Tuesday’s report in the Daily Mail of a beauty pageant in Lincolnshire has – quite understandably – created a storm online. Beauty pageants as a formalised concept seem somehow entirely outdated these days – parades of women marked out of ten for their looks and physical appearance, with barely a nod to their ‘personality’. These shows still exist, of course, as do more subtle but equally dispiriting examples of occasions which are effectively beauty parades, in all but name – red carpet premieres, for instance, or advertisements for almost any product under the sun promoted by or for women, or photoshoots to accompany press interviews with women on any subject you can think of. Even our female Olympians were not immune to this pressure, and story after story of their post-Olympic success appeared with ‘glamorous’ shots of these sportswomen dressed up to the nines, posing provocatively, and covered in make-up – the effect being, of course, rather perversely, just to make them look like the vast majority of other women who appear in media photos, or on billboards, or in our magazines, rather than as the extraordinary athletes they are.
We have grown so used to such representations of women that they often pass us by – a real danger, of course, in itself, as we (and more poignantly, our daughters) absorb the subliminal messages that they send out about how women should look and act. But the Daily Mail report created such a storm because the pageant to which it referred did not feature women at all, but rather children – girls – aged from 18 months to 4 years. At the risk that you might feel like a voyeur, you should look at the photos and the videos online. Some of it seems like harmless playacting, but then there are moments which will make you catch your breath, as you seen toddlers caked in make-up, parading in swimming costumes, and pouting and posing as if – quite frankly – they were on the catwalk of a seedy nightclub. The juxtaposition of childhood innocence and adult sexual poses is both shocking and terribly, terribly sad. Watching the children, you cannot fail but to have a strong sense that they are being shoehorned into an understanding of themselves as objects for the gratification of others, and as sexual beings, far ahead of the development of their own sexuality. At some stage in their lives, they are going to realise that this understanding is not sufficient for them to lead happy and well-balanced lives, but by then so much of their identity might be invested in this skewed self-perception that they will find it hard to escape.
Some of the comments made by the parents of the participants will lead you to inhale sharply. No-one expects a parent to think anything other than that his or her child is perfect and beautiful; to seek to parade that child, however, in front of others, while encouraging adult poses, seems quite simply irresponsible and an abdication of their parental duty of care to bring their children up with appropriate boundaries. I find it hard to blame the parents – where was the guidance in their own lives, or in society around them? – but surely the time has come to help these parents understand what is fundamentally wrong about statements like “the twins don’t really know what’s going on so it’s for my own personal satisfaction”, or assumptions about both their own children and others: “The children who take part are a different breed. They are kids who like the limelight. We’ve got dull, old-fashioned, apron-wearing mothers making their comments, but no one criticises them because their children are boring.”
When the self-regulating processes of an enlightened society fail, either through inadequate education, insufficiently strong family structures or the distortions which come from commercial and other pressures, then the state has to step in. These children should not be put in a situation where they are being asked to present themselves in these ways. The argument that they love it is illogical; they are young children who know no better, and it is, as Claude Knights from Kidscape pointed out, “impossible for them to be giving their consent!.
Enough is enough – stop this now. Just ban them.