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.
In addition to the child development and image concerns there are financial issues surrounding pageants, too. The run for crowns and cash can cost thousands of dollars. Entry fees range from $10 to $200. Dresses can cost up to $5,000, with most averaging $1,000 or so.
At the highest contest levels, contestants are required to wear multiple outfits appropriate for the different categories they must compete in. Coaches, modeling lessons, makeup and travel also add to the enormous price tags.
"Some people, myself included, think it's foolish to spend that much on a baby, but we do it to win and to have a good time," said one pageant mom, Heather Cocke. "If you don't really have the clothes, you don't win."
A Nest Egg for College
Pageant proponents say the contests offer the children many benefits. In addition to giving their children the chance to earn college scholarships, modeling contracts, and cash, parents of mini beauty queens claim it boosts their children's self-esteem, builds self-confidence and forges lasting friendships.
For Clark and her granddaughter, the investment paid off. Jayleigh earned $1,800 after winning a crown at the Summerville pageant, and is getting ready to sign a modeling contract in a month. From these earnings, Clark has set aside nearly enough to finance Jayleigh's college tuition.
For pageant judge Holly Tevan, pageants are "a wonderful way for a family to spend quality time together." Her own four children used pageant earnings to help pay for their college education, she said.
Just Like Little League
For a lot of parents, beauty contests are no different than chauffeuring their children around to Little League, or other athletic competitions.
"I was always involved in the baseball, the football, the basketball, the dance and now my kids are grown," said Clark. "To me this is the same thing, it's a sport we travel to. We teach her, she practices, and you win prizes. It's just the same. It's just a sport."
For Brilliant, the recreational aspect is one of pageantry's tenets. She wants parents to know that their child is gaining self-esteem, making new friends and having a good time. As for parents, "they get to have the opportunity to travel to a bunch of places and meet new people," she adds.
"You can't let the competition be the most important thing," said Lisa Larrymore, whose daughter, Danika, is a pageant regular. "The most important thing is the girl, the girl-time together and the bonding and the fun."
Too Sexy, Too Soon?
One of the concerns of critics like Brown is that the contests push the girls into the realm of sexuality, long before their time.
"When you have them looking older, for a lot of people that means looking sexier. I don't think it's a great idea for girls at that age to be focused so much on their sexuality," Brown said. "If you're telling a 6-year-old to act like a 16-year-old, you're telling her to be seductive and to be sexy."
But Brilliant contends that isn't the case, and says that critics misconstrue what the girls do when they take the stage.
"I wouldn't say it's sexualized," she said. "I think that they're more just trying to be a model and it's more of a dance routine than anything."
Paul Peterson, a former child actor, is the president and founder of A Minor Consideration, an organization working to change the child entertainment industry. He believes the pageants not only put demands on children's time and energies, but also sexualize young girls.
"This is feeding the sex industry," Peterson said. "There is a tremendous trade within juvenile modeling."
But simply dressing for the pageant doesn't necessarily mean looking older, Tevan said. In fact, young competitors who try to look too old could receive points off, she said.
"If the child would have a dress on that we feel is too low cut for a child that age or if the child uses movements that aren't age-appropriate, then we would probably take off points," Tevan said.
The ‘Pageant Mom’ Phenomenon
Critics have also raised concerns about "pageant moms," women who aggressively market their children in beauty contests.
Lisa J. Rapport, a psychology professor at Wayne State University in Detroit studied 74 former young performers in television and film. She found that mothers who served as managers were likely to have a far less stable and positive relationship with their children than were mothers who kept business separate.
"When parents become overly invested in the child's success, it may be more difficult to pull back and listen," said Rapport, who also discovered that the incidence of substance and alcohol abuse was higher among former kid performers.
But pageant advocates say that such stories are few and far between.
"Sometimes the parents are living through the child," Brilliant said. "But, I'd say that 95 percent of the time, parents really are doing it because the children want to do it."