I have recently come back from a 5 week road trip in the US with my beautiful boyfriend (Sam). We started in LA, passing through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, back to Arizona and finishing in Vegas, Nevada; covering 8000 miles! A friend of mine likened America’s scenery to “Disney on crack” and boy do I think they’re true! Fierce landscapes flew by my window as we drove through deserts, swamps, flat lands, rolling pasture hills, dusty and rocky mountains, sandstorms, tornados and strange bouldered landscapes, all in over 100 Fahrenheit. There is so much to tell from our trip, but I’ll make it easy and tell you the memories that will really stick in my mind: Galveston Island, New Orleans, the swamps of Louisiana (alligator land), Devil’s Den State Park (Arkansas – the quaintest of America), Memphis (Civil Rights museum and the Pig on Beale), Garden of the Gods (Colorado), driving through Colorado on I-70 to Arches National park which was INSANE (ooooooh the stars!!!), Bryce Canyon, Winslow Meteor Crater, thunderstorms with horizontal fork lightening!?, the loud, loud forests at night and SO MANY BURGERS. Yum. I could go on… But I’ll put my photos up soon, and maybe in a wee while, a video….
The real reason I was there was to research for my anthropology dissertation, which is on Children’s Beauty Pageants. We went to five different pageants and even judged one which ended up a story in the local paper, the Topeka Journal.
I wanted to write a more subjective piece as my dissertation cannot make any value judgements about my research and won’t touch on any of the heavy criticism children’s pageants have received worldwide. I feel it’s important for me to write this, as the media really does put a face on things and makes people see things in a certain light, so they miss what is really going on. This facade is false. People should stop being so judgmental and focus on what is really wrong in their societies, instead of pinning their anxieties on more menial things.
Like Susan Anderson (the original inspiration for my research, a wonderful photographic series, see ‘High Glitz‘) I found pageants an arena for children to become their fantasy, to be the princess in their stories, all eyes on them, living a fairytale for the day in a gorgeous gown. Most of the younger girls, and quite a few older really enjoyed the attention, some not wanting to get off stage. I recall one girl twirling around stage, eyes closed in a dreamland, returning to the stage at every interval and opportunity to enjoy her stage glory; it was very sweet and she was obviously having a great time. Families turned up in crowds to spend the day in unison, to support their little ones and cheer them on. It was a real family occasion and a time for mothers and daughters to bond. Not only would mother and daughter get to share and cherish this time together, but pageants give them the chance to be creative in making show-stopping, unique outfits for them to parade around in.
I spoke to older girls, around my age, who had competed nearly all their lives, they told me about the multitude of positive opportunities pageants had created; making friends, travelling around, support from sister queens, achieving things they never thought they would (including incredible and commendable amounts of volunteer work for older girls). I didn’t hear one negative experience. I haven’t met everyone who has been involved in pageants, true, and I’m sure there are different viewpoints; but this is my experience. Girls may compete, then realise pageants aren’t their thing and stop, but how can a few pageants damage a child in view of their self-image? I can’t get my head around it. Especially as a child’s looks change so much as they get older, plus memories fade dramatically from childhood (although I also think childhood experiences can impact on future psychology, much like Freud’s ideas of repression). Most little girls don’t go on to compete all their lives and they seemed to do plenty of other activities or sports too; they did not seem to be sacrificing a ‘normal’ route of sports and activities for one of pageantry, they were done together.
As for too much emphasis being on beauty or ‘exposing’ children, I think magazines and the media put so much pressure on women these days anyway. I know girls who have had dreamy upbringings with fabulous educations, but have ended up sticking their fingers down their throats to compete for the ‘perfect’ stereotype. I don’t see how a bit of pageantry alone is going to create self-image problems.
Every pageant is different, but, all the pageants I saw and judges I spoke to were looking for a ‘total package’; including personality. Frequently the girls who were the most genuinely smiley and well-disciplined collected the highest prizes. The name is generally slightly deceiving, pageants are not judged on beauty alone. From working with other judges and judging myself it was obvious that beauty is an elusive concept, in the eye of the beholder.
Pageants are not only fun, but help shy girls to come out of their shells; they make more friends, become more confident in front of groups of people, going on to be able to try more things in scholastic life and in their futures. The pageant scene also created a support community for parents, especially moms to make new friends and the competition was very friendly and sportsman-like. What you see on Toddlers and Tiaras is extremely dramatized, a lot of it, most likely scripted. The security to these spectacles are incredibly tight, with photo wristbands or bans on non-official cameras, so the accusations of encouraging paedophilia since the Jon-Benet Ramsey murder seem to be a bit dumb; after all pedophiles can be anywhere, even your own friends! The only thing I think mothers should watch out for are pictures going on facebook groups, as really anyone can access those.
Children were told time and time again, it’s the taking part that counts and “Even if you don’t go home with a crown, you’ll always go home with a new experience and a new friend”. Every child wins a prize and goes home thinking themselves a winner (well, the younger ones). And the older girls, if they don’t like it, I’m sure they’ll complain so much their parents will give up, that’s if they don’t stop once they’ve said the word. In every section of society you’ll find pushy parents and I’m not going to lie, I did see some mothers taking it too seriously. It may not be the MOST beneficial route to go down, but I can definitely see the motives of parents and the positives that can be drawn from it. I think it’s more fun than a big deal; the world has been obsessed with beauty for centuries. If you have a problem with that, get used to it or realize that it’s not such a big deal!? Just try and feel good about yourself. Alternatively attack the media or create some sort of support group instead of complaining and affecting parents who are just trying to have a good time with their child, teaching them some life lessons on the way. When it comes down to it and first impressions fade, beauty really comes from the inside anyway… Wouldn’t you say if you see an attractive person being vile that they look damn right ugly?