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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Brains vs. Beauty: Considering Kids' Participation in Beauty Pageants, Chess, and Football

In response to yesterday's post on child beauty pageants in Australia (or not) I received a variety of thoughtful comments. One of them was from The Family Factor who wrote, 

So what happens to the girls' views of the audience when they realize the[y] 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.

Collett's point is a very important one.  We enroll kids in activities that are meant to be fun, educational, and constructive.  But what happens when the kids just can't cut it and aren't "good enough?"

When I was studying elementary school kids who play scholastic chess I confronted this question directly.  The following exchange is from an interview with a first-grade boy who played in local chess tournaments:

Hilary: Do you want to play at a really big tournament someday, like the Nationals?
Jun: Not really.
Hilary: Why not?
Jun: Well, because, I'm thinking that Nationals are good, right? And smart. So, right now, I'm not smart enough... I just feel it.

I was concerned by Jun's reaction and asked one of the chess coaches if this is a usual response (especially because Jun in fact was a talented chess player and a smart kid).  The coach told me, "Of course when you start losing then you ask yourself questions. Why do I lose? Maybe I am not smart." Because chess is a mental game, when you fail, you worry that you are simply not smart enough to participate and succeed.  

Parents were also aware of this issue. A chess mom told me she worried this notion could really damage her third-grade daughter's self-esteem, and in the process push her away from math and science. She explained, "Unlike soccer or baseball or a team sport, it’s just you [in chess]. You can’t blame it on a teammate...It’s your brain.  I think it could be a very weird thing and potentially devastating to say that my mind wasn’t working well."

Even though we celebrate athletic talent in our society, the brain still reigns supreme. I believe this is part of the reason why concussions have been the focus of so much media attention (which I've discussed before here). An ACL tear can heal, as can a broken bone. But a broken brain? That's something else entirely.  Should we risk long-term damage to the brain for fleeting athletic glory?

This one was one of many great questions raised in last night's Frontline documentary called Football High. The episode focused on Shiloh, a small, private, Christian high school in Arkansas that has rocketed to the top of national high school (American style) football rankings. In telling Shiloh's story the producers  illuminated important questions about the current state of youth sports: the rise of private coaches, the professionalization of high school sports on television, the use of elaborate ranking systems for middle school and high school players, and the recruitment of collegiate players younger than ever. What does all this mean? High school athletes spend more hours in practice than NCAA athletes, with basically no regulation and often under the supervision of adults who aren't properly trained to care for their health. The consequence? More injuries, like heat stroke and concussions.  We hear about the tragic stories of Tyler Davenport, a high school football player who died of heat stroke this past fall following a football practice, and Owen Thomas, a football captain at University of Pennsylvania who had signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in his brain after he committed suicide last spring.  When they were told to push themselves harder, to be "good enough," they did.

Given what I study people often ask me what activities I will enroll my own kids in someday, when I have them. I can say with 95% certainty that if I have a son, I would not let him play football, especially if the game and its safety standards don't change.  It's just too risky to the brain and future development.

Which brings me back to beauty pageants and the question raised by The Family Factor.  The truth is that I am also 95% sure that if I have a daughter I wouldn't let her participate in a beauty pageant (too much family history, given that my mother was Miss America 1970).  However, in terms of damage to the brain (both physical and psychological), I don't see how beauty pageants are much worse than football.

In fact, on the point of sending girls a negative message about not being "pretty enough," I'd like to raise two points essentially in defense of pageants.  First of all it would be nice to think we live in a society where looks and appearances don't matter.  Many people work to change the fact that looks, especially women's looks, are so consequential, and this is definitely a worthy enterprise.  But the fact is, for both men and women, how you look matters-- if you think how much you earn matters or who your partner is matters (I say this in seriousness as some people value different things, like happiness, which is not always related to income or romantic partnerships).  As a sociologist I believe standards of beauty are partly determined by our society; but I also believe that some of this is biological.  For a great discussion of these issues check out Nancy Etcof's Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of BeautyWe know from numerous studies by economists and psychologists that taller, and better-looking people are paid more and people are nicer to them. I'm not saying this is right, but it is the way it is.  That parents want to advantage their kids-- in this case mainly their daughters-- by emphasizing how to look their best starting at a young age is then not irrational.  Of course, spending thousands and thousands of dollars to teach that lesson is not so rational-- and girls could learn how to improve their appearance in various ways from other activities that aren't beauty pageants.

In terms of concerns about girls' self-perception, I think this is a serious issue around pageants, as I wrote about yesterday. 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.

Given that I am a person who lives more of an intellectual life, I likely will teach my children how to play chess. I don't know if they will ever play in a chess tournament because I don't know if they will be any good. Of course, they can always get better through hard work and practice.  But some kids are just better suited to different activities with different skill sets. I'm determined to find out what my children enjoy and what they can be best at by exposing them to various activities (I intend to parent using my "childhood is a buffet" metaphor-- though football and beauty pageants won't be on my child's spread). I believe everyone has something they are good at, where they can "cut it," and it's our job as parents to help them discover their passion and what that might be-- whether it be chess, football, beauty pageants, or any other number of other endeavors like music and art.

What sorts of activities are off limit for your kids and why?


  1. #
    Suzanne Pomey What if all of your son's friends play football and all your son wants (despite you trying to keep it away from him) is to play football? Absolutely no way you'll let him?
    about an hour ago · LikeUnlike
    Hilary Levey Friedman You know I've always been pretty resistant to peer pressure... Plus I don't think we'll produce football-playing kids, ha ha.

    In all seriousness though, the injury rates with youth football are fairly alarming. And when you factor in the head injuries (and if you read the studies coming out of BU and Indiana, which show that non-concussive blows to the head cause short-term memory damage, you'd be worried too) I just think it's too risky. I'm not afraid of injuries, but I do worry about head injuries. Soccer, lacrosse, baseball, even wrestling, are cool with me.

    That said, I also would be quite resistant to my daughter doing competitive/elite gymnastics. The injury rates there, and the long-term effects on the body, are equally worrisome for girls. Injury rates in cheerleading are also off the charts for girls, but I don't think the long-term effects are bad. So maybe I'll be at football games watching a cheerleading child?!

  2. What you describe as part of beauty pageants I see all the time in my work with dancers in dance medicine and science. For example, classical ballet is particularly unforgiving of certain "un-ballet-like" body types and the lack of certain biomechanical abilities. Regardless of how much desire a youngster has or how much his/her parents push, advancing very far in ballet just isn't going to happen. So, we are left with dealing with the emotional aftermath of that. The monitored "buffet" approach is good, but what we need are wise parents who are invested in their children.

  3. Yes, the psychological aspects are often forgotten. Children's Hospital Boston's Sports medicine group has a sports psychologist on staff, which I think is very important.

  4. One of the things my mother often points to about team sports vs. individual ones like gymnastics is that in the individual sports, the elite-level kids are very quickly segregated from average-ability kids, whereas even the most talented soccer player has to work with and to a certain extent rely on less-talented teammates. I'm not sure what that does to how kids view themselves or their peers, but it's an interesting question.

  5. Hilary - I started to leave a comment this morning and then I realized I was writing enough to make it a post of its own on my site. So here is the link to the longest comment ever -

  6. MissLaura- The issue of "playing up" on soccer teams (and even in individual sports) is very complicated. Challenge a child or worry about peer groups. I think it is best to let a child perform to the best of their abilities, but this often comes with a host of problems.

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