide-spread obsessions over body image and establishing a clear link between seduction, a will to please and mass consumption. Outrageously sexualizing the youngest members of our society is insane.”
So there. But the outrage will not stop the pageant from happening. Late last month, the Quebec government’s Minister responsible for the Status of Women, Agnes Maltais, said legislating pageants out of Quebec would be “too complicated.” (France, on the other hands, banned pageants for girls under 16.) But Maltais did warn against “hypersexualizing” young kids.
To be fair, a distinction must be made between the pageant coming to Quebec and others on the circuit, for instance the BC-based, porno-sounding Dreamboat Dolls. Unlike the NCGP, DD is unabashedly glitzy: it features tiaras, cupcake dresses, anklets, spray tans, gobs of makeup and big hair. Think JonBenét Ramsay and Toddlers & Tiaras. The NCGP, by contrast, says on its website that it bans fake hair, fake nails and fake teeth (seriously: fake teeth), and that no make-up is allowed for girls under eight. That likely won’t calm anyone down though.
To get a clearer, less emotional perspective, I called up Harvard sociologist Hilary Levey Friedman, who is something of an authority on beauty pageants, of both the adult and child varieties. Over the course of her research, she says she’s attended 19 child beauty pageants, and says she doesn’t see a whole lot of difference between beauty pageants and other forms of childhood competition. She compares them to competitive dancing, cheerleading, hockey or football. “What troubles me is the lack of regulation,” she says. “But an outright ban is probably not realistic.”
She notes that there is a lot going on at child beauty pageants off the stage, much of it positive. After the competition, “the kids are at the hotel pool or running around and making friends.”
And as for the pouting and dancing and makeup and all the rest of the hypersexualization, “Things aren’t perceived as sexual in that context,” she says. “If they were done outside the context of a pageant, they would be perceived as sexual, even if the child doesn’t know it. But a lot of moms are not looking at it that way, and say that if you are, there’s something wrong with you.”
Critics point to an academic study done a few years ago on the effects participating in a child beauty pageant has later on in life. The researchers concluded that “childhood beauty pageant participation may influence adult body dissatisfaction, interpersonal distrust, and impulse dysregulation, but not bulimic behaviors, body perception, depression, and self-esteem.” But Friedman points out that since the sample size was a miniscule 11 former participants, the study isn’t totally reliable.
Ultimately, the problem with child pageants rests with the parents. Of all the pageants she’s been to, of everything she’s seen, she says that “the most distasteful is the behaviour of the parents and the way they act towards the winners.”
Friedman says that the mothers (and yes, it’s almost always mothers) of pageant participants tend “to have a strong interest in their girls ending up in an entertainment career. They’re not talking about getting into Harvard. And based on my research, they are not the most affluent or educated.”
I have never, ever watched an entire episode of Toddlers & Tiaras or Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, and I hope I never will. The clips I did see I found leering, sneering and ghastly. Friedman suggests that child pageants are the “feminine side of a hyper-masculine culture”—something that sounds about right, and depressing.
But Agnes Maltais is right: banning them is both impractical and morally suspect. And having a bunch of point-headed liberals moan online about how gross child pageants are isn’t going to change anything.
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