In 2008, the TLC network began airing an original series entitled “Toddlers & Tiaras,” generating high ratings and high criticisms. Child beauty pageants have been around for over a century, but the practice has only been well-known in popular culture for a few decades, and most of the stories have been negative. Perhaps the most famous example is the tragic murder of JonBenet Ramsey, whose identity as a “child beauty queen” dominated the media spotlight. With the popularity of “Toddlers & Tiaras,” concerns about the oversexualization of children, grueling pageant schedules, and controlling parents have spread like wildfire.
What are the origins of child pageants? The first May Queen Festival in 1881, an event created by a British art critic, was designed to celebrate the youthful innocence of girls in England. In America, the pageants opened up to even younger ages, until babies were being judged on their appearance and costumes. In 1893, 30,000 people came out to watch the Asbury Park baby parade in New Jersey, and in 1929, that number swelled to 500,000 at Coney Island.
Even in those days, child beauty pageants were troubling. Girls as young as three won awards for harem and showgirl costumes. Now, revealing costumes and provocative performances are one of the major criticisms of child pageants. This early sexualization can have long-lasting effects according to the American Psychological Association, and results in girls learning to depend on their looks for confidence. Dressing up a girl to look older than her years also affects how adults see her; because she looks like an adult, she can make decisions like an adult. This belief can endanger the child’s safety.
With all the negative attention surrounding child beauty pageants, why do parents keep entering them? According to pageant parents, there are several reasons, including how pageants give young children confidence, teach performance and communication skills on stage and with peers, and allow kids to earn scholarships for the future. To combat the possibly devastating effects of pageant competition, many parents choose “natural” pageants for their kids, which are pageants that do not require glittery outfits, makeup, or other modifications. Some pageants also have refused to hold swimsuit competitions and include categories for accomplishments like volunteer work. Ultimately, child pageants are inherently risky, but for the children who really do love to perform and love the competition, it is possible for parents to find safe, confidence-building events.