No Pageant for You, French Girls!

Beauty pageant girlThe French Senate has just taken the first step in banning beauty pageants for girls under the age of 16.  Right away, I want to ask why this is the hot topic du jour? When did beauty pageants take central stage?  First, it was the recent selection of a bright, talented young woman with a degree from the University of Michigan as Miss America 2014 and now France, of all places, has is leaning toward making pageants for very young girls a crime punishable by a fine and two years in jail.

Why am I interested in any of this?

I’m a pageant mom.

It was bound to come out sooner or later.  I spent many hours and many dollars taking my daughter from pageant to pageant when she was in high school.  In full disclosure, I loved every minute of it.  We both had a wonderful time.  I’ve been watching beauty pageants since I was a kid and I can admit freely that we watch Toddlers and Tiaras, although I draw the line at Honey Boo-Boo.  Even though I could not speak about all the pageants that run on any given weekend, certainly criminalizing beauty pageants is wrong-headed and the scrutiny is misdirected in many ways.

French beauty pageant ban proponent Chantal Jouanno was quoted recently in the New York Times, saying that having children look to external standards of beauty is “extremely destructive.”  She wants young girls to be judged by their intellect instead.  Remarkably, she and others believe that this ban, which is part of a larger bill establishing standards for gender equality, will make a stand for young women.

I would agree with the ban on pageants for children if pageant entry were either mandatory or pervasive.  But in the whole time my daughter and I were on the pageant circuit, we did not meet one other person we knew previously and, more importantly, we met the same dozen girls over and over again.  In New York State, at least, it’s the same girls who cycle through all the pageants until they either win, lose too often and get discouraged, or age out of the competition.  While I realize that is not the case everywhere, I think if you took an average of how many girls compete, it’s probably a very small number in any given pageant season.

Nobody wants children harmed by any of the assortment of things grown-ups throw at them —  scheduling too many after-school activities, offering too little time to play outdoors, stockpiling too many video games, wearing make-up too soon, having cell phones or free access to the Internet at a young age; any number of these assaults on childhood will have a lasting impact.  But you can’t will a simpler age into existence any more than you can keep children from experiencing their own lives.  Banning children’s pageants won’t stop these girls from growing up in a world that wants them not only to be really smart and competitive, but also, really pretty.

I do, though, wish that the parents we see on Toddlers and Tiaras would stop using their children as a meal ticket to fame and fortune.  If only they’d take a step back sometimes and listen to the way their TV kids are howling after being dragged into one more hotel room with their “flippers” and their wigs and spray-on tans.

Aside from the reality show versions of young beauty queen life, I just don’t see this level of pageants as harmful if it teaches girls that dressing up can win competitions.  Based on my experience, and that of my daughter, dressing up for a walk on the runway is so much more like Halloween than anything that is long-lasting.  Ultimately, these pageants are not reinforcing an old 1950’s stereotype of some brainless twit who thinks math is for boys.  What most of the judging talks about, in this country at least, is confidence.  What level of confidence does the contestant display?  How comfortable are they on stage?  Do they make eye contact with the judges?  That’s not terrible or harmful.  If anything, that’s a good thing.

If you want to ban something that is really harmful to young children, couldn’t we please start with football?

Anne Born is a New York-based writer who has been writing stories and poetry since childhood.  While her children were enrolled in New York City public schools in the late 1990s, she edited and published The Backpack Press, and the CSDIII News, a monthly newsletter covering all public schools on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.  She blogs on Open Salon and Red Room and her writing focuses on family and life in a big city after growing up in a small one.  She is also a photographer who specializes in photos of churches, cemeteries, and the Way of St. James in Spain.  Most of her writing is done on the bus. You can follow Anne on Twitter at @nilesite.

 Image via iStockphoto/Judy Kennamer

  • I’m pretty sure that American-style football isn’t a regular activity for French children. They play “football”, which is what North Americans would know as soccer.

    As for the pageants, taken on their own they may not seem like the worst thing ever (unless you’re looking at the most extreme and horrible ones), but taken as part of an overall package that tells girls their value is based on their looks, they are damaging in my opinion. This particular ban in France wasn’t an isolated ban. It was part of a larger legislative project addressing inequality between men and women.

    • Anne Born

      Without thinking, we go out of our way to tell girls their looks matter. They see magazines, they watch movies – in each instance, it’s the pretty slim girl who wins, the smart fat funny girl who loses. What I saw in the pageants I went to was actually affirming the value the girls had beyond their looks. And it was more dress-up than anything else.

      • Yes, society does go out of its way to tell girls their looks matter over everything else. Some parents, activists, teachers, and other leaders are trying to fight against that and change the paradigm. Films like Miss Representation and Sext Up Kids are important in exposing what is happening. But there is so much more work to do in our homes and in society.

        • Anne Born

          I agree! That’s why this law and others like it are such a waste of energy. Too much rant, too little impact.

  • This was an intriguing read – I never figured you for a pageant mom! But I will say that in France, there’s also another reason that might have motivated the ban: many French people I know consider pageants as a way of sexualizing young girls. Pageants, which are allowed in nearby Belgium, have been featured in several critical news reports here, with that idea in mind. To me, that explanation actually makes more sense for a ban, since, sadly, French culture is so focused on women’s looks that I highly doubt that would have been the only impetus for this law. It’s interesting that it’s being presented that way, though. Thank you for giving me a lot to think about here.

    • Anne Born

      Thanks, Alysa! The pageants I went to, the ones with really young girls competing, had serious limits. You couldn’t watch if you didn’t have a family member in the pageant, there was no swimwear, nothing even remotely sexualizing. Looks is one thing, that sexy stuff is another. I saw in the news that this vote stopped a pageant in Ireland the following week.

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