Beauty contests for children are an ugly spectacle
It's hard to believe that, in 2015, we are still having beauty competitions for children. Contests in which tiny girls (and occasionally boys) - some less than a year old - compete against each other for the top prizes and adult judges determine which one looks the loveliest. Or the cutest. Or the sweetest. Or the most stunning. Dress it up however you like, it's pretty sick.
This week six-year-old Keri McAllister was crowned Little Miss Northern Ireland, and will go on to compete for the Little Miss UK title. Keri had a difficult start in life, becoming seriously ill with meningococcal septicaemia when she was only 21 months old, and her mother Michelle said that entering the beauty competition was intended as a treat for her daughter.
Another young contestant had suffered racist abuse, and had apparently been encouraged to participate in order to strike back against racism and to celebrate her own unique appearance.
The idea is that joining the long line-up (these contests are phenomenally popular) of wannabe junior beauty queens is justifiable because it will boost a child's confidence.
Well, if they manage to win perhaps it will give them a brief sense of empowerment. But surely it will be as ephemeral as the pink glitter on those tacky plastic tiaras. As they get older these young girls may come to realise that being judged favourably on the basis of your appearance is the most empty, superficial kind of praise in the world. Even the most vapid Disney movies teach kids that it's who you are underneath that counts.
So much for the winner. But what about all the other young hopefuls, who have to face the prospect of failure? What's that going to do for their confidence? A grown-up looked you over and decided you weren't pretty or cute or charming enough to win. Sorry, dear. Time to go home now.
Advocates of this creepy child beauty culture may try to obscure the fact that children are being paraded like so many show ponies, then ranked in order of approved appearance, but that's the bleak reality. Whether the girls are in their (relatively) natural state, as in the Little Miss competition, or clabbered with freaky orange make-up, fake curls, fake eye-lashes, fake everything, it comes down to the same thing.
It's worth taking a look at the rules and regulations page on the website of the Little Miss organisers, Models and Pageants UK, to get a real insight into this lurid, weird, super-competitive world. Tellingly, there are quite a few warnings about bad behaviour - "please conduct yourselves in the proper manner", "bashing and gossip will not be tolerated". If you're taking part in another of their contests, Minis and Tiaras, open to boys and girls aged 0-12, you aren't permitted to wear 'flippers' or removable false teeth.
Models and Pageants UK will, however, allow "over-exaggerated facial expressions, heavy arm movements or swaying when walking, pouts, winks, clinched cheeks, raised eyebrows, sparkly eyes, pointing at judges, excessive head tilts, removable clothing, prissy walks, fast walking, heel hops or boot scoots in western wear, etc. All of this is fine and well for all our Pageants". Well, that's good to know. Though I'm not sure how you get a six-month-old baby to boot-scoot while doing a sparkly wink and removing some of her clothing. I imagine that requires a lot of intensive training. Maybe by the time she's one she'll be ready.
Look, it isn't the kids' fault, of course. They absolutely love the contests, we're told, they just can't get enough of them. Maybe so. All youngsters like dressing up. In the same way, a seven-year-old would probably also love to sit and stuff herself with copious amounts of candy floss from morning to night. But would you let her?
None of this is really about the children. It's the parents, especially the mothers, who are driving the show. These contests are primarily fuelled by adult fantasies of power and beauty and success. It's the old princess by proxy syndrome: parents failing to differentiate between their own desires or needs and those of their child.
The truth is that there's no such thing as a healthy child beauty competition.
As the sociologist Frank Furedi once observed, such contests are just "a couple of steps up from Crufts". Only the primped and pampered creatures prancing around the ring trying to catch the judge's eye aren't your dogs. They're your kids.