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Volume 90, Issue 77
Tuesday, February 11, 1997
Preteens parading in pageants
By Gillian Judkins
Long, flowing blond hair, cascading down onto a petite body, covered in a shiny sequined dress. She turns to the left, pivots to the right and walks a little further striking her pose. Her shoulders are pushed back, her head held high with her glossy lips parted in a small smile. Her eyelashes flutter, thick with mascara. She is the epitome of the male sexual fantasy however, she is only five-years old.
This describes a typical scene at a beauty pageant for young girls: parading up and down, hoping to be crowned the winner. But just how healthy is this kind of competition for a young girl's development? And what does it do to their body image?
Co-ordinator of Western's Women's Issues Network, Kelly Guitard feels these competitions are not at all healthy for young girls. "I think stressing competition can be damaging itself but especially dangerous when you're placing emphasis on physical appearance," she says. "All children should be valued for their individual beauty, for themselves."
In a similar frame of mind is Sandra Aylward, sociologist and co-ordinator of the women's studies program at King's College. Aylward also points out that beauty pageants bring up issues of "racism, classism and sexism. If they don't have the money, if they have a disability or if they are seen as ugly, they can't get in [to the competition]. Beauty is considered good and not fitting that definition of beauty is seen as bad."
Aylward and Guitard make valid points however, not surprisingly, individuals involved in the modelling industry do not share the same sentiments. "I think it depends more on the individual than anything," explains Doug Carey, promotions director for Barbizon Academy of Modelling. "A lot of what pageants look at is the individual person and not strictly looks."
Former Miss Canada (1974), Blair Lancaster, owner of Modelling and Fashion Agency explains, "Whether it's pageants, hockey, baton twirling or skating, it depends on the pressure and expectations we [as adults] put on them. Pageants can do a lot of positive things but can also do negative things if not handled properly."
Regardless of how parents may handle the pageant scene, young girls are still paraded in front of judges who will then assess them on their physical attributes. This includes things such as their walk, posture and the image they portray. What might this scrutiny do to their perception of body image?
Lisa Rozak, co-ordinator of Western's Body Image Team expresses extreme concern. The team's main goal is "to get people to think about body image in a positive light." The team has been busy this year visiting various residences and affiliates and speaking about body image and related health issues. Rozak expressed further dismay once she realized that pageant contestants can be as young as three years of age. She agreed that this can definitely teach youngsters to place emphasis on their body over personality or intellect. Rozak points out more and more research shows that "girls as young as five years of age are restricting their food intake. Beauty pageants just perpetuate that kind of thinking."
Both Rozak and Guitard seem to agree that pageants will reinforce the myth that girls are to be pretty and thin and should grow into beautiful women. "[Beauty pageants] set limits for what's acceptable as beautiful and only certain people can fit into this category," Guitard explains.
Lancaster disagrees, saying it would depend more on the values that parents teach their children. "My feeling is that beauty has nothing to do with body shape. It has to do with personality, frame of mind it really has to come from inside." She also points out that parents should give their children the praise they deserve in all areas of life. "It's important that we direct our comments to our children in the right way."
The fact still remains that an average-sized woman or a slightly-overweight one rarely appears on the cover of Cosmopolitan or Vogue. Due to the stringent standards of what the media considers beautiful, those that are within that majority feel they are overweight or unattractive. Almost any woman asked will likely tell you a part of their body that they do not like.
Society continues to show young women it is all right to put value on their body by encouraging young girls to enter competitions where they are judged on physical attributes. "All I can see is that they're given a message that their body is for sale. It's an object separate from their personality," Aylward says.
Lancaster feels, on the other hand, that there is nothing wrong with teaching young children to carry themselves properly and allowing them to enter pageants. She does however, make the point that children should compete as children and that "taking a four-year-old and making her look like she is 21 is wrong."
So the question then becomes, just how much should parents encourage their children to enter beauty pageants? Many people will argue that spending hundreds and thousands of dollars on pageants is no different than spending that money on hockey or any other sport. But the difference between the two is that with sports, children are not using their body as the object by which they are solely judged young girls aren't being sexualized into beautiful little women.
Granted, children's beauty pageants occur at a greater extent in the United States but when looking at the number of young girls in Canada who are suffering from eating disorders and body image problems, Canada and the U.S. do not appear vastly different.
And so she continues to walk, to turn, to pose and smile, eager to please the eyes of the judges. Due to her innocence she is unaware that one day she may no longer fit their "standard" norm of beauty. As onlookers, contributors, parents and concerned friends, one can only hope that she will escape without causing her body harm.
graphics by Colin Dunne
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