Last fall, the upper house of the French Parliament passed a bill that would prohibit children younger than 16 from competing in beauty pageants. One of the bill’s outspoken champions, Chantal Jouanno, praised the vote while declaring that “[it] is extremely destructive for a girl between the age of 6 and 12 to hear her mother say that what’s important for her is to be beautiful” (Rubin). Child beauty pageants, however, are not quite the big business as they are in the United States- recent television shows such as “Toddlers & Tiaras” and its spin-off “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” have raised the profile of an industry that generates about $5 billion in revenue annually (Giroux). But is the conversation being held in France worth having in the US as well?
There are plenty of good, healthy reasons for parents to enter their children in beauty contests- they develop skills and build confidence, all while potentially opening the door for educational or other opportunities down the road. There are, however, serious potential drawbacks. What effects do these competitions have on a young girl’s emotional health and well-being? Do they contribute to a growing eating disorder crisis among children and teens? Is there a wider issue about the objectification and sexualization of children at work? While there are benefits for young girls, under the age of 12 who enter in child beauty pageants, the potential emotional and psychological damage means these competitions do more harm than good.
Parents who involve their children in beauty pageants often defend the decision as being no different from other extracurricular activities. As one parent noted, "I was always involved in the baseball, the football, the basketball, the dance and now my kids are grown. […] To me this is the same thing; it's a sport we travel to. We teach her, she practices, and you win prizes. It's just the same. It's just a sport” (Schultz). Other parents note benefits similar to athletics or other competitive activities, citing opportunities for their children to learn new skills, build confidence, and develop character. Indeed, it’s not difficult to imagine some of these young girls blossoming into adults with poise and healthy self-esteem.
Yet even with this premise, there are drawbacks. By structuring a child’s life so much around competition, the parent risks raising them to see their life as part of a zero-sum game: that their own happiness and success has to come at the expense of someone else’s. People become essentialized as Winners and Losers, perhaps hindering the development of empathy and compassion for others. Further, as these impressions become reinforced in individual children and their families, the perception becomes reality. The personal stakes for children rise, their barriers of entry into secure and happy lives become steeper, as the competitive nature of extracurriculars for children becomes a vehicle for status anxiety. As sociologist Hilary Friedman noted, “The...