On their website, US based child beauty pageant brand Universal Royalty states that taking part in one of their competitions is a “positive learning experience” in which contestants can “learn competition, positive self confidence” and strive to “be the very best.”
Contestants, who are judged by a panel on criteria such as “facial beauty,” can win up to US$10,000 along with plush toys and roses. Although Universal Royalty is a US company, they tour globally, and next month see’s their return to Australia.
Grassroots campaign group Collective Shout are fronting a vigorous charge to stop the pageant from taking place based on their belief that competitions like this exploit the children who are taking part.
“Contestants are costumed, styled and groomed to act like mini-adults, to live up to adult standards of beauty and attractiveness for the enjoyment and entertainment of adults,” says Caitlin Roper, spokesperson for Collective Shout.
Roper notes that in previous pageants young girls have been dressed up as celebrities such as Lady Gaga, Madonna and Julia Robert’s character in the film Pretty Woman.
“Girls are dolled up with make up, hair pieces, high heels, fake teeth (‘flippers’) and false eyelashes and made to undergo unnecessary and painful beauty practices such as waxing, tanning and even botox,” she explains.
Another concern is that child beauty pageants teach young girls that their worth comes from their physical appearance. This is something that appearance activist Carly Findley is particularly conscious of. “I worry that if children compete in a pageant focused beauty and appearance, they won’t accept their peers who have visible differences, she explains.
Findley also says that a focus on physical appearance could undermine other qualities. “I think it’s teaching children that beauty and appearance is a competition, and more important over kindness, intelligence and compassion for others,” she says.
Collett Smart is a registered psychologist and the author of a new study on the effects of child beauty pageants. The paper, which will be released later this year, surveyed thousands of professionals that work with children around Australia. “I am looking forward to having this research back up the views of psychologists and child development experts, that child beauty pageants have a negative effect on the development of children,” she says.
Although many advocates for beauty pageants believe that taking part is a good way to develop confidence, Smart says that on the contrary, there is much evidence that taking part in beauty pageants can have damaging effects on girls as they grow up. “I believe that the risks to self-confidence far out-weigh any potential gains,” she says.
Tenika* who’s 4-year-old daughter has taken part in beauty pageants around Australia says that many mums ‘on the circuit’ are also against US-style pageants such as Universal Royalty and that Australian pageants are usually based on skills such as singing and dancing rather than appearance.
“Australia runs successful pageants throughout the year that have completely different morals and standards to the US ones. A lot of us pageant mums have boycotted Universal Royalty,” she says.
Tenika says that her daughter loves taking part and that “she makes friends all over Australia.”
Psychological Therapist Annie Gurton says that one potential benefit of taking part in a pageant is that it gives girls the opportunity to spend “intense” time with their mothers, which could “be helpful in building self-worth.” However she notes that because of the competitive nature of the event it is difficult to find many positive outcomes.
Gurton also notes that while there may be parents who encourage their daughters to have a “grounded, well-balanced home life” outside of the pageant world, there are also a lot of mums who are pushing their daughters into competing.
“Parents risk turning their pretty little child into a manipulative, self-obsessed monster with an eating disorder, and for what? Some small change and a tiara, and a column in the local paper,” she says. “It hardly seems worth it to me.”