Little Bitty Pretty One by Janet Scott Barlow • March 8, 2010 • Printer-friendly
The television screen shows five-year-old Tara being awakened from a sound sleep at 6 a.m. She has a beauty pageant to get ready for. To shake off her sluggishness she is given a carb-rich donut and some caffeine-loaded Mountain Dew.
After “breakfast” Tara is dressed in a two-piece bathing suit and taken to a makeshift tent, where she endures a spray-on tan. After that, it is, as her mother says, “magic time.” Powder is applied to Tara’s face, along with rouge, lipstick, lip gloss, eyeshadow, and false eyelashes. She holds out her tiny hands for tiny fake fingernails. Glitter cream is rubbed on her arms and legs. Hair rollers are removed (Tara slept the night in them), and her hair is worked into a fussy up-do, one made even more elaborate by the addition of a large, curly hairpiece. Now come the earrings, always color-coordinated and sparkling. (Tara does not yet compete wearing a “flipper,” a set of adult-size teeth that fit over a girl’s baby teeth. The use of a flipper changes a child’s look profoundly. The effect is unnatural to the point of creepiness.)
Finally, it’s time for the dress. Pageant dresses are usually made in day-glo colors—the better to bring out a girl’s tan—and have rows and rows of stiffened tulle, along with endless sequins, beads, and even feathers.
Tara is now pageant-ready. While Tara has endured a lot to get to this point, so has her mother. Throughout the process, Tara slapped at her mom, pinched her, talked back, and had many of what her mother helplessly called “diva moments.”
Tara’s is not the only captivating story to be caught on televised pageant shows. There is the chiropractor father who gives his six-year-old daughter an “adjustment” before she goes onstage, saying, “When the body and the brain are functioning properly, she’s at her best potential to express her inner beauty.”
On another night, we have the confident mother who has entered her two-year-old son, Hunter, in the boys’ competition. (Yes, there are boys’ competitions.) “I don’t consider myself a pageant mom,” she says, “because I have a lot of background in child development.” Said background seems to fail her, however, when little Hunter, dressed in his tiny tuxedo, decides to perform a perfect toddler meltdown, complete with flailing limbs and piercing screams.
Then there is the story of a seven-year-old girl with a self-chosen stage name—“Tootsie”—which she demands her parents use, for the duration of the pageant, when speaking to her. Confusing things further is the fact that “Tootsie” refers to herself by her given name—Taylor—in the third person: “Taylor is bored.” Her mother is left to grin sheepishly and shrug.
Now comes Teri, and she’s a dynamo. Mother of five-year-old Stephanie, Teri opines breathlessly that “life in general is about presentation. Pre-sen-ta-tion! If you have it, you’ll succeed at whatever you do.” I’m not completely sure, but I think Teri has just recommended going through life as a fake.
Last August I attended a children’s beauty pageant in Texas. My goal was to compare what I had seen on television with what I would see in person. The event was held in a hotel ballroom over a two-day period. The contest covered pageant wear (dresses), talent, and swimsuits. The average number of adults I saw in the ballroom at any one time was about 60.
My overall impression was that the event was a bit frayed. The stage was shabby, and a boom box was used whenever contestants needed music. However, the atmosphere seemed fairly lighthearted, with little girls running around, having a good time.
Other things were noteworthy when seen in person. Close up, a $3,000 dress looks like a $50 dress. Some mothers made their daughters’ dresses or bought them on eBay. No competitors wore flippers. Bad tanning jobs made girls look orange from head to foot, sort of like little aliens.
I cruised the ballroom, looking for moms to talk to. Everyone I approached was friendly and forthcoming, and I told them all I was considering an article on children’s pageants. I immediately found Tara and her mother, Megan. At that moment, Tara had a foot-long, stick-shaped thing in her mouth. I asked Megan about that. “Oh, it’s a kind of fruit-flavored sugar. It keeps the girls [here Megan mimed quotation marks] ‘up’ between competitions.” Megan told me she and Tara go to two events a month and travel throughout the South. They started when Tara was a year old. Megan calls it their “girl time.”
I also talked to Teri, the dynamo. “What,” I asked, “do you as a mother get from these pageants?”
“Oh, I get to see Stephanie have fun! That’s what it’s all about, my daughter. It’s all for Stephi!” She went on to tell me, with great animation, that to be the best, you have to work at it. That Tiger Woods practices every single day. That she always tells Stephi you can’t win without working, working, working. I think there was more, but I was too exhausted to listen.
Teri would come to be a big part of the pageant for me. It turned out there was a misses event, which was a competition for mothers of pageant children. It consisted of both an evening gown and a swimsuit competition. I knew nothing of this until I looked toward the stage and saw several mothers, including Teri, who was wearing a cut-to-there white gown. She took the stage and modeled perfectly: smile, turn, pivot, flex the knee, lift the heel, smile-smile-smile.
If I was surprised by the dress, I was dumbfounded by the bikini. Teri’s was electric blue and very small. (In an unintentional bit of hilarity, the female MC announced, “The moms will be showcasing their swimsuits.”) All I could think as I watched was Mommy’s onstage in her undies: Is Stephi having fun? What part of this was “all for her”?
Teri won the misses competition—no surprise there. She surely outworked everyone else. (Somewhere Tiger Woods was smiling.) Her award was a very large, very ugly trophy and a very large, very cheesy crown. Stephi ran onstage to hug her mother, but pictures were being taken, and they were mom-only, so Teri sort of stiff-armed Stephi out of the way.
Talk of money was in the air in Texas, both about the cost of pageants and about the possible winnings. The top prize in the Texas pageant was $2,000. This amount thrilled parents, which I found odd, since it is a pittance compared with the overall cost of pageant life. Pageant expenses include outfits and accessories, hairpieces, modeling coaches, dance lessons, makeup professionals, hair stylists, professional photography, travel and lodging, entry fees, and, eventually, flippers. One TV mother said she spends $60,000 per year on pageants. Then she proudly revealed that her daughter had so far this year won $16,000, which was “going into her college fund.”
What was most interesting to me about the pageant I attended was the dynamic between pageant children and their mothers. There is no mistaking that in most cases pageants are for mothers. I did see some moms and daughters who appeared to have normal—if that is the word—relationships. And there were a couple of hard-faced mothers who vibrated disapproval whenever their daughters made mistakes. This led me to ask the pageant director about the prevalence in the pageant world of “mean pageant moms.” She answered—a bit too quickly—that such mothers are extremely rare, almost never a problem. That there are over 25,000 pageants nationally each year (according to the International Pageant Association) made her response, on its face, less than credible.
But mainly what I saw in Texas were mothers who had the kind of misplaced emotional investment in these pageants that allowed their spoiled daughters room to blackmail and manipulate them, to call them names and disobey, to engage in all forms of obnoxious behavior. The whole enterprise is like a brat factory.
Critics of children’s beauty pageants almost always point to the makeup, the outfits, and the belief that children are being victimized. If little girls are seen as being exploited, it is usually from this perspective.
I saw maybe 25 little girls in Texas, and none looked scandalously done up to me. However, I did see many who were tired and worn out and pushed past the limit in a day that went from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. One four-year-old could not be awakened to accept her award, and some little girls fell asleep on two banquet chairs shoved together.
If some of these girls were victims, it was about more than makeup and big hair. The parent-child relationship was being turned on its head. Many of these little girls were being bribed by their mothers with anything that worked, including puppies. (I saw two of those deals go down in Texas.) These children are not so much sexualized as objectified. As a television mother said of her three-year-old, “She’s my own little dress-up doll.” And these little girls understand their role. They go onstage, flip on a switch, go offstage, flip off a switch. Many girls seem not even to care about the trophies and sashes and crowns they win. They are more interested in the balloons and the goodie bags, which are loaded with (guess what?) sugar treats.
Without fail, every mother I talked to said that the minute her daughter no longer wants to do pageants, it’s over. Really? After four or six or ten years of this, what will these women do with their weekends? How will they get a life? What will they do with the many trophies and crowns they have chosen to display in the living room, rather than their daughter’s room? What will they do about rude daughters who ignore them?
The question I took from the Texas pageant was: What is a mother willing to sacrifice, as a mother, to get what she wants through her daughter? A better question might be, Is there anything she is not willing to sacrifice? As one mother said, in what was supposed to sound like a joke but didn’t, “I am my daughter’s slave.” Slave-mothers suggest something more critical than expensive dresses and glitter cream. They suggest a relationship in which little girls disrespect their mothers because they can, and mothers tolerate disrespect because they think they have to. And that leaves a final question: How many puppies can you give a kid?
This article first appeared in the February 2010 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.
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