Terrors and Tiaras

by McKenna Bright

Illustrated by Pepper Pieroni

From glitz to glam, beauty pageants showcase it all. Girls all around the globe compete for various titles—ranging from the Ultimate Grand Supreme title, as frequently mentioned in television programs like Toddlers and Tiaras, to much higher so-called “badges of honor,” like Miss USA or Miss Colombia. When a contestant wins a title they garner widespread acclaim, but there is more to pageants than just shiny trophies and cash prizes.

Pageant competitions can leave women and girls with poor self-esteem, various mental illnesses and the underlying message that pageants encourage the sexualization of their bodies by being judged on their image.

Generally, in both child and adult pageants, unhealthy behaviors are closely related to competing in pageants. These often stem from the added judgement that comes along with competing. Walking across a stage and being judged from head to toe based on how you look can deplete anyone’s confidence, especially if someone has been taking part since childhood. Based on a synopsis of a statistical report published by Women’s Health, 6 percent of the 2.5 million girls who had competed in a pageant as of January 2016 had previously or currently suffered from depression; that means roughly 150,000 girls suffering after being constantly judged and objectified. While it is plausible that some of the cases of depression are unrelated to competing in beauty pageants, the sheer number of girls affected by the illness can’t be a coincidence. The statistics alone say enough; beauty pageants can do a considerable amount of harm to those competing and can cause unhealthy behaviors to arise among the competitors.

The encouragement unhealthy behaviors and outlets for girls can begin early. Most of the girls I know who have competed in beauty pageants have been competing since they were young. Even in the child pageants, those who compete are intensely scrutinized by a panel of judges to see whether or not they meet an idealistic standard. Girls as young as two years old are heavily encouraged to compete by family members who find entertainment in watching them prance around on a stage. While there are young girls who enjoy the attention, the youngest ones typically don’t. The mothers of very young girls give them fake teeth and false lashes in order to appease a subjective standard of beauty that a five-year-old needs to reach in order to be successful.

I feel that you can’t mention young girls in pageants without bringing up the program Toddlers and Tiaras, which is a competition for girls ranging in age from two to eight. In the show, viewers often see how the mothers of the competing girls hover over them to ensure that they don’t look anything less than perfect, even though this perfection is impossible to attain. Almost every single episode involves a child screaming or crying and expressing clear displeasure with what they are being made to do on stage. They often have to wear flippers (fake teeth) and incredible amounts of makeup to hide any sort of blemishes or flaws they might have so that the judges won’t knock off points for their appearance.

So what exactly is the point here? Pageants teach girls from a young age that they need to modify their appearance and weight if they want to be successful and gain recognition. When you look at how the parents and the judges treat “flaws” among pageant girls, it explains why the average BMI, or Body Mass Index, for beauty pageants has decreased by almost two points from 1930 to 2010, going from 20.8 to 18.9. This isn’t a good change by any means, especially when you take into account the fact that a BMI of 18.5 is considered underweight. Nowadays, pageants and the media alike promote slimmer and taller builds as opposed to bigger or shorter builds. As this standard has shifted throughout the years, so have the expectations that people hold for the contestants. As they get older, they are expected to continue meeting these ridiculous standards to an even more extreme level. This results in many girls turning to incredibly restrictive diets and intense workouts in order to meet the ideals for competition.

As time goes on and girls continue competing in pageants throughout their older years, it seems that the problems developed in the children’s pageants only grow more prominent. Many of the big pageant competitions are broadcasted on television, like the Miss Universe Pageant. This generates body image problems for both competitors and viewers. The sexualization of pageant contestants becomes more of an issue with categories like swimwear, in which the main purpose is to judge the body of the contestant. Those competing turn towards stricter diets and high-intensity workouts in order to keep up their shape. This, in turn, affects many women viewing the competition as it propagates the idea that a slim “bikini body” is the only accepted definition of beautiful. The media is a powerful force when it comes to how women see themselves, and when you have large pageants like Miss Universe only showing contestants with roughly the same body type—tall and thin—it can take a toll on the collective self-image of society. The questionnaire portion of the competition, which is meant to broadcast the intelligence of those competing, means little to nothing when the main focus is on how the girls look in formal dresses and swimsuits.

Beauty pageants as a whole create a breeding ground for internal conflicts among those competing. Miss Universe becomes Miss Universally Sexualized, four and five year olds are told to wear artificial products so they fit cultural beauty standards, and this is all a regular part of competition. Beauty pageants and the media teach girls across the world that being slim is what it means to be beautiful when, in truth, all body types are beautiful. Beauty is an objective concept that many people view differently, so trying to force a standard and depicting it as true beauty only damages how women view themselves as opposed to empowering them.