Toddlers, Tiaras and the Law

“On any given weekend, on stages across the country, little girls and boys parade around wearing makeup, false eyelashes, spray tans and fake hair to be judged on their beauty, personality and costumes. … From hair and nail appointments, to finishing touches on gowns and suits, to numerous coaching sessions or rehearsals, each child preps for their performance. But once at the pageant, it’s all up to the judges and drama ensues when every parent wants to prove that their child is beautiful.” (“About Toddlers & Tiaras”, The Learning Channel).

If the parent’s quest to prove her child’s superior beauty is, indeed, the point of beauty pageants, French parents may soon need to find alternative ways of doing so. The New York Times reports that the French upper house this week passed a women’s rights bill that includes a ban on beauty pageants for children under the age of 16; the measure now goes to the lower house for discussion.

Senator Chantal Jouanno, who proposed the measure, opposes the objectification of girls she sees as inherent in beauty pageants: “It is extremely destructive for a girl between the age of 6 and 12 to hear her mother say that what’s important for her is to be beautiful. We are fighting to say: What counts is what they have in their brains.”

Jouanno’s view, reflected in the proposed French blanket ban, is a far-reaching condemnation of all pageants as necessarily counter-productive for idealizing the pursuit of beauty. In America, the debate on the beauty pageant sub-culture tends to focus mostly on the sexualization of young children. As Professor Wiehe of the University of Kentucky writes, “the sexualization of young children sends a conflicting message to the child and a dangerous message to adults. To the child, a message is given that sexuality – expressed in clothing, makeup and certain postures – is appropriate and even something to exploit. The message to adults, especially pedophiles, is one condoning children as sexual objects. Research on child sexual abuse shows that the sexualization of children is a contributing factor to their sexual abuse.” (“Nothing Pretty in Child Pageants,” 2011).  Defenders of pageants argue that, just like participation in any other sport, pageant parading gives children poise and self-confidence, and teaches them the value of hard work and determination.

So to what extent should state governments in the US, the homeland of beauty pageants, be concerned with overseeing child pageants? By all accounts, France has nothing on America when it comes to the pageant princess business; yet pageant-specific regulation is completely lacking here. In 2009, North Carolina considered a bill that would establish a legislative study committee on the regulation of pageants for children under the age of thirteen, a bill that was eventually shelved. Child pageant participants are not covered by labor laws such as the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act and child entertainer state regulations, because they are not “working.” Lindsay Lieberman argues that given the nature of beauty pageants, participants should be legally protected from unfair working hours, working conditions and mental/physical conditions.

But what about the argument that pageants are inherently hypersexual? The French ban was motivated not so much by concerns about long working hours and grueling rehearsal schedules – these risks are apparent in many competitive fields that children partake of, as any parent of a child with “go pro” aspirations can no doubt attest to – as by the underlying message of beauty pageants that “pretty [alone?] counts.” That is, of course, a damaging message – it’s certainly not solely attributable to beauty pageant culture – and one that parents should seek to counteract. The more difficult question is how, if at all, government should regulate pageants to ensure that the pursuit of “pretty” is not manifestly age-inappropriate. In agreeing to a blanket ban, French legislators have apparently decided that the “pretty/sexy” slope is just too slippery.

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