A couple of weeks ago, I took part in a protest rally on the steps of Perth’s Parliament House. I took part for two reasons: firstly because participating in a protest has been on my “Bucket List” for ages, and secondly because it was a cause I felt I could get behind. When I heard that there would be a rally to prevent child beauty pageants coming to Australia, I happily went along. America’s child beauty pageant culture has been widely publicised and criticised, and had mainly come to my attention via the film Little Miss Sunshine and the TV series Toddlers & Tiaras. I thought, “Yes, I definitely don’t like the idea of that coming here.”
The turn-out for the rally was modest (to put it modestly). There were more members of the media covering the protest than there were protesters. But still, we were a small, committed group of citizens, and we made our point in our own mild way. Several mums sat on the steps juggling babies, I blew soap-bubbles, and my friend Kate Wilson did a performance poem about children’s body image. It was all very civilised. Our coordinator, Debbie, got up and made a speech about what we were opposing, and why. It was at that moment I realised I hadn’t properly thought through my reasons for protesting.
As Debbie expostulated against the mothers she’d seen on Toddlers & Tiaras for forcing their two-year-old girls into bathing suit competitions, it seemed we were merely having an emotional reaction to child beauty pageants. Was that enough to justify a protest? I mean, sure, the sight of young girls dressing up in false eyelashes and hot-pants and dancing around in front of a panel of judges did make me feel a little sick inside, but was that moral outrage, or was that just a difference of opinion? While I see a travesty in a cowgirl skirt, maybe the “stage moms” just see a sweet little girl playing dress-ups. Debbie was saying that she would never want to see her granddaughter in one of these pageants. Well, I thought, that’s fine, because no-one’s going to force her granddaughter to participate. Even if the big child beauty pageants did come to Australia, that wouldn’t mean anyone had to enter them. Debbie had some control over her granddaughter’s extra-curricular activities, while other families could choose to buy their little girls some tap lessons and start whipping them into show-ready shape. If we wanted to protest in public and influence the behaviour of other citizens, then we had to have a better reasoning that “I just don’t like it”.
The rally ended, and the media swarmed in. Channel Ten pointed a camera in my face and asked me if child beauty pageants would destroy the self-esteem of Australian girls everywhere (or some such leading question). I thought about it. I wished I’d done more research before committing myself to an opinion. Then, because I’m neither an expert on child beauty pageants or their effect on the self-esteem of Australian girls, I replied: “I couldn’t say.” The reporter almost rolled her eyes in exasperation (I don’t blame her – what was I, running for office?). She questioned me further. Did I think child beauty pageants were dangerous? No, I thought that would be giving them too much significance. Was I angry that child beauty pageants might be coming to Australia? Not really, I’d just prefer that they didn’t. What, exactly, was my problem with child beauty pageants? Well …
I tried to get to the core of my disapproval. I thought about all the young children and teenagers I’d worked with, all the little girls complaining to me that they were “fat” and needed to go on a diet. I thought about how miserable I’d been at high school because I wasn’t pretty enough. I thought about how I’d get old one day, and big, and wrinkly, and what old age would feel like for those girls who’d always taken pride in being “beauty queens”. Yes, my reaction was emotional, but could I find more reason to oppose the beauty culture?
I could. “I think encouraging child beauty pageants would send the wrong message to young girls. Beauty is very subjective, and eventually fades away, but personality and intelligence can last for the rest of your life. I think we should be creating a culture where girls feel comfortable in their looks, rather than judged. At the end of the day, child beauty pageants are really about the parents, and I think it’s almost bordering on child abuse when parents push their children into such high pressure situations.” The reporter thanked me, and the camera was dropped from my face.
I mused a bit longer over my answers. Children in high pressure situations … Sure, I was never entered in any beauty pageants as a child, but I do remember entering many academic competitions. And sports carnivals. And acting auditions. No matter what I did, I always felt I should be doing better, should be doing more. How was that any different from a girl pushing herself to rank higher in the next beauty pageant? My answer: I don’t think it is different. I think our society puts way too much pressure on children to achieve. I say this as someone who is in recovery from “overachiever syndrome”. How do we raise young girls to be ambitious, hard-working, responsible, and still be balanced human beings? How do we teach them to relax, to give themselves a break, to enjoy life, when we admonish them every time they don’t get the grade we were hoping for? When they don’t achieve, parents are disappointed. Are we pushing them for their own good, or for something else?
I think balance is the hardest thing of all to achieve. The Buddhists call it “The Middle Path”. During their lives, Australia’s young girls will have to walk the tightrope between relaxed and lazy; smart and “up herself”; sexy and oversexed; motivated and obsessive; assertive and “a bitch”. Who will teach them to walk it?
I’m glad I attended that protest. We weren’t there to change lesgislation, or to shake our fists at any politicians. We were there to change minds, to direct attention towards the growing culture of “beauty” in Australia. We wanted to remind ourselves what kind of example we hope to set for young girls and women. And, in the process, I had a chance to investigate more thoroughly opinions that I hadn’t questioned before. In that, at least, I have achieved something.