Is ‘Toddlers and Tiaras’ Bad for Girls?


Picture of Paisley Dickey, 3, Dressed as a Hooker

Paisley Dickey, aged 3

Ever since its debut on TLC in 2009, Toddlers and Tiaras, a show about child beauty pageants, has been a lightening rod for accusations and controversies, with legions of parents arguing that both the pageants themselves and the TV show that glamorizes them are bad for girls. In recent episodes, one mother has dressed her three-old daughter in a pint-sized replica of the outfit worn by Julia Robert’s character Vivian, who is a prostitute, in the movie Pretty Woman. Another mother has strapped fake breasts and bottom padding onto her four-year old daughter for a Dolly Parton-inspired outfit. Parents on the show argue that their children enjoy competing, that they are earning money and other prizes that can be used for college, and that competing in beauty pageants helps their children build their self-esteem.

While I can easily see how learning to perform on stage, or coaching on body language or posture, could improve a young girl’s self-esteem, I highly doubt that any program so heavily predicated on makeup and looks can actually produce any long-lasting improvements in a child’s self esteem that aren’t related to her beauty: “I’m pretty, so I can go out on stage and everyone loves me.” Great, but what happens when she’s not pretty? When she has a bad hair day, gets acne, doesn’t develop breasts when all her friends do, or needs braces? What happens when she gets older, and is eclipsed by all the younger girls? Lots of little girls are cute, but cuteness doesn’t always translate into becoming a bombshell as a teenager and an adult. If she has been taught to believe that her self-worth is based entirely on looks, this is when extreme dieting, and calls to a plastic surgeon are likely to begin.

Maddy Jackson, Aged 4, Wearing Fake Breasts and Bottom Padding

Maddy Jackson, Aged 4

The parents on TLC may claim that their children like competing but, at that age, children are incredibly influenced by adults, particularly given the time and monetary commitments that having your child compete in a childhood beauty pageant entails.  This isn’t buying your kid a soccer ball and plonking down fifty bucks to enroll her in the local soccer team—pageants involve travel fare, coaching fees, entry fees, and thousand-dollar custom dresses.  The children may have had some interest initially (all little girls like to play dress-up, and even as a firm believer in the value of a T-shirt and jeans, I admit that sometimes it’s fun to get dressed up), but the parents are the ones that enable and encourage their child’s entry into pageant life.  Who wouldn’t like being the center of attention, or getting fussed over and continually told how cute/wonderful they are?  Who doesn’t like winning prizes?

As a child, I admit that my parents spent a fair amount of time shuttling me around to various expensive activities that I simply couldn’t live without. (While my early ballet and soccer lessons did not survive, the activities that I enjoyed and did for the entirety of my childhood are ones that I was either explicitly encouraged to try by my parents, or ones that my parents used to do and told me stories about, thus leading me to want to try the activity as well). I’m not slamming the parents in Toddlers and Tiaras for spending large amounts of money on their girls, or for spending a great deal of time on their child’s hobby; my concern lies solely with the beauty-centric nature of childhood pageants. Teach your children to value themselves for who they are rather than how they look.  In the end, it will serve them far better than the alternative.


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