So, I was trying to decide what I should use as the subject for my first content blog, but then this subject sort of fell into my lap. I was recently a (small) part of a local beauty pageant, and my whole experience with the pageant process got me thinking about what exactly these pageants teach our young girls. And to be honest I’m still a little torn on how I feel about the subject.
Now let’s be clear, when I’m talking about a pageant, I am referring to a very homely, local pageant–not like those crazy, dramatic pageants shown on TV shows like Toddlers in Tiaras. I should also add that the age groups that I witnessed were the 5th and 6th grade, 7th and 8th grade, and 9th and 10th grade levels, so it wasn’t the big pageant title but the “little miss,” “young miss,” and “junior miss” titles. Still I will say that some of these girls and their parents took the pageant politics a little too far, but I’ll get back to that in a second. Anyway, the point is that this particular pageant was supposedly established to support young girls in our community and boost the confidence and self-esteem of its contestants. And the title winners of these pageants receive some scholarship money for participating. So here we have the premise of what should be a very positive experience for young girls to participate in where they learn valuable social skills and that promotes their success in education and in society.
Okay, so that all might seem well and good, but there’s something that just rubs me the wrong way about pageants. I spoke with contestants of all ages and the parents of those contestants as well as the volunteers who help with the pageant to try and get a sense of what was really going on here. Of course all of the proud parents said the same thing, that the pageants help their girls gain confidence and self-esteem, and that they build these lifelong friendships with the other girls, and that it’s all in good fun and promotes the girls futures, etc. And when I spoke to each of the girls I was given similar answers, almost as if these responses were rehearsed. So, then I just began to observe silently, and what I observed was sort of contrary to what I was told. There were some parents who were very passive when interacting with their children, and you could tell that they were really just there to allow their child the chance to have some fun. Then there were those parents who were over-intrusive when it came to everything having to do with their child. These parents would hover over the make-up artist, hair stylist, and dance teachers to make sure that these volunteers were making their child look just right. These parents were very competitive, to the point that they would bring multiple outfits into the dressing room so that other parents/contestants didn’t know which outfits their child was actually going to wear. And the children of these parents seemed to have a certain air about them, and they would just strut around the pageant like they had already won. While the other girls are playing and having fun, these girls are obsessively primping and practicing their walk. So who is this pageant benefiting here?
The politics of these pageants were apparent just from the behaviors of some of the parents and contestants. I could easily tell which girls were pageant veterans, and which girls were just doing the pageant for fun. And I can say that in most cases, and I’ll discuss the exception in a moment, the girls who had the most fun with the pageant were not the girls who won the pageants. But before I get to the winners of these pageants, I’d also like to take a moment to discuss what the whole concept of dressing up for these pageants is teaching our young girls. As a girl, I never participated in pageants; it was just never something that I wanted to do. Now that doesn’t mean that I didn’t secretly long to wear that huge ballgown dress, but I never wanted it badly enough to participate in pageants. But when I was watching these young girls, I had such mixed emotions about what this whole experience is really even teaching them. On the one hand, I could see the appeal for a young girl to be able to pick out a cute sportswear outfit and a nice formal dress and then have the chance to parade your unique style around on a stage in front of your whole town. But on the other hand, how is putting false eyelashes on a 10 year old beneficial to her? You see, there were two types on young girls in each of these categories–and please keep in mind that the age groups that we had were middle school ages up to sophomores in high school. It seemed like in each category there were those girls who looked like just that–young girls in cute girly outfits with modest amounts of make up on. And then there were those girls who were fully decked out in very adult-like make up (as in contouring their faces and everything), and they wore very mature outfits that I don’t even know if I could pull off as an adult! I mean some of these girls walked around in little jumpers with open backs. And it was just remarkable to me that a parent would allow their 11 year old to walk around legitimately looking like they could pass for 18 years old. So again, what are we teaching our girls here? What do those young girls think and feel when they try to compare themselves to those girls who look much older and more experienced? And what do those more grown-up looking girls take away from this whole experience? That if they dress and look just right they can bypass childhood and jump straight into their teen/young adult years?
Lastly there’s the politics of all of this, and I find that to be the most unfortunate aspect of all of it because it really makes me question the real purpose behind these pageants. There are three judges for each age group, and these judges cannot live in the same county as the town that the pageant is held in. Well, for the group that I was involved with, I was able to talk my friend and her sister who just moved here from Wisconsin to be judges to ensure absolute impartial results. This was not the case for the other age groups. Now I’m not necessarily saying that the other judges were somehow compromised or anything. But these judges were veterans to pageant judging and some of them were even titled as “certified pageant judges” (whatever that means). And so in those two age groups the same girls won who won last year, and they were those girls who looked at least 5 years older than they were and the ones who had the most adult looking outfits and makeup. But in the age group that my friends judged, they picked the girls who they thought had the best personalities, not the best outfits or looks. And so the girls in that group who were winners the previous years didn’t even place this year, and the girls who were maybe not the most experienced at pageants won! Well this put the parents of those who didn’t win into a frenzy. These parents are still talking about the results today, and they are just so upset that their perfect little princess didn’t even place in this year’s pageant. What’s worse, they are just making up excuses, saying that our judges were trying to sabotage the pageant, and they are feeding this sort of talk to their children! Rather than taking this as an opportunity to teach their girls a valuable lesson about winning/losing in life, they are coddling their girls and saying that it wasn’t their fault but the judges’. So instead of walking away from this experience feeling happy for the other contestants who did win or even learning a lesson in losing, these girls are walking away thinking that they were supposed to win but because of these weird judges who aren’t even official pageant judges they lost. So, again, I have to ask what are these pageants teaching our girls?
As I was walking about this pageant I was carrying my 6 month old daughter with me, and every single person that we came in contact with asked when I would be putting her in the pageants or remarked about how good she’ll do in pageants when she’s old enough. And I never actually said anything to the contrary, but I can only imagine that the faces I made when these people would make such comments about my daughter had to give away my feelings about it all. On the one hand, sure it sounds adorable to get my baby all dolled up and parade her around proudly for the cutie pie that she is. But on the other hand. what would that be teaching her about what it means to be a girl in this world? That she is just some object of beauty? See this is where I am torn with this whole situation, and this is where I leave the discussion open to you guys. Where do you stand on all of this pageant business? Do you think that it is a positive experience which promotes confidence in young girls? Or do you think that pageants are just the beginnings of how society objectifies the female body and that the politics behind it all taints the supposed good nature of the experience?