October 3, 2013

Child Beauty Pageants: A Gateway to Gender Inequality

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Gone are the days where dress-up meant trying on mom’s lipstick and last Halloween’s costume; child beauty pageants have led young girls into a world of fake teeth, tans and boobs. The pageants have created a strict list of criteria and force girls to either comply or believe that they are neither beautiful nor successful. In France, where pageants are far less intense and frequent than those in America, the Senate approved a ban on child pageants  as an amendment to a bill promoting gender equality. The United States need not necessarily follow suit to such an extent, as the punishment for entering or encouraging a child in a pageant ranges from fines to imprisonment. However, we must use the French agenda as an opportunity to address our own problems of gender inequality, starting with the “hypersexualization” of young girls.

To earn the judges’ votes in pageants featured on Toddlers and Tiaras, little girls have turned into mini Hollywood sex symbols such as Daisy Duke, Vivian Ward and Dolly Parton. Daisy Duke saved the day in Dukes of Hazzard by sporting a tiny bikini, Vivian Ward is the prostitute in Pretty Woman and Dolly Parton is considered the “pioneer of plastic surgery.” These women are idealized for their sexual appeal and a beauty only attainable by surgical “correction.” And as pageant parents pull out the short shorts and fake boobs, they teach their daughters that their aspirations need not extend further than conforming to a standard of physical attractiveness determined by Hollywood and a panel of judges.

But more disturbing than the fake aesthetics is the fact that little “Daisy Duke” was catcalled by an audience member. By definition according to Google, to catcall is to “make a whistle, shout, or comment of a sexual nature to a woman passing by.” The catcall is not, as many believe, a way to compliment a woman; instead, it is a means of dehumanizing her into a sex object. In the plainest terms, this unwelcome sexual advancement is harassment. Though the contestant wore rather provocative clothes, the choice of attire was not an invitation to be sexually disrespected, especially since she is nine years old.

Such harassment is the fault of both the parent who dressed her and our society’s inability to come to terms with the fact that the objectification of women is inexcusably wrong. On the topic of a custody battle between “Dolly Partons’” parents, psychologist Dr. Wendy Walsh said on Good Morning America, “It is absolute emotional child abuse to sexualize a young girl as young as four, five, six or seven before she has the psychological ability to understand what she’s doing, is shameful.”

When young girls are conditioned to believe that their value is only determined by the way they look, they become consumed by the cycle of gender inequality. On Huffington Post Lisa Bloom, author of Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World, “25 percent of young American women would rather win America’s Next Top Model than the Nobel Peace Prize.” The inclusion of this statistic is not to say that all women need to become advocates for world peace, but rather to say that it’s okay and natural for girls and women to celebrate their outer beauty as long as they neither let it define them nor inhibit them.

So what can we do to end sex-based discrimination without throwing parents in jail for entering their daughters in beauty pageants? First, we have to stop glamorizing the child pageant world and pull it from national T.V. Then on a more personal level, Bloom suggests that we ask little girls about their favorite books or interests, rather than commenting on their cuteness. “She may be surprised and unsure at first, because few ask her about her mind, but be patient and stick with it.”

And if we do persist in teaching girls that they are more than their appearance and that their future is full of limitless possibilities, then by our words and their actions it will become undeniably true.