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“Ugly” Children’s Beauty Pageants

It was announced over the weekend in the media that Melbourne and Perth would be hosting kiddie beauty pageants involving pre-school and above children. In this pageant competition the little girls are groomed, dressed and “dolled up” in adult themes that betray their innocence as children. There is judging and prizes. Unfortunately this trend is but one further manifestation of the increasing sexualisation and earlier loss of childhood in our children.

It is an accepted psychological truth that a person’s early years, if they are good, sustain a person throughout their life, just as a bad childhood damages them. Nothing is more vulnerable than childhood and childhood has never been more under threat. The trend in our society is that the experiences which nourish and help shape children into their adult lives are now being compressed into an ever dwindling window of time, and where childhood is being devalued so much that many parents seem increasingly restless to get their children’s childhood over as quickly as possible.

Psychiatrists define sexualisation of children as the imposition of adult models of sexuality on children and adolescents, and categorically state it creates psychological harm to children. They note the implied or explicit linking of self-worth with popularity in terms of sexual attractiveness, with a negative impact on self-esteem.

Parents, mass media marketing, peer pressure, single parent and double income family systems, are all propelling our children into premature adolescence as if innocence, magical thinking, wonder and make-believe are detrimental and should be replaced with “the realites of life” as soon as is possible.

Studies of children have confirmed that many children feel pressure to grow up too quickly and to dress, act and behave as “mini-adults”, often to impress parents, or have parents impress friends by parading them out like Barbie dolls or spunky, cool little dudes.

The planned children’s beauty pageant can be interpreted as part of an emerging narcissistic, dysfunctional form of raising children that is damaging and abusive to the children who undergo such experiences. A child is not able to comprehend the damage to itself that such involvement will create, and will be a willing participant from a place of wanting to please the parents, and from a place of not being able to have a mature mind that could give consent to what it is being asked to do. A parent placing a child in such a role or situation, is in my opinion abusing the child, and abandoning their responsibilities to parent the child towards a psychologically healthy adulthood.

Social commentators now refer to the emergence of a “raunch culture” which pressures girls to have sex early and against their will. Studies of Generation Y by respected researchers such as La Trobe University Sociologist Anastasia Powell reveal trends of sexualized imagery in media, music and popular culture taking its toll on the young.

Boys and men are encouraged by the same imagery to adopt aggressive roles in sex with women, to degrade and objectify them. A 2008 Australian Latrobe University investigation of 3000 year 10 and year 12 school age students from across 100 public and private schools, found that 38 per cent of female respondents having had unwanted sex, from a total pool of 40 per cent who replied they have had sex at all. Also over 30 per cent had not used a condom, over 30 per cent have had oral sex with more than 3 partners in the last year.

Television and media are now directly shaping children’s reality through children’s and teenage shows, where marketing of products is included along with portrayal of the key characters as mini-adults, who role model for children how they should dress, act, think, behave and speak. Think of such shows as Hannah Montana and the Bratz girl dolls franchise and programmes. The degree of sexualisation of the dolls and the actresses is disturbing yet we face a time when Hollywood, business and Media distributors are largely acting under self regulation which translates to permissive and sexualized themes being a valid option for children’s products to express.

Sexualised products appearing on the market for children include padded bras, G-Strings, high heel shoes, pole-dancing kits, babies T-shirts with sexualized messages. The children are often too young to understand the sexualized nature of the product, and often it is a sexualized or narcissistic parent wanting attention for themselves, who creates a “show pony” effect on their children, and effectively use the children to prop up their own low self esteem or narcissistic ego supplies.

Retailers of such products defy challenge of their “right” to market such products, saying it is just “fun” or not to be taken seriously. They dismiss the notion that such merchandise creates a normalization of a sexualized image in children, yet admit they have no psychological training or evidence to back-up or make such statements.

In effect it is a lack of accountability to the consumer as regulations are geared to more tangible and physical safety and other guidelines, and only public outcry is having a change of heart on behalf of exposed, named and shamed retailers who sell such products. Marketing is always pushing the boundaries and ethics appears to be a missing element of the thinking of many of those who sell and promote products and experiences to the wider public. Shareholders and profits appear to be the main concern of many retailers.

The attack on childhood is never more constant, and pushing the boundaries, or chasing new childhood markets, than ever before. Society is increasingly buying into this trend with a new generation of businesses now springing up to cater for children to go to Day Spas, Limousines and $1000 dresses to the teenage school balls, fashion parades, and adult theme experiences recreated for children as young as 5 years old and older.

Young teen women are presented with such sexualized adult role models as Britney Spears, Lady GaGa, Rihanna, Beyonce and Madonna from which to align their emerging sense of selves. Under peer pressure they are forced to conform to obtain acceptance from boys who also adopt the same sexualized expectations of girls from these same women role models.

At the same time these young women also attract attention from older men who are able to exploit their innocence, intimidate them with their more assured and confident natures, which can drive a young girl into the arms of a predator, and without the girl knowing how, or being able to give any real consent.

Parents are increasingly abandoning their own responsibilities to be effective guides and role models for children, and instead without question, abandoning their children in front of televisions, computer screens and other media where the new role models are questionable, unaccountable, and frighteningly absorbed into the unconscious of any exposed child. We as a society are increasingly abandoning our responsibility to our children about how to be children, we are increasingly asking our children to act like adults, but we then do not later teach them how to live, behave and be adults.

Childhood is the only safe psychological foundation and process for children to experience if they are to become secure and healthy adults. The old saying that the person who grows up too soon spends the rest of their life as a child is full of wisdom. Parents cannot afford to adopt a victim stance and say it is all too hard or not their fault. Parents have the main responsibility in taking an active role in providing a measured and balanced view of the children’s self-worth, self-image, and the creation of healthy self-esteem where they can critically challenge the sexualized messages streaming through society.

Parents need to start from early childhood in this regard, filtering content they expose their children to, and constantly creating appropriate images and messages for their children. In particular, fathers are crucial in shaping their daughters emerging sexuality via their messages and support. A parent who exposes their child to a childhood beauty pageant where the child is dressed in adult and sexualized attire, is judged by peers and adults, and there is a win-lose outcome, is being negligent, and may be using the child to live out their own unmet fantasies or unachieved goals in life.

I can only hope that Australians take a leadership role in challenging this planned series of pageants. We owe our children by rejecting the assault on the innocence of their childhood years via the objectification and sexualisation that such pageants portray.