Ugly truth about beauty pageants
Caroline Overington From: The Australian August 02, 2011 12:00AM
Parents and their children protest against the American-style junior beauty pageant held in Melbourne on the weekend, claiming it is a form of child abuse. Source: Getty Images
MELBOURNE played host to a US-style child beauty pageant on the weekend, and you can take your pick as to who did the worst out of it.
First, there was Eden Wood, a porcelain-skinned, six-year-old star of such events from Arkansas, who was flown to Australia, ostensibly to promote the local pageant, and to meet local girls. She spent much of the weekend being carried around with a coat over her stiffly sprayed head, so as not so cruel any media deals.
Then there was Eden's mum, the bold and brassy Micki Wood, who says fame is Eden's destiny; that those who criticise her are sinful in the eyes of the Lord; and who made a pretty penny out of her trip to Australia but had to endure being called an enabler for pedophiles for her trouble.
There was the Nine Network, which picked the story for the ratings blockbuster it surely was, and paid for exclusive access to Saturday's pageant, only to have Eden fail to show up.
Then there was the Seven Network, whose deal-makers are obviously a bit smarter than Nine's. It paid for exclusive access not to the event but to Eden -- but now faces accusations it ruined the show for pint-sized Australian girls, who paid about $600 to meet the star, only to go home in tears when she didn't appear.
Then, too, there was poor old Bernie Geary. He's the grey-haired, sensible, inaugural child safety commissioner in Victoria, meaning he's the man charged with keeping youngsters safe from harm. That's a tough job, at the best of times: children die at the hands of their parents in Victoria, just as they do in all states.
And what horror was Geary being asked to investigate on Saturday? Whether spray-tanning a six-year-old constitutes child abuse. If not spray-tanning, then what about waxing? What about applying fake eyelashes?
Geary's involvement came after opponents suggested that Australian parents who allowed their children to take part were engaged in child abuse.
Adolescent and child psychotherapist Collett Smart, whose practice sees many a young girl with shredded self-esteem and the associated eating disorders, believes government intervention in pageantry is warranted.
"I spent 2 1/2 hours inside the venue on Saturday, enough to get a good look, and I didn't change my mind at all," Smart tells The Australian. "No, I didn't see shocking parents. I saw parents who do love their kids. But I also saw children judged solely on their outward appearance.
"I kept getting told, no, it's also about skill. And I spent time actively looking for that skill, and there is no skill. They [the children] walk on, and give a wave, and blow a kiss, and give a twirl, and all are judged on how they looked, until one is left standing there. They had to choose their favourite role model, and some came dressed up as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, and Minnie Mouse, but there was a four-year-old dressed up as Lady Gaga, and there was Sandy from Grease, in the black leathers.
"And so I thought, those parents, however well-meaning they may be, they are allowing their children to take on these role models, and they were allowing them to be judged, and so that means that we need to have the state involved, yes.
"Body image is the No 1 problem of young girls. So these children [in pageants] are absolutely being put in harm's way, and we can't just watch a train wreck about to happen. And it's cruel to judge little girls on their appearance. To say to a young girl, no, you're not pretty enough. So we're setting them up for plastic surgery and Botox injections and as a society, we must not sit by and let that happen."
Smart's arguments are, clearly, steeped in notions of what is best for little girls; and what is fair (and unfair, and about what can realistically be changed) about the society in which we live.
Not everyone was opposed to the event; indeed, upward of 70 local families paid to have their daughters compete on Saturday. Carmen Powell was one of the organisers as well as the mother of a contestant.
"Part of the problem this week has been the way pageants have been depicted in the media,"she says. "I mean the show Toddlers and Tiaras. Everyone has seen it, and believes it is true.
"But the fact is, if you put together a whole program putting on the ugliness of junior footballers, it would look the same. That is what TV does. They [producers] wait for any child to cry from being tired, or being bitten by their sister, and they spin it all together for ratings, and people think, oh, that's a pageant. But I have been to pageants in the US. I've seen them and I've judged them. And what you see on TV is packaged that way, for ratings."
Powell says that it's an absurd over-reaction of the finger-wagging nanny state to have government controls placed over kiddie beauty competitions, which are enjoyed by many, and have been for decades, even if they are not to everyone's taste.
"If that's the case, then we're going to have to have an intervention into every child's activity, right across Australia,"she says.
"I mean, I went to Saturday's show. I saw everything, and the pageant itself was a good pageant. The children had a great time."
Missing from the local debate is appreciation of cultural mores at play: pageantry is a well-worn path to public life in the US. As Kerri-Anne Kennerley said on Nine yesterday: "What's the difference between Eden Wood and Shirley Temple, who grew up to be an ambassador and had a great life?"
Others want to know how a mother differs from, say, Andre Agassi's father, who forced his child into tennis lesson for hours on the road to grand slam glory.
Then there are the so-called "Tiger Mums" -- immigrant parents, keen to give their children a better life via education, who order their children into piano lessons, three hours a day, and all weekend. Where is the state supposed to draw the line?
Then, too, there are examples of pageant queens, whose skill on stage stands them in good stead, later in life: Sarah Palin, a former pageant star, became vice presidential candidate; and Oprah Winfrey, a former pageant girl who became one of the most influential women in the world.
Opponents of pageants say a key difference is that pageantry somehow sexualises the child. Many remember the fate that befell JonBenet Ramsey, a child beauty queen found strangled in her basement, with a pedophile the likely suspect. In one of Eden Wood's YouTube videos, she bounces around singing about her "booty" and shaking her bum at the audience.
Powell says pageants in Australia are different.
"As I say, I attended the event. I saw very little spray tan. All the children had their own teeth," she says. "Some of them had teeth that were missing."
The squabbling and hysteria in Melbourne was undoubtedly worsened by the appearance of duelling media tribes. Nine was first to sniff the potential of the story, and did a deal with the organisers, for exclusive access to the event at the Northcote Town Hall. It now says that Seven prevented Eden from attending (Seven denies this) disappointing many little girl fans, whose parents forked out about $600 in entry fees, and tickets.
Seven doesn't deny that it paid for access to Eden, with a spokesman saying: "We did indeed sign her up when we went to do the story in the US several weeks ago. We paid $10,000 plus four airfares, less than the $20,000 [the rival] A Current Affair admit paying to the organisers of the event."
Seven also says parental anger is better directed toward the organisers of the pageant, for ripping them off. "Of the entry fee, $100 was for a meet and greet with Eden on Friday, which the Woods didn't know about, and didn't get a cent from," the spokesman says.
As to whether Seven prevented Eden from attending the event, Seven says: "One hundred per cent, no. In fact we encouraged her to show up. To put it in context, when she arrived in Melbourne on Friday, she was confronted by headlines, radio and television reports of protests, a police presence at the pageant and the child protection commissioner attending.
"Eden's mother went on our program on the Friday night and said she wouldn't do anything to jeopardise her daughter's safety and if it meant pulling out of the pageant she would do so.
"She didn't want to disappoint the kids so she asked us to arrange a meet and greet across the road where Eden also performed."
Seven says Eden left Australia yesterday, but is happy to return to do other shows.
As to whether the state will get involved in those, NSW Minister for Community Services Pru Goward welcomed the debate, but says state intervention in parenting is appropriate only in cases of abuse and neglect.
"I do not believe the state has any business interfering in a voluntary activity such as this unless there were clear evidence that children involved were at risk of significant harm through neglect or abuse," she says.
"We all make choices as parents and in a free society we need to accept that the state cannot regulate to micromanage parental choices. But a healthy discussion about the costs and benefits of child beauty pageants is a good thing. Parents well know that any contest -- sporting, academic, or artistic -- puts their child under pressure, and on each occasion the parent makes a judgment about whether the pressure and also the resultant self-consciousness are worth the price of success or failure."
There was no stories more commented upon yesterday. "What's actually wrong with this?" says one reader. "Why is it offensive?"