Food For Thought

Salt, school lunches and the intersection of food, wellness and public policy.

Child Beauty Pageants: What Are We Teaching Our Girls?

The princess syndrome, self-image and eating disorders

The recent issue of French Vogue has sparked outrage for its photos of a ten-year old model lying in a sea animal print wearing a chest revealing gold dress, stilettos and heavy make up. Cries of "how young is too young" to model, be "sexy" etc. have ignited controversy about early sexualization of children. However, what of the looming concern of programming young children to be ultra conscious about physical appearance and the impact on adult body image and disordered eating?

Today, television is peppered with reality shows that feature pint-sized beauty queens decked out in pricy gowns, full make up and big hair. Pageants aren't the "dress up" play we knew as little girls, they are a multi billion-dollar industry.  And it's not just beauty pageants.  A recent reality dance program showed 9 year olds prancing around in revealing two-piece costumes complemented by thigh high stockings, spackled make up and teased hair. Before hitting the stage the choreographer demanded that they "paint on abs."  Armed with spray bronzer, the moms dutifully "carved" abs into their daughter's bare midriffs just before the young girls performed a provocative dance that causeed audible gasps from the audience.

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Many experts agree that participation in activities that focus on physical appearance at an early age can influence teen and/or adult self-esteem, body image and self-worth.  Issues with self-identity after a child "retires" from the pageant scene in her teens are not uncommon.  Struggles with perfection, dieting, eating disorders and body image can take their toll in adulthood.

Not all pageant participants, young dancers or performers will have body issues when they get older, but some do.  For the girls who do develop image obsessions, it appears that the hypercritical environment of their youth produces a drive towards the unattainable goal of physical perfection.  "The Princess Syndrome" as I like to call it, is a fairy tale.  Unrealistic expectations to be thin, physically beautiful, and perfect are at the heart of some disordered eating behaviors and body dissatisfaction. Scant research has been conducted to see if former pint-sized beauty pageant participants are more likely to suffer from eating disorders, but a small study published in 2005 showed that former childhood beauty pageant contestants had higher rates of body dissatisfaction.

In my experience as a dietitian for high-powered entertainment groups, I found that many of the young women with eating disorders were trained at an early age to value physical perfection, thinness, athletic prowess and attractiveness.  When it comes to performing, education takes a backseat. The performer's bodies are their livelihood and less-than-perfect might lead to unemployment. Granted, practice and devotion are required to hone any skill, but when does dedication go to far?

The child pageant and dance circuits are competitive, demanding and stressful.  Watch any reality dance or pageant show and see how children are placed under enormous pressure to perform flawlessly.  Tears, tantrums and fits frequently ensue with some adults mocking crying children. As result, child performers may believe that parental and/or adult love or approval are anchored to how perfectly they look or how well they ignite the stage with their presence. Long practice sessions are the norm and interfere with social activities, sleep and homework.  Just the other day, a popular dance show featured adults candidly admitting that they encourage activity over education. When confronted, devotees said, "My daughter loves it." Or "Ask her if she likes doing it!" Money, ratings and attention fuel the pageant/dance media machine with parents and adults reaping the benefits.

Adults need to be aware of the potential long-term impact super-competitive, beauty-driven pursuits can have on a young girl's psyche.  Intense participation in activities that spotlight physical appearance instills the idea that physical beauty and superficial charm are the keys to success, thus making self-worth and self-esteem inextricably tied to attractiveness. The take home message for society is that natural beauty or brains aren't enough to "make it."  Case in point: At a local "Women in Business" mixer I joined a circle of attractive 50-somethings who were discussing a local child pageant.  All were lamenting the "work that goes in to being beautiful and successful"  Being new to the group, they asked what I did for a living, when I told them I was a scientist I was met with "Oh, you must be smart." In many social circles, looks and appearance trump brains and education. My response: "Looks are fleeting, brains are forever."

Youthful participation in pageants and dance competitions can be a wonderful experience and may lead to a rewarding career. The key is to provide performing children with a balance of activities that involve more than fancy costumes, make-up and the world of make-believe. The feeling of unconditional love from a parent or nurturing adult can do wonders to curb body dissatisfaction, poor self-esteem and body image distress. As an example, a few years ago one of my clients had a dance career cut short by an injury. She said she was one of the few childhood dancers in her peer group that didn't have an eating disorder.  We discussed what made her unlike most of her dancing cohorts and she summed it up like this, "Thankfully my mom made me study in between dance competitions. Dance was important, but so were school and friends.  I went to college on a dance scholarship but minored in business. I can get a job that doesn't depend on my dance prowess or my looks and that fills me with confidence; some of my friends judge themselves based on their looks or dance ability and they can never be perfect enough especially when it comes to diet."

Not all tender-aged models, dancers, entertainers or pageant contestants will be offered a balanced childhood filled with unconditional love.  For these kids, the constant "play acting" may create hyper-competitive, shallow adults who are never satisfied; perhaps making them think,  "Most people love you for who you pretend to be. To keep their love, you keep pretending- performing. You get to love your pretence. It's true, we're locked in an image, an act-" Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors. Photo from Susan Anderson "High Glitz"  www.highglitz.com a book about the child pageant scene.

Martina M. Cartwright, Ph.D., R.D., is an adjunct professor of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Arizona and an independent biomedical consultant.

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