By Kelly Wallace
Editor’s note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She’s a mom of two girls and lives in Manhattan. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.
(CNN) — Child beauty pageants are a lot like crime coverage on local news. Stick with me. This will make sense. I promise.
Viewers complain there’s too much crime in local television news reports, and yet, the stations covering crime enjoy high ratings. People complain that child beauty pageants exploit young girls — some as young as 3 or 4 who are donning makeup, high heels and fake tans — and yet, the ratings for reality television shows such as TLC’s “Toddlers & Tiaras” are sky high.
We don’t like the idea of these beauty contests for kids, but it seems we can’t pull ourselves away. But what if there were no pageants for kids to begin with?
If French lawmakers get their way, there would be no French version of “Toddlers & Tiaras” and no French “Honey Boo Boo,” referring to another child pageant reality star. The Senate in France voted to ban child beauty pageants for kids under the age of 16 and now the measure goes to the country’s lower house for debate and a vote.
Where did this anti-pageant momentum come from on the part of the French? Some lawmakers point to a controversial photo spread in Vogue back in 2010, featuring a girl as young as 10 in high heels and sexy makeup.
The pageants are sexualizing our young girls, said lawmakers in France, and judging by the response to our request for comment on CNN’s Facebook page, many people in the United States agree.
“How pleased I am that, finally, some are fully awakened and realizing that child beauty pageants should be banned,” said Darlene Eckerman of Amarillo, Texas, in an e-mail message. “The mothers are the culprits here: teaching your child to be sexy and alluring at such a young, tender age when they are not ready for such exploitation.”
Samantha Biswas, also via e-mail, said, “It is not about living vicariously through your child. It’s about letting your child’s childhood and youth get stolen by makeup, fashion shows, heels and dresses.”
“To paint makeup on their faces and do up their hair, etc., OMG, wake up people,” said Charlie Caissie. “These are children for heaven’s sake, not adults. Let them decide for themselves at an appropriate age if they want to pursue this when they are adults.”
Psychologist Wendy Walsh said the danger here is normalizing behavior that once would have been considered extreme and weird. “And now it seems perfectly OK for a little 6-year-old to be walking around in thigh-high boots and short booty shorts and smacking her butt when she dances down a runway? Come on! That’s what a stripper does.”
Others expressed fears about who may be watching these pageants.
“Every time I think about child beauty pageants, my heart sinks at the thought of all the pedophiles watching them. Why in the world do children need to be so sexualized?” asked a CNN reader.
On the other side are moms like Anna Berry of Littleton, Colorado, who said her 13-year-old daughter Ashley was so shy she couldn’t even order for herself at a restaurant. After she started appearing in “natural” pageants (no makeup allowed), she blossomed. And now, as “Miss Heartland Junior Teen,” she speaks to young girls across the country about her experiences with bullying, something she encountered when girls were jealous of her success on the pageant circuit.
“She’s a role model to many and her confidence to stand up and speak out came from her improved self-esteem through pageantry,” said Berry, who says Ashley can out interview and speak more confidently than most adults.”These are skills that will benefit her for a lifetime … just as they did for me growing up in pageantry.”
Valerie Best, director of The BEST Shining Stars Pageant located in Southern Indiana, is also strongly against banning pageants for young girls and boys.
She said just because some pageant systems “push it too far” (hers, she said, does not allow “fake hair, fake tans, fake teeth or a lot of makeup”), they most definitely should not be outlawed.
“Society is too quick to judge something they are not familiar with,” said Best. ” A pageant (run) properly is no different than a young girl competing in gymnastics, a school function or anything else that has a score kept or judged upon. Teach these girls to be strong, confident individuals and see how far they go in life.”‘
Wynn Westmoreland of Atlanta appeared in school pageants beginning in the sixth grade and competed in the University of Georgia pageant, which is part of the Miss America program. She does not believe in a legal ban.
“It’s not a government issue,” said Westmoreland. “It’s a social issue and it’s a family issue.”
She believes the pageant bodies should get together and create a new rule only allowing girls to enter when they are at an age when they can choose what they want to do for themselves, around 9, 10 or 11.
“I do not like it when children who are not able to make choices on their own are forced to be in pageants and that is when I see the over-glamourization of young girls,” said Westmoreland, who is a media coordinator and writer for CNN’s food blog, Eatocracy. “They don’t even look like children anymore. They look like objects.”
Tish Howard, a former school principal, is no fan of child pageants, but like Westmoreland, thinks government should not be deciding what programs are acceptable for children.
“I think outlawing them is a slippery slope where the government starts dictating what activities parents can or cannot make available to children,” said Howard. “I do believe we could set guidelines on what does and does not constitute promoting sexual exploitation of children as far as routines and dress.”
I always try to approach these stories, as a mom of two young girls, with the question of what would I do? In this case, how would I feel if my girls wanted to enter a pageant?
Full disclosure here: I did compete in the New York Miss T.E.E.N. pageant in high school, but let me stress it was not a beauty pageant but a pageant based on talent, interviewing skills and community service. It was a terrific experience for me, and as many other women said earlier, it only added to my self-esteem, confidence and fire to achieve my dreams.
So back to the question, what if my girls, ages 5 and 7, wanted to be in a pageant?
I think I agree with the sentiment that they can do what they want when they are old enough to make that decision for themselves, which means I don’t have to worry about this one.
At least not yet.
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