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Very Young Beauty Queens

1.1.01

Some distress here: on the stage, the two-year-old girl in the pink-sequined dress has begun to cry. The tears are ruining her mascara. Her mother appears, grabs the girl, and tells her to stop crying. Still, the tears continue. The mother takes the tot by the hand and drags her off. Meanwhile an announcer offers some background: this young contestant hails from Massachusetts, and "her life's ambition is to bring happiness to all who come in contact with her."

This scene played itself out at a child beauty pageant that Hilary Levey '02 observed last year. With a small grant from the Harvard College Research Fund, Levey made a sociological study of these competitions for children age six and younger and presented her findings at the American Sociological Association meetings in Washington, D.C., in August. Her ethnographic research describes a world that has appeared to the public as an odd subculture on the margins of society--particularly since the 1996 murder of six-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey. Instead, says Levey, the pageants actually reinforce mainstream American values. "They're teaching children what it takes to be successful in society," she says. "There is a winner, and a certain order of finish. People who work hard, who practice hard, and do certain things can win. Children are learning these lessons at ages three, four, and five. Apparently it's important to our society that kids learn these things that early."

Levey went to six contests around New England and in Florida, interviewed 35 mothers of contestants, and collected 41 questionnaire responses from mothers, seeking to discover why people enter their daughters (and a very few sons) in pageants. Her entrée to this arcane, often closed world was eased by the fact that her mother, Pam Eldred, won the Miss America title in 1970. (Levey herself entered regional ballet competitions as a child, but, she says, "Mom never let me do pageants.")

Child beauty pageants clearly cater to the ambitions of parents, not children. "Kids of this age aren't really choosing to participate; they will do what their parents tell them to do," Levey says. "Sometimes you have parents carrying babies who can't walk onto the stage." Five pageants demanded to know the child's "ambition/goal in life," a question typically answered by the parent; as one mother bluntly remarked, "What does a five-year-old know?" Some parents have built trophy rooms in their homes. The hardware can accumulate, since each entrant normally gets a crown or trophy simply for participating, and the average child in Levey's study went to five pageants per year.

"Stage mother" behavior is not unusual; as a young contestant does her talent routine, her mother may stand behind the judges and act out the entire performance along with the daughter. Mothers and daughters sometimes wear matching outfits. But inconsistencies crop up in other areas: Levey reports, for example, that although pageants enforce norms of slenderness, the majority of pageant mothers are overweight.

Pageants can be costly. Entry fees range from $100 to $200; there are travel expenses; a pageant dress can easily cost $150--or sometimes as much as $1,000--and the more competitive parents also invest in makeup and hair stylists (used by about 40 percent of entrants), wigs, false teeth to cover gaps from missing baby teeth, and beauty pageant "coaches." (Embellishments like the false teeth and hair indicated that the contests "weren't just judging natural beauty," Levey says.) One subject told her, "I know people who have spent so much on pageants, they have lost their [house] trailers."

The payoff, many parents say, is that their children learn social skills--interacting with others, making friends, not being shy. The mothers cultivate social networks of their own; one group of five moms met at pageant after pageant, cheered for each others' daughters, and formed a somewhat exclusive clique. Levey observed competitive behavior--wearing glitzy pageant dresses and makeup, using hair stylists--in about 80 percent of her subjects. However, only 17 percent of the mothers acknowledged competitiveness in interviews. Parents of higher socioeconomic status were more likely to admit that they entered their daughters to teach them how to compete in the real world. One mother declared, "Competition is very healthy. It's the problem with today's educational system: there is none of it. We need competition to keep the idiots out of the workforce."

A troubling question remains regarding what this competition is actually about. "A lot of the dresses seemed inappropriate," said one mom. "They weren't sweet, little-girl dresses to me--they were more...showgirl dresses." Another observed: "I have seen male judges just light up when they see the little JonBenets come prancing out with tons of makeup on and doing sexy moves when they model sportswear. And I don't think that should be allowed." Levey wonders at the spectacle of "little girls sashaying across the stage" in special layered outfits that allow them to "rip off the jacket, then rip off the skirt. They're put in revealing clothing and made to look older--this often helps them win. If you ask the mothers why they would put their girls in pageants where they look like Las Vegas dancers, most would not connect it to anything erotic." She concludes, "Pageants are a place where existing gender stereotypes are played out. They don't create the stereotypes. But it's a very gendered activity."