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Many of us first learned about the world of child beauty pageants when a 5 ½ year old beauty queen named JonBenet Ramsey was found murdered the day after Christmas in 1996. The child was murdered in her Boulder Colorado home and found in the basement with her hands tied, her mouth duct taped, and her throat garroted. Her death was ruled strangulation but there was also blunt force trauma to her head as well as vaginal injury (Auge, Karen, par. 13-15).
Her death brought these pageants into our minds, conversations and living rooms and many people were shocked to see a child of that age made up like an adult woman, some even said like a prostitute and accused the pageants of sexualizing her and the other children. Images and videos of JonBenet with her hair curled, teased, and sprayed, wearing heavy make-up and glamorous outfits were splattered across the newsstands and she pranced across our televisions winking, flirting and dancing.
Any link of her death to the pageants is speculative since the murder remains unsolved, but many people could not help but wonder how safe it was for a child to be made a spectacle of in such a fashion. This past Monday would have been JonBenets 22nd birthday. Perhaps it is time that we as a society take a good look at child beauty pageants and decide what place if any they have in the future for our daughters. JonBenet was the daughter of a wealthy businessman named John Ramsey and his wife, a former Miss West Virginia 1977, Patsy.
Patsy has since passed away but John Ramsey has written a book titled “The Other Side of Suffering” and in an interview with Nightline, John has expressed his regret that JonBenet participated in the pageants. He states in the interview “Only because- that possibly (the pageants) might have drawn attention to us. ” “I don’t know. But- I think for- for advice to parents is just recognize that- regardless of where you live, there could be evil around you. And don’t be naive about it. And keep your kids protected” (Chang, par. 0).
He wonders now about some of the public appearances JonBenet made and if the murderer was maybe in the audience. He says “Patsy had her sitting atop a friend’s convertible in the Christmas parade waving at people lining the streets. ” “Patsy’s mother later told me that a strange man approached the car during the parade and it made her uncomfortable. I think about these things now and it makes me cringe. We were so naive. I now believe with all my heart that it is not a good idea to put your child on public display. (Chang, par. 7).
His words give weight to the issue at hand and initially, it seems, many people felt the same way as child pageants took a financial hit as less people wanted to be associated with the “publicly tainted industry” (Friedman, par. 5). Fifteen years after the tragic death of JonBenet the pageants have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity (Friedman, par. 6) thanks in large part to the hit show on The Learning Channel, Toddlers & Tiaras. The show is immensely popular and is now in its fourth season (IMDB, 2012).
Understanding, of course that this is a television show and not a documentary, that it has been edited for drama and to create what is commonly called “good television”, the show nonetheless gives a viewer a look inside this somewhat alien world. In his interview John Ramsey stated that he had never watched the show but had caught snippets that he finds disturbing. “It is very bizarre” he states “And, it certainly- Patsy and JonBenet didn’t approach it that way.
We-they just did it for fun. ”(Chang, par. 5). Will the parents or the pageant officials take heed? Or will the allure of glamour and profit make them justify their actions? Watching the television show you are immediately struck by one fact; this is a southern thing. To the people who do this, none of it is strange. In fact many of the parents were overjoyed to learn they were pregnant with girls and began to buy gowns before their babies were even born.
One mother who has a boy and a girl stated that she had been very upset when she found out that she was pregnant with the boy until she found out that boys could participate in pageants as well. She even stated, on television, that she had only had children so she could put them in pageants. This would seem very strange to many people, but if you watch the show you will hear statements like this over and over, often in front of the children and always on camera (Toddlers & Tiaras, 2009-2012).
What is apparent is that this is truly a culture. They call themselves “Pageant People” (Toddlers & Tiaras, 2009-2012) and this encompasses not only the contestants and their families but also the judges, pageant directors and announcers and the many, many service people used by the contestants from dress designers to make-up artists and hairstylists to spray tanners and waxers and many of the girls even get facials before a pageants even though their skin cannot possibly look much younger.
The popularity of this television show is evident, anyone using a search engine that types in the name of the show will be directed to literally thousands of articles, opinion pieces and fan based websites as well as many spoofs of the show starring big names like Ashley Tisdale and Tom Hanks and has enjoyed the pinnacle of success in the eyes of many, satire on Saturday Night Live. But what about the tiny stars of the show? How safe are they? Is all of this good for them? Watching the show you will see a few kids and moms that seem almost normal, of course these people never get to be the stars.
The stars are the children who are bratty, who throw temper tantrums, hit their parents, try to bite other kids and just generally misbehave. The mothers who get the most airtime are of course the ones who say the meanest and most bizarre things. Who treat their children like performing monkeys and seemingly will do anything to get their small progeny to perform on stage. It is remarkable to watch a child transform in just moments from a sparkling banshee into a sweetly smiling and composed young lady, or gentleman on stage.
The majority of the children featured on Toddlers & Tiaras are little girls but there are a few boys featured as well. It seems unfortunate that the more poorly behaved the people on the show are the more they are rewarded with fame. One strange family has even got their own spin-off show called, Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo (IMDB, 2012). The children often throw fits because they are being forced to do something they do not want to do. Over and over, in almost every episode the children state that they hate doing the beauty portion of the competition.
For those unfamiliar with how things work it important to know that the beauty portion is the most important piece of the pageant where girls are judged on their poise, their attire, hair and make-up, and most of all their facial beauty. They are not really expected to perform at this stage of the pageant but only to walk slowly from mark to mark on the stage stopping briefly at each mark to spin and smile sweetly at the judges and the audience and slowly turn from side to side so that all spectators can take in their appearance.
One little girl who was seven was criticized by a female judge for “having too much personality for beauty” although of the same girl a male judge stated that he “could not take my eyes off her”( Toddlers & Tiaras, season 4, 2012). The girl went on to win the biggest crown in the pageant and a contract with an agent. The judges of the pageants can often seem harsh and mark the children down for seemingly acceptable things for the contestants to do, given that most of the girls featured on the show are only between the ages of four and nine.
A six year old was marked down because her ankle rolled. She was wearing high heels. A four year old was marked down because her fake teeth or “flipper” fell out during the beauty portion. Another girl was marked down for being too “fake”(?! ). And in one episode the little girls were competing for ten thousand dollars and some former contestants came out of retirement to compete. They were as old as twenty-one and some were doing very sexy dances; the male judge was obviously captivated and would not stop talking about the older contestants.
A 20 year old won. Against little girls. (Toddlers & Tiaras, 2009-2012) You will see some moments on the show where the parents are caring and the children seem to be keeping the whole thing in perspective. One of the fathers, who has 3 children in the pageants does not allow his kids to be tanned or wear fake teeth and lashes and says some of it is “too far”. He also keeps the bills for the pageants a little lower by renting the dresses and says he preferred the natural pageants.
Another one of the parents, this one a mother, laughed when her nine year old daughter’s hair fell down during the pageant, she told her she did “so good” and reassured her when she began to cry that it was okay. Then said she was just glad she got a crown (in many of the pageants every contestant gets some type of crown) and that she did not need to win the ultimate title and the little girl stated after she calmed down “win graciously, lose humbly”.
Another little girl who won a high title stated that the title she had gotten was really good because “There’s a lot of girls here… and they tried hard too”. One mother who had seemed very extreme during the beginning of the pageant seemed to have an epiphany at some point during the pageant and said that this would be her seven year old daughter’s last pageant and that her daughter was “beautiful on her own”. (Toddlers & Tiaras, 2009-2012). In one touching episode, a mother had only boys and it seemed that her six year old son and her had a very special relationship based on the pageants.
The father, in spite of being supportive, was done with his son being in the pageants and wanted this to be his last one. The boy seemed happy to do the pageants and seemed to have a very special relationship with his mother. At the end of the show they were crying and hugging each other and it was actually hard not to be sad for them (Toddlers & Tiaras, 2009-2012) Most of the other parents are not like those ones and the majority of the scenes shown depict these women as bitter and jealous. The way they speak of the other children is disgraceful.
They say mean things in front of their own kids about the other children, especially if the other children win and their daughter did not, like that the girl who won did not deserve it and often say that the pageant was unfair or rigged. One mom on the sidelines said about a girl on the stage “If she wins, she better go get some cellulite treatment done”(Toddlers & Tiaras, 2009-2012). The little girls definitely pick up this cattiness from their mothers. Many times over these children say that they are better or prettier than the other girls.
One six year old girl knew from her mother that one of the other girls was her biggest competition at the pageant. The other girl was well known for her continuing pacifier dependency and first girl said that she had a secret weapon for her opponent so she could beat her and held up a gag pacifier that had funny looking teeth on the front of it and then snickered. In one sad scene there were sister aged ten and eight who were competing in the same pageant, the eight year old stated that she was going to beat her sister and if her sister started crying she would “beat her to he ground”. When the older sister started to cry and said that it was because she was being mean the younger one told her to “Stop crying, you’re embarrassing me! ” (Toddlers & Tiaras, 2009-2012).
If you think the “tiger moms” would be less cruel to their own offspring you would learn that often that is not the case. Over and over when the children cry because they are hungry, tired, something being done to them hurts or they lost they are told not to cry because they are on camera or that the pageant is not over and their make-up will be ruined.
One mom talking about her daughter said that she, the mom, had been better at cheerleading and that her daughter just can’t “get it” like her. Her daughter was nine. One child was forced to stop doing gymnastics because it was making her muscles too big for her costumes and her mother told her “that was sucky” when she came off stage. Over and over the children are cruelly disregarded or ignored when they state that they are in pain, feeling sick, hungry or tired. In a heart stopping scene a nine year old girl went missing in full hair and make-up and was no longer in the hotel.
In every scene shown by the television show the mom was worried about her being late for her age line up and not concerned for her safety. Luckily, she was found in time, and her standing in the pageant was unaffected. That the girls often cry when they lose is no surprise when you take in that the mothers often cry or state they are going to throw up and berate their daughters for blowing on stage by forgetting to smile at the judges or forgetting part of their routine. The moms let their daughters know that they lost too if their crown is not big enough and does not come with a high title attached to it.
The moms will tell their daughters who are smiling and holding a crown that they lost and the crown they have is for losers. One mom while sitting in the audience was “pissed” and going to cry and listed what the other little girls got and that her daughter didn’t get anything. No wonder the little girl had a tantrum and screamed that she wanted a crown (Toddlers & Tiaras, 2009-2012) Many of these mothers are, like Patsy Ramsey, former beauty queens themselves and will stop and nothing to ensure their daughters success in the pageant world.
Sometimes it becomes so extreme that it makes the news. In 2011 ABC News did a story on a mom who gave her 8 year old daughter Botox injections because she had wrinkles (Hagan, Kunin and Ghebremedhin, par. 5). The mother was not a doctor but an esthetician, which is basically a beautician for the skin. She claims her daughter wanted to try it herself because her wrinkles bothered her. This is hopefully a rare case but more commonly these young children have their eyebrows waxed, they receive spray tans, even if they are African American or bi-racial.
They have acrylic nails put on, they are fitted for fake teeth to go over their own teeth called flippers, they have hair extensions put in because often their baby fine hair either is not thick enough for the large hair-dos or not strong enough to take the heat and styling. Some of the girls have their hair bleached before a pageant. Sometimes these things hurt or are uncomfortable and the children complain. There seems to be a particular hatred amongst the little girls for the false eyelashes.
Many of the girls scream and cry and beg to not have to wear them to no avail. These are typically services reserved for very high maintenance women and many adult women would not have the patience for them. The FDA has not done studies on the safety of these chemicals for use on children either. How does it feel to sit in make-up and hair for two hours for a child of say four? On pageant day the real magic begins. The girls are up early in the morning in their hotel rooms. They are fed breakfast and then the beauty regime begins.
The pageants last all day and usually include several outfit changes and the performance of practiced routines. The girls, some very young, are not allowed to eat or nap so their hair and make-up do not become ruined. To make up for this, the moms have found some magic. On pageant day the girls have sugar cubes and Pixie Stix poured into their mouths all day long and are fed through a straw high caffeine and sugar drinks like Mountain Dew and some… Red Bull energy drinks. There is some serious concern over the safety of these drinks (Ostrow, 2011).
One mother asked her daughter before the pageant if she wanted to quit doing them. The girl nodded yes and the mom said “ Let’s look at your crowns! Doesn’t that make you feel better? ” (Toddlers & Tiaras, 2009-2012). One of the reasons many of the parents say they do it is often for the prizes, money, bonds and scholarships. Indeed, some of the pageants featured on the television show do boast some large prizes. But most of the parents admit that they have spent many times over what their child has received.
Several of the moms admit to lying to their husbands about how much they spend and one single mom has moved in with her parents so they could continue to pay for pageants and it is common for the mothers to take a “pageant job” (Toddlers & Tiaras, 2009-2012) to cover some of the expenses. Some of the parents spend lavishly on the pageants. Many of the pageants have a top prize of only several hundred dollars yet the girls will show up in 2500$ dresses. In one episode two sisters have their very own trailer for pageant accessories that have their pictures emblazoned on the sides.
One very enterprising mother has published a pageant book about her daughter, recorded a song and had a doll made in her daughters image. In an episode where they went to the Tonight Show she was saying how she was planning to get her daughter and agent and a two million dollar contract so she could quit her job and move to Hollywood. It seems as if the parents either have delusions about some pay off that will eventually come if they keep plugging away or they really have just found a very expensive habit that they justify for other reasons.