Lipstick, big hairdos and sparkly crowns ... the world of beauty pageants can be child's play.
"They love this! They love the glitz and the glamour!" says Joy Clark, grandmother of 5-year-old Jayleigh. Clark has spent the last four years taking Jayleigh to 100 pageants, perfecting her presentation. She is jubilant about her granddaughter's interest and pooh-poohs the suggestion that children might be getting the wrong message about the importance of their looks.
Children are the fastest-growing segment of the beauty pageant market, with annual children's competitions attracting an estimated 3 million children, mostly girls, ages six months to 16 years, who compete for crowns and cash. Infants, carried onto the stage by their mothers, are commonplace.
April Brilliant, reigning Mrs. Maryland and the director of Maryland-based Mystic Pageants, says pageants give little girls a chance to "play Cinderella."
"It's more like playing dress-up," says Brilliant, who coordinated the Little Miss and Mister American Pageant earlier this month in Summerville, S.C. "Like if you were home doing your hair, doing makeup, dressing up in fancy clothes. Playing Cinderella for a day."
When Baby Swans Grow Older
But playing dress-up on the pageant stage costs parents financially, and some experts argue that it can be harmful to girls, teaching them that their self-worth is measured by how pretty they are.
"What they are learning basically is that they have one characteristic which is of total primary importance, and that is their body and their attractiveness," said Syd Brown, a child and adolescent psychologist practicing in Maryland. Brown warns that baby swans often become ugly adolescent ducklings, a development that could usher in a host of emotional problems in young adulthood.
"What happens if these kids develop acne? Or they need braces?" asks Brown, "Or what happens if they don't develop physically? What happens to them then?"
Another concern is that the contests may breed narcissism. While a certain degree of self-love and value is critical for children, Brown feels that pageants tip the scale of what is healthy and natural child development. He is concerned that children will put too much emphasis on physical attractiveness as they form relationships with others.
Beyond a Bow in the Hair
Pageants have changed over the years, with children going further and further to look more attractive, one veteran organizer said.
"Competitions 25 years ago really only required a party dress and a satin hair bow," says Eleanor Vonduyke, a former Denver-based pageant director who was in the business for 20 years.
But these days, it is not unusual to see children with highlighted or bleached hair. Some young contestants wear false eyelashes or "flippers," which are false teeth used to cap missing front teeth.
Vonduyke, who directed pageants in which JonBenét Ramsey competed, left the industry after the 6-year-old Colorado girl was found murdered. The investigation cast a dark shadow on the contests, she said, as images of JonBenét competing in pageants were shown repeatedly in media reports on the ongoing investigation. Vonduyke is currently working on a book about the industry.