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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Australians Against Child Beauty Pageants

Over the weekend I was contacted by the group Australians Against Child Beauty Pageants.  I have been reading about their protests of a child beauty pageant that will be held in Melbourne in July for a few weeks now.

Basically a US pageant system, Universal Royalty (which I write a bit more about below), is hosting a pageant and bringing over Eden Wood, who has been featured several times on Toddlers & Tiaras (her mom thinks of her as a star in the child beauty pageant world-- I've written about her before here).  A group of Australians, upset over this development, have formed a protest group that is circulating an online petition and planning a rally. Others have have counter-organized, supporting the pageants in Australia, and Eden Wood.

[After watching Kate Gosselin and her eight in Australia for the past two weeks on TLC, I can't help but wonder if the producers of these popular TLC reality shows featuring kids have some sort of relationship with/affinity for Australia?! Don't get be wrong, Australia is definitely on my bucket list of places I must see in my lifetime, but it seems like a strange publicity coincidence.]

One of the organizations members sent me a thoughtful email, which you can read by clicking HERE.  Below is part of my response. Note that I can't say if Australia should or should not allow this event to be held, but I do not believe that by US law child beauty pageants are illegal or child abuse. Do people do things around child beauty pageants that could be considered illegal and or/child abuse? Sure. But I've seen the same things around soccer clubs and chess tournaments.


Thanks for contacting me and asking the questions you ask.  I really appreciate you pointing out that it is difficult to discern my exact stance on child beauty pageants! When I was doing this research as an academic  I went out of my way to be objective.  The purpose of my academic work on child beauty pageants was not to judge, but to really try to understand how and why people get started with child beauty pageants.  In this message I want to share some research with you, and also offer (part of) my opinion on child beauty pageants.

Essentially, Eden Wood's manager is correct. We do not have good data on the long-term effects of participation in child beauty pageants. This is also true for many childhood activities, like football, gymnastics, soccer, chess, dance, etc! The main problem, which I have written about a bit before, is that it is very difficult to get truly randomized experiments involving children, so it is then very difficult to figure out what the selection effects are and the omitted variables (essentially, we don't know if someone who participates in child beauty pageants might have lower self-esteem as an adult because they had lower self-esteem going into the pageants, perhaps because of an overbearing mother, so the cause and effect are all mixed up). Child beauty pageants are particularly tricky when it comes to "research" for another reason-- we simply don't know what the full population of all participants in child beauty pageants looks like.  You can go to a pageant and talk to all of the contestants and their families, but you are really only talking to people who participate in that pageant.  Because child beauty pageants don't have a national organization that regulates the events, or keeps track of participants, we don't know how many families participate, what they look like, etc. This also makes it near to impossible to track participants over time.

That being said, I know of one piece of peer-reviewed academic research that looks at the long-term effects of participation in child beauty pageants. This 2005 article in Eating Disorders finds that a small sample of women seem to have higher body dissatisfaction in young adulthood, but not more serious problems like eating disorders and depression. This result does not surprise me as I believe child beauty pageants can be problematic, but that they also can have positive effects on children.

What might those positive effects be? I think the biggest one is learning how to be confident in front of an audience.  When children start young, they never learn to be nervous.  While many moms do have aspirations that their daughters will end up as entertainers (about half of those in my sample who had ambitions announced at a pageant), this skill can also apply to other careers. One mom told me, "No matter what profession or role my child chooses she will more than likely, at some point, need to be able to speak and conduct herself confidently in front of others – whether it be on the PTA, as a stay-at-home mom, or in front of a Board of Directors of a large corporation."  Another mom explained, "Having done [pageants] as a child, you get the feeling that the audience is not the bad guy. They are your friend."  I believe that some children will never take to being in front of a crowd, but for many others participation in activities like child beauty pageants can help they overcome shyness and help develop skills that can help later in life.

Now, do you need to wear fake teeth (aka "flippers"), hair extensions, and false eyelashes to do this? No. Are there potential negative effects in wearing them? Yes. Do we know for sure? No. However, based on what we know about psychological development I can suggest two potential problems.  The first to think about is: what happens when a child (especially a young one) looks in the mirror and doesn't recognize herself? This could be confusing, and even psychologically traumatizing. Second, and a related point: what happens when a girl is constantly told how beautiful she is when she is wearing make-up, sporting a fake tan, hair and clothes done to the nines? When she does not wear those things, even if she is told that she is pretty, does she really believe this? Is it possible to believe "natural" beauty is acceptable when you win a prize for enhanced beauty?  And, of course, there are potential physical consequences to using make-up, hair products, fake-tans, etc. at a young age.

I want to emphasize an important point.  Despite tears (which you will always see if you are around kids this age), child beauty pageants can be fun.  It can be fun to get "all dolled up" for some kids. It can be fun to make new friends from different parts of your state and the country.  In the US one of the biggest parts of most child beauty pageants is getting to go swimming in the hotel pool. The girls are often more excited about swimming in January with their friends than doing the pageant.  But if you only watch television shows about child beauty pageants, instead of attending, you would miss this.  Plus, the pageants the shows focus on are, not surprisingly, the most extreme.  I call these high glitz pageants, but there are also hobby glitz and natural pageants. Not all child beauty pageants are created equally.

Of course, like most things in life, anything taken to an extreme is bad. I have met wonderful people who are involved with child beauty pageants and I have met some pretty nasty people. It is usually the moms who cause problems, not the kids, and that often takes place on the Internet after an event (also something only glossed over in most of the recent child pageant shows).

Now, as for child beauty pageants coming to Australia it's worth pointing out that, historically, the precursors to child beauty pageants were exported to the US from the UK back in the 19th century. So blame your fellow Commonwealth country! :-) No question though that since the mid-twentieth century the home of child beauty pageants has been the US. And, clearly, Universal Royalty is a US-based pageant. I have never been to a Universal Royalty event, but I can say that even before the TLC series Toddlers & Tiaras, Universal Royalty's director went out of her way to be featured in the media. One example is an old A&E series called The Competition, which featured an Austin, Texas pageant in 2001. I mention this because I believe that while Universal Royalty isn't the "glitziest" on the pageant circuit, it does have a media focus that many others don't. I'm guessing your group might feel a little bit different if it was a more natural, and low-key, pageant system like Cinderella, proposing an event in Australia?


  1. Fantastic!! Finally an educated post, Thank You:))

  2. So well written! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

  3. Most people against child beauty pageants do not distinguish between 'glitz' and 'natural' pageants. It is the principle of having little girls compete over 'beauty' (narrowly defined, imposed by adults) that is the problem.

    Whether it be Universal Royalty or 'Cinderella' it's all rotten to the core.

  4. Great, balanced article. well done!

  5. Well put together post. I like the balanced view you've brought out here. Personally, I truly can't see how glitz beauty pageants are a good thing. Especially for young kids.

    However, I absolutely can see how the media ham it up...when I see the kids crying in the videos, I think: if they followed me around with my kids, they'd be crying at all sorts of things...just kids. BUT there is a serious side to this...and you've touched on that too.

    For me, I don't care what sort of pageant it is (natural or glitz), I don't want to be part of it.

    I can see how it could be seen as a fun thing once in a while...but at a highly competitive level? Questions.

    Our family don't have any problems finding other fun things to do.

    Thanks for putting this together. I really enjoyed reading it.

  6. Thank you for a thought provoking piece. I enjoy a work that gets me to really think through my views.

    My thoughts on this are: I have some difficulty with the comparison between sport and pageants. Pageants are all about outward appearances, while other activities mentioned are about a skill. If a child comes second or second last for that matter (in pageants), they can not practice at being prettier and are not able to go off and hone a skill so that they may improve.

    To me, pageants focus purely on beauty. So what happens to the girls' views of the audience when they realize the did not cut it? The idea that outward appearance is what gives you the edge in life is further entrenched and each time the girls become more self-conscious about what the audience is feeling about them compared to someone 'prettier'. To me this creates further insecurity rather than confidence.

    I too agree with child study limitations, but we know that pornography is harmful to children even though we will never be able to do a long term study testing this by placing children in front of porn movies.

    I completely agree that the media has a field day with this but I still do not believe that the underlying messages that little girls get from 'beauty' pageants is healthy for their development.


  7. Thanks to everyone for your comments! Based on many of them (questions about natural vs. glitz) and The Family Factor's important point about being "good enough," I'm writing a bit more about this now.

    Thank you for reading!

  8. #
    Justine Stewart Interesting facts department: Hilary Levey-Friedman's mother competed in the Miss America pageant, winning Miss Michigan in 1970. I think As a sociologist, Ms Levey-Friedman's viewpoint is different to what would be offered by, say, a psychologist. A sociologist is really more about observing society than ascribing any particular value, good or bad, to it.
    Yesterday at 7:14pm · LikeUnlike · 1 personLoading...
    Australians Against Child Beauty Pageants Justine, we were aware of her background but found most of her research to be objective. When researching child beauty pageants we became aware if her papers and thought a polite email might help us develop a bigger breadth of information (wasn't aware it would be published!). Her observations are interesting
    Yesterday at 7:28pm · LikeUnlike
    Justine Stewart Sorry to clarify that wasn't meant to be a criticism, just an observation
    Yesterday at 7:55pm · LikeUnlike
    Australians Against Child Beauty Pageants I think the background is important. Our stance from the start, as you are aware, is to draw out any research or professional critique to make an informed choice about where we stand.
    Yesterday at 7:59pm · LikeUnlike
    Australians Against Child Beauty Pageants Always appreciate your observations :-)
    Yesterday at 7:59pm · LikeUnlike
    Justine Stewart And yours :)
    Yesterday at 8:11pm · LikeUnlike
    Jenn Lane
    As a sociologist I have studied psychology & to a limited extent child development. My area is not the commercialisation of beauty pageants or the narrow discourse of beauty that this industry creates, I did just want to add that a sociolog...ical interpretation of pageants is just as valid in the academic world as a psychological one would be! It is interesting to observe though that the daughter of a former pageant performer can have an image and account of the industry that is not all positive & defensive! Just one more note of sociologists there would be little to analyse in any field if it were not for the sociological imagination especially de Saussure who provides a great way to analyse the industry as a whole! I still can not understand why if there is nothing wrong with pageants in general, hasn't the industry either created their own research or worked with the APA or something similar to prove their point??See More
    23 hours ago · LikeUnlike
    Hilary Levey Friedman Thanks to everyone for your comments! It is true that my mother is a former Miss America (which could make me either really positive or really negative). I love watching the Miss America pageant, and others, with friends each year (sharing a laugh and being impressed at times, if that makes sense). I myself have never participated in a beauty pageant or anything like it!
    3 hours ago · LikeUnlike
    Hilary Levey Friedman To answer Jenn's question, I do believe sociology offers a different perspective, though obviously more at the group level than the individual level. I do not do psychological research but I read it often.
    3 hours ago · LikeUnlike
    Hilary Levey Friedman
    Finally, in response to Jenn, I want to say that the reason why the pageant industry has never done any research is basically because there is no real "industry." There are the big players, but beyond that everyone is very independent. Why?... Essentially they can't get along and see one another as competition! It's not pretty. The "big" guns like Miss America and Miss Universe appear to be very ambivalent about the child side of things. It's a recent development for the Miss America program to have a teen competition-- still very different from the kids' events-- though Miss Teen Universe type competition has been around longer (though not around as long as the Miss Universe system itself).See More
    3 hours ago · Like

  9. First of all, I would like to say that this is a well written and balanced view of the child beauty pageant world. Refreshing to read and eye opening. I would like to respond to "The Family Factor" post.
    I believe one must have a first hand look at these competitions to properly asses what really goes on in the Glitz pageant events. Yes there is fake hair, nails, tans, etc. However, the judging isn't based on who has the prettiest fake hair, nails, or tans. At the glitz level of competition all of the children competing are beautiful. The judging is actually based on the skill level of each child as they perform individually on stage. As in sports, these children learn and practice their modeling routines, eye contact with the judges, and emoting confidence on stage well in advance of an actual competition. In the end it isn't your beauty that wins or loses, it is how well your on stage performance is. This is very similar to sports, dance competitions, musical recitals, etc. A child can and will learn, that if they do not win, it is not their beauty that was judged, but it was the on stage performance. In most cases a parent and child may look back at the competition to see where improvements can be made. Believe me, it is not to see how much more tan, or how big the fake hair of their competition was. The child can then learn from this experience and improve so that the next outcome may be more positive. Beauty pageants are a competitive sport and most play to win. I do not see the harm in that.

  10. @Anonymous- I think there can be some harm, but learning about "practice" is not one of them! Funny enough, I made a point very similar to yours in the next day's post, Brains vs. Beauty, where I wrote: "However, somewhat paradoxically, when it comes to concerns about not being "pretty enough," I worry about this the most when it comes to natural pageants. In natural pageants a girl wears no make-up, doesn't wear super fancy dresses with lots of rhinestones, etc. Often at natural pageants girls walk on stage and model a bit, but the routines are not at all elaborate. At glitz pageants, by contrast, "total package" competitors do best. It doesn't matter if you aren't the most "facially beautiful," using only what you were born with. Instead, you can work to "enhance" that beauty. On top of that, and more important here, you can work to become a good model, practicing choreographed routines, and working on specific skills for the routines like triple turns. In other words, girls can learn the value of practice and hard work from glitz pageants, rather than just coasting on natural good looks like in some natural pageants."
    Thanks for reading and commenting (to you and everyone!).

  11. We are new to this controversy, its been rather interesting on many facets to understand the ruckus that children's beauty pageants have garnered overseas, in particular Australia.

    We were the recent sponsors of one beauty pageant in Plano, Texas this year. We had the opportunity to actually attend for the first time this interesting phenomena. It was a mixture of different feelings like; thrilling, competitive, anxious, hard work, and obviously disappointing for the non winners.

    As you summarized, these same feelings and effects are present in children's sports. I played sports in school and I encountered hard work, dedication, anxiousness, and obviously disappointment when we did not win. Yet, I encountered great satisfaction when I did win.

    These ingredients if focused well i.e., hard work, dedication, and team spirit are all essential ingredients that make for well rounded and industrious adult.

    Was the child pageant show, exploitative as the press in Australia has over emphasized? No, I did not see that or possibly failed to notice it. I saw a lot of hard work from both the parents and the children. Was the child pageant show over sexual? No, that is ridiculous. Though I saw a parent who could have used more class with a Dolly Parton (skit). Again, the child is not to blame for any lack of class, it always points back at the parents who are lacking in their parental skills.

    If Australian parents are concerned because these child beauty pageants demean little girls, I have a hard time believing that hypothesis. Psychologically, I don't know the ratios between girls who grow up attending child beauty pageants versus girls who did not attend child beauty pageants. As a parent I can say that children who grow up in a stable home with stable parents, usually grow up with self confidence and respect themselves more, than in homes where a parent is gone or their is abuse.

    That this type of venue encourages "pedophiles" is absurd. Pedophiles are encouraged by their own demented behavior. Where do we draw the line. Do we stop buying bathing suits for our children? Are public swimming pools a pedophilia magnet center? Who knows what the answers are to these questions? And are these the right questions to ask? For example, in Japan there is an overwhelming attraction to girls wearing school uniforms as being sexy. Again, the question is where do we draw the line? Pedophiles are attracted by innocence, that's where the danger lies. It doesn't matter what the girls or boy wears that attracts a pedophile. Ultimately, its the child's innocence that stirs a demented mind to react.

    We have been reading reactions to girls who cannot, for what ever reason, participate in child beauty pageants and mostly they are sad. They wish that they could be a part of the nostalgia, romanticism, and fun of a beauty pageant. I can safely say that child beauty pageants are not for everyone, and my statement is not based on beauty as a requirement. From what I saw, it takes much more than beauty to win it also takes a lot of heart.

  12. Nice posted article! Hope to see more post from you. It was great job well done!

  13. Well said, Its was controversial issue that needs further discussion since child is involve.