At age 6, Piper Parks is a stunning redhead with flowing hair extensions, fake eyelashes and piercing eyes, one green and one blue. With the help of coaches and a $2,400 bejeweled dress, she has taken top prize at numerous beauty pageants since the age of 10 months.
"For beauty, she has a full mega-glitz dress," said her mother, Katie Parks, 39, and a former Miss Country Western Arizona. "She's a die-hard pageant girl."
Parks said pageants have given her once-shy girl self-esteem, diverse friendships and the ability to perform on stage, something neither mother nor daughter would ever give up, she said.
Child beauty pageants are a distinctly American phenomenon that, with the success of reality shows like TLC's "Toddlers and Tiaras," have been recently exported abroad.
But this week in a surprise vote, the French Senate proposed an outright ban on these over-the-top competitions for children under the age of 16.
The political debate, aimed at discouraging the sexualization of young girls, arose on the heels of Paris Fashion Week and discussion of a women's rights law.
The legislation, approved by a vote of 197-146, must go to the lower house of parliament for further debate and another vote, according to The Associated Press. Violators -- not just the contestants but their parents or pageant organizers or anyone who "encourages or tolerates children's access to these competitions" -- could face up to two years in prison and an estimated $40,000 in fines.
|"Beauty pageants are uniquely American. I don't see how it translates to the French who have understated elegance." -- Susan Anderson, photographer, "High Glitz"|
The recent French pageant vote came two years after child model Thylane Loubry Blondeau, who had been modeling since the age of 5, appeared in a sexually charged pose in French Vogue at the age of 10. The Parisian preteen, made-up, dressed in high heels and haute couture, reignited a debate about the the messages young girls receive about beauty and sex.
But Parks, who lives in Strawberry, Ariz., sees it differently.
"Wow," she told ABCNews.com, in response to the proposed French ban. "I think that's way too much government control."
"I find more positives than negatives," she said. "I don't think it's any worse than another sport a child plays. And it is a sport. You have to get good at it to achieve a higher title or award. I have seen massive improvement in her self-confidence. She went from being a shy child on stage to in-your-face look at me. I am really cool.
"And it almost forces families to spend more time together," Parks said. "We do a lot of traveling. Where most kids are lucky to go on vacation once a year, we are on vacation once a week."
Tami Soudbakhsh, director of the Little Miss and Mrs. Pageants in Las Vegas, was dead set against high-glitz child beauty pageants when she worked in the mental health field.
"The make-up, the fake teeth, the fake tan, kids forced to do it by their moms," said Soudbakhsh, 49. About eight years ago, she entered the field, first in so-called "natural" beauty pageants and later in the high-glitz ones.
She quickly changed her mind when she saw the "self-esteem" these American pageants brought to children and their families.
"Oh, they love it, the hair and the make-up. Every kid gets a tiara. They hear their name, and there is a winner, no matter what," said Soudbakhsh.
"They get to perform, and it's all about family bonding -- no one understands that," she said. "The dads are making props and the moms are making outfits. The other kids are sitting on the couch as fake judges. I had a mom with a troubled teen who said it was so important to helping her keep her kid on the right track."
Another pageant mom was just as indignant about any possibility of a ban on beauty pageants crossing the Atlantic.
"I think it's ridiculous -- France is totally different from the United States," said India McDougald, whose 5-year-old daughter, Aja, will be on an upcoming episode of "Toddlers and Tiaras."
McDougald said Aja, who has been competing since she was 2 and was recently on "Toddlers and Tiaras," had made friends at pageants.
"I don't like them, but she enjoys herself," she said. "I never force her to do them."
In the United States, as in France, parents are increasingly worried about a culture that glorifies sex. Former child star Miley Cyrus, 20, shocked many at the recent MTV Video Music Awards with a provocative performance that involved twerking and running a foam finger along her body.
But McDougald, who also has a 14-year-old, seemed unfazed. "My daughter really likes Miley Cyrus," she said. "She doesn't dress skimpy -- I wouldn't let her go out like that and at school, she's not going to wear it."
But filmmaker Jill Bauer, co-director of the documentary "Sexy Baby," said that girls as young as 12 and 13 are under enormous pressure. "We hung out with a lot of teens," she said, while making her documentary. "We observed girls at bar mitzvahs when their dads were dropping them off. How are you able to tell the difference between a prostitute and the way they were dressed?"
But, she said, "you can't blame them -- walk by any American Apparel ad." In one of its more controversial campaigns, the company used porn star Sasha Grey as one of its models.
One beauty pageant expert said the French reaction to the American export of child beauty competitions was more an effort to "retain the identity of their culture" and that Americans are as unlikely to ban these competitions as the French are to embrace them.
"It's a world of its own and a parallel universe in some ways," said Susan Anderson, a photographer who published the 2009 book on child beauty pageants, "High Glitz." "Beauty pageants are uniquely American. I don't see how it translates to the French who have understated elegance.
"When you go to Paris, you see women on the street, and they wear very little make-up and their skin and clothing are understated," said Anderson. "It's a more refined aesthetic. Surely, on the basis of fashion alone, they would reject it. It's not who they are as a people.
"But maybe we should look to French for inspiration from time to time," she continued. "Ultimately, less is more."