Interest and criticism surrounding child beauty pageants has increased due to the popularity of Toddler’s & Tiaras, a show that both fascinates and disturbs many. As a clinician familiar with the perils of body image disorder amongst young, elite entertainers, I’m frequently asked to provide an opinion regarding what motivates parents to subject their children to the high-pressure, appearance-driven glitz beauty pageant circuit and what “happens’” to these children.
My August 2011 Psychology Today Online piece on child beauty pageants fueled a robust discussion about pageant participation. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/food-thought/201108/child-beauty-pageants-what-are-we-teaching-our-girls
These discussions got me thinking…why do pageant moms do what they do? Is what we see on television real or just hyped up acting meant to boost ratings? I decided to do some sleuthing and check it out for myself. What I found was interesting.
Child beauty pageants have been around for over 100 years. Phineas T. Barnum of circus fame, held a beautiful baby contest in the 1850s and the early 20th century was a boon for baby contests, awarding attractive tots with cash prizes. Baby beauty contests were very popular as promotions for businesses and products and included more than girls and babies; little boys were part of the competition too. Today’s modern child beauty pageants got their start in the 1960s. Such pageants proved to be incredibly popular, and pageant organizers began to establish child beauty pageants based on age. Photos of 1960s child pageant participants remain elusive, but my friend Karen Kataline was a tot beauty queen of the 1960s. Her mother had been a child pageant princess in the 1930s and decided that her daughter, Karen, should follow in her white patent leather Mary Jane footsteps.
Karen’s mom was the quintessential pageant mom. Dressing her daughter in frilly dresses and heavy makeup at a young age. Karen’s mom was also body conscious, forcing her daughter to consume a very low calorie diet that left her starving for both attention and food. Karen’s story is compelling and as she told me, “I didn't know I hated the pageants. I thought I loved them, just as my mother said. I didn't find out until my body told me at the age of 16. Then, of course, it took many more years to figure it out.” Karen, who has a Master’s in Social Work, has written about her experiences in a book called FatLash (www.karenkataline.com). It is the first book to describe what can “happen” to tot beauty queens and serves as a cautionary tale to those who place their children on the child pageant circuit.
So why would Karen’s mom and so many other parents place their child in a potentially harmful glitz pageant circuit? The answer lies in a condition known as “Achievement by Proxy Distortion.” (ABPD). Benign ABP occurs when the adult’s pride and satisfaction are achieved when supporting the child’s development and abilities.1 In benign ABP, coaches, parents and other involved adults actively cheer on the child and provide emotional support and reasonable financial assistance. The parents are aware of the child’s limitations and would allow the child to stop the activity if the child became disinterested, injured or exploited.
The pathogenic form of ABPD is a phenomenon by which the social and/or financial gains of the child’s achievements become the adults’ primary goals. ABPD is often associated with child athletes, however, I believe some pageant parents exhibit a unique form of ABPD I call “Princess by Proxy.” (PBP). My article in the November 2012 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry2,3 is the first in the medical literature to address this issue.
Many critics of child glitz pageants claim that the parents are living vicariously through their children, seeking fame and financial rewards from their child’s pageant achievements. Reality television certainly seems to support this and many pageant detractors cite pageant parents’ behavior as proof that they are exploiting their children for personal gain. However, reality television is often scripted to enhance ratings, and may not truly represent the typical pageant family. So I decided to attend two live productions of Toddlers & Tiaras in two geographically distinct areas of the country to directly observe the glitz pageant environment and see for myself what goes on. My direct observations suggest that a few pageant parents exhibit unhealthy aspects of ABPD and that reality television reflects some of the more negative aspects of child glitz pageants.
Today’s tot glitz pageants are a multi billion-dollar industry. The entry fees coupled with extravagant costumes and makeup run up the participant tab to several hundred, if not thousands of dollars. The financial investment often exceeds the top cash prize. Parents who invest thousands of dollars in tot pageants for the rare chance at fame are exhibiting the first stage of ABPD called “Risky sacrifice.” With risky sacrifice, the adult loses the ability to differentiate their needs for success and achievement from the child’s. Parents may make risky financial decisions to support the child’s perceived abilities; rationalizations to justify the child’s intensely focused participation in a specific activity (eg: pageants) and increasing pressure for the child to perform no matter what are characteristics. The pageants I attended were rife with this behavior with many parents saying textbook ABPD risky sacrifice comments like, “It costs a lot of money and we are in debt, but my daughter likes doing the pageants.” Really? The kid is two years old. Or “My daughter is in the first grade but sometimes we miss school so we can get to a pageant. We’ve invested so much in her coaching and outfits that we’d hate to lose it.” Priorities, anyone?
The second stage of ABPD is “Objectification.” In this stage the adult can’t differentiate their needs and goals for success from their child’s. The adult wants their child to win at all cost and there is an excessive focus on the pageant or sport. The child may be forced to train or perform beyond their abilities or in the case of pageants, don an unrealistically flawless appearance. The pageants I attended judged contestants on flawless appearance, poise and personality….however none spoke a word so personality was based on looks alone. Some hypercritical parents chastised their tots for not “performing” or looking less than perfect, openly blaming the child for “failure” and insisting that the child would practice more or “learn to look perfect.”
The last stage is “Potential Abuse.” This is a severe or complete loss of the adult’s ability to differentiate their needs and goals from the child’s. At this level, the child is at risk for exploitation and is often forced to continue the sport or in this case, pageant activity despite potential physical or emotional harm; this is often done in an effort to provide financial or material gain for the adult.
The young contestants I saw had to keep very intense schedules. Pageants began at 10 AM, but the kids were up very early for hair, makeup and dressing. The pageant activities continued until about 2 PM without significant breaks. Because of the need for head to toe perfection, naps were discouraged as the child’s hair and dress might become disheveled. Some moms told me that they had to keep their daughter’s awake with sugar and caffeine. I saw some children being given Pixy Stix (AKA pageant crack) and caffeinated beverages to keep them from napping. The back hallway smelled like carnival cotton candy and was this dietitian’s worst nightmare.
So, what to do about Princess by Proxy? Let me first clarify that not all pageant exhibit PBP. However, I did see a few extreme pageant moms…and dads… and this makes for dramatic television. Extreme pageant parents often put their kids in pageants for the attention and fame. Consider that Toddlers & Tiaras and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo are two of the top rated shows on television. Why is the public enamored with these shows? Is it the drama? Do we find the sexualization of children to be interesting? Are we merely curious as to what will “happen” to these kids? If we stop watching, then the impetus for participation is taken away. Lower ratings lead to cancellations, but can we do this? Can we turn away? And is it really all that harmful? Could the show be changed to focus on talent aspects or perhaps awarding children scholarships instead of fast cash?
Some child glitz pageants represent an environment in which a few parents project an unhealthy desire for physical perfection, recognition and financial reward onto their daughters. Media portrayals of pageants reinforce the fairy tale façade that physical beauty is linked to fame, fortune and happiness, a notion that may tarnish the self-worth of young girls who participate in or view pageants. Just ask my friend Karen. However, canceling the show isn’t the answer. In my next article I will talk about how the media influences self-esteem and body image.
NOTE: So much interest has been generated in child pageants that I plan to post a series of articles here. For my next installment of Child Pageant posts, I will discuss how the “adultness” of child pageants is linked to self-esteem and eating disorders.
1. Tofler IR, Kanpp PK, Drell MJ. The “Achievement by Proxy” spectrum: recognition and clinical response to pressured and high-achieving children and adolescents. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 1999;38(2):213-216.
2. Cartwright MM. Princess by Proxy: What child beauty pageants teach girls about self-worth and what we can do about it. JAACAP. 2012. 51(11):1105-17. http://www.jaacap.com/
3. University of Arizona press release. Princess by Proxy. http://uanews.org/story/tiaras-0