[Extra Credit] Baby Beauty Pageants


Extra Credit: Conversation about books, movies, and  beauty industry buzz.

HighGlitz_Jacket_060209Tristin, age 6, Las Vegas, Nevada, 2006.

Okay, I just read High Glitz, the new book about child beauty pageants by photographer Susan Anderson that has everyone (Salon, Village Voice, Japanese Designers Project) in bit of a lather right now. Of course, we’re used to demonizing pageant moms at this point (thank you, reality television) so this book, in some ways, is part of the to-be-expected backlash to the backlash, defending the glitter and spray-on tans as every little girl’s right.

Says Simon Doonan in his preface:

If only someone in our house were to have figured out that all I ever wanted was to parade about — like a Madame Alexander doll come to life — in front of a cheering crowd, bathed in adoration and soft pink light. […] But seriously, folks, are child pageants any more pernicious and manipulative than Little League and cheerleading? The knee-jerk antipathy towards this all-American ritual is starting to bore me.

highglitz-23_look3Allison, age 10, Nashville, Tennessee, 2008.


Anderson shot all of the portraits in the book just before or after each contestant’s moment in the spotlight. “They’ve just done their performance, or are waiting to go onstage. It’s this very charged environment,” she tells Salon. And as you go through the book, those emotions — excitement, sadness, frustration, hope — peek around the false eyelashes and flippers (fake teeth that are applied over a contestant’s baby ones) in a subtle, haunting way that Toddlers and Tiaras and the like never bother to capture.

So when I reach page 64, and see two-year-old Savanha* with her intense, unsmiling stare and French acrylic nails, one of which has broken off to reveal her little baby fingernail underneath — well, my heart breaks a little.

Sorry, Simon.

I’m not going to deny that dress-up and little girls often go hand in hand. My parents had to instigate “Pants Wednesdays” when I was little, to get me to wear anything other than party dresses and I begged my mom for a perm at age 7 in the hopes that it would give me the very cascading ringlets that most of these girls are sporting. (It did not.) But there was a freedom to the way my sister and I dressed ourselves in layers of tulle and trailing scarves and paraded off to kindergarten convinced we were the most glamorous creatures on Earth. Sure, we took our fashion cues from Barbie and Disney movies, but we were playing, like kids do, figuring out how to make these looks our own. And without a panel of judges scoring us on factors like “Facial Beauty” and “Over-all Package.”

I guess it’s the rigidity of pageant beauty that’s most disturbing. Those plastic smiles and frozen hairstyles — the Madame Alexander dolls haven’t come to life.

They’ve just been made life-size.

highglitz-28_lookAshley, age 8, Nashville, Tennessee, 2008.

*I couldn’t find Savanha’s photo to post here, but she’s #7 in Salon’s slideshow.

[All photos via powerHouse Books]



Filed under beauty standards, For Extra Credit

13 responses to “[Extra Credit] Baby Beauty Pageants

  1. Caroline

    I don’t know… I’m going to have to agree with you here. My fantasies of ringlets were much more natural looking than these hardened updos, and my kindergarten confections were definitely about personal experimentation (in fact, I defied certain judges who criticized the concept of orange and purple, and wearing three dresses at once. You just can’t get the right crinoline effect with just two.) Even if these little girls love the spot light, forcing, or even just encouraging, them to love it professionally and base their self-worth on a judge’s score of their physical appearance at the age of two seems all too extreme.

    And who said that cheerleading and Little League weren’t manipulating?

  2. Chandler

    Wow, what a fascinating post — and what eerie pictures. They remind me a little of Mark Ryden or Loretta Lux. And I love your last lines here: “…the Madame Alexander dolls haven’t come to life. They’ve just been made life-size.”

    One of the weirdest things about this, for me, are the “flippers” and what they symbolize. We’ve known for a long time that older women are pressured by our culture to hide signs of their age: graying hair, laugh lines, saggy boobs. But here’s a case of children being pressured to hide signs of their youth, in this case missing teeth, or baby ones. It’s as though there’s one ideal age (seventeen?) that every woman or girl should aspire to — one age that is beautiful. Where did this idea come from? What does it mean? One thing for sure: it IS all-American.

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  4. Josh

    Very creepy. At least in Little League and cheerleading there is some healthy outcome in the form of exercise. Even the reluctant right-fielder who studies the dandelions has to at least run back and forth each inning. What creeps me out about these photos, in addition to the sad expressions, is the stillness of them. It’s almost like taxidermy, as if they’ve been stuffed and hung on the wall before they even became a person.

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  6. Sara

    I definitely agree that these little girls are being promenaded around like little Barbie dolls, screwing up their ideals of beauty. But, to be the devil’s advocate, I know a lot of these kids are pressured into beauty pageants to raise money for a college fund. Many little beauty queens are from rural areas where parents don’t have the funds for college. It’s similar to getting a scholarship for cheerleading or football. Sadly, these girls are being pressured into fulfilling adult expectations of beauty to satisfy this need. I’m so thankful that my students (2nd graders) are not involved in this type of activity. I think they’re adorable with their “jack-o-lantern” teeth.

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  8. Oh wow, those photos are horrifying. I don’t understand how parents could do that to their daughters. 😦

  9. dawn

    I think they are so pretty! My little girl does pageants for a sport and I dont think there is anything wrong with it. If anything, it boosts her confidence and self esteem. Its just the way you go about it. Its fun.

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  12. Hey if you know about photoshop ….. those pictures were made using the software and the little girls dont look like that always.
    Its is like acting in school …. it happens once every 2 or 3 or 4 months. and they use make up and costumes. It is the same thing.

  13. leola

    Why do they have to tart up these little ladies? Shirley Temple was never tarted up and she was adorable.

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