No place for the imagination
In June in Sydney Universal Royalty will stage its second Australian child beauty pageant, with girls between the ages of 2-16 being judged against each other on looks, ‘congeniality’ and ‘talent’.
Universal Royalty is the USA-based company behind the child pageants which gained notoriety through the TV show Toddlers & Tiaras. A similar event in Melbourne last year generated controversy, with anti-child pageant organisations formed amid heated media debate.
The organisation Pull the Pin is seeking to legally ban beauty contests for children in Australia, and there are similar activities afoot in France to ban child pageants. These critics say the pageants are sexualising girls in ways that are exploitative, even abusive. Certainly it’s difficult to watch images of an eight year old having her eyebrows waxed, or a two year old having painful hair extensions sewn in.
But parents and supporters of the pageants say the events are no different to other stage-craft education programs like ballet classes and calisthenics, where costumes, hair and makeup similarly play a role.
Head of Performing Arts at the Victorian College of the Arts, Geraldine Cook, is not convinced.
“Experts in early childhood agree that education for young children needs to be play-based, and play in terms of performing arts of necessity must allow the child to use his or her own imagination. It is the playfulness in a safe, respectful setting that is really key, giving the child space to use and test out her imagination.
“Childhood is the only time we have in our lives to exhibit completely unfettered imagination, it’s private and personal and ought to be something for the child to work with, not dictated by someone else’s ideas, or even ambitions.”
For instance, lots of little girls (and even some little boys) enjoy dressing up, wearing tiaras and tutus much like those worn by girls in child beauty pageants, but the difference is that in pageants, looking like a fairy princess is all that’s at stake, whereas plays, dance classes or even home dress-ups are about donning a character, attributes of which are reflected in costume, but also in imagined behaviour, words, songs and actions. The child is engaged in thinking about how a fairy princess might move or speak, and is not judged only for getting the look right.
For Ms Cook, the judging that takes place in these pageants is one of their more troubling aspects – more troubling even perhaps than the very grown-up, glitzy looks that are encouraged.
“The beauty pageant ‘look’ is a matter of taste or aesthetics, and I wouldn’t want to make assumptions about that, but what’s really disturbing is the coercive socialising that teaches the girl-child that her body is there to please others, to be made to conform to what someone else says it should, and she is rewarded if she makes it conform ‘the best’.
“The girl is placed into a paradigm that doesn’t allow self-authenticity, and is subjected to adult ways of looking at the adult world – adult interpretations of beauty, poise, sassiness, sexiness – and competes with others from that point of view before she is mature enough to make choices about her participation. That experience is bound to have an effect, probably not positive, on her psychological and moral development.”
That said, Ms Cook says there is nothing wrong with classes led by skilled people to help children develop and practise socialising, collaborating and keeping to a commitment, but advises parents to consider two major questions.
“First of all ask: who’s getting what out of it? Does my child really want to do this, or is there a vicarious desire on my part? Is it really me that wants her to do this?
“Secondly, look at the values of the person who’s taking the class. Are they imposing their views on the child? Is it an environment that is feeding the imagination and supporting positive social interaction? What opportunities are there for autonomous, authentic self-expression?
“It comes down to intent with the body,” she says.
“In the performing arts, the body is an expressive tool, and you build on and develop that tool over time. The teacher is there to help with some theatrical elements that allow children to communicate their ideas, dreams, and anxieties, if they want to. It’s not the role of adults in performing arts education to dictate that for the child.”