Are child beauty pageants damaging to children? Tons of people think so, because it seems to “make sense”. However, I have been strangely unable to find real scientific data back up the crusade some people seem to have against them.
Now, I will be the first to admit: I’m not an expert in this field of study. If you know of good, solid scientific data that shows that there is a connection between child beauty pageants and psychological trauma or later psychological dysfunction, then please sent it to me and I will stand corrected, and will publish a correction here in this article.
But I’ve hunted and hunted, and have found almost nothing.
Why does this topic, specifically, bother me?
Because it it part of a larger problem that I see at the root of a lot of prejudice in our society today. It irritates me any time that people go on a self-righteous crusade based on the following logic:
“I personally don’t approve of XYZ; therefore XYZ must be harmful and damaging and wrong.”
That is what seems to be at work in most of the conversation and writing that I see on the topic of child beauty pageants.
I will admit this: personally, I don’t see the appeal of them. I’ve never lived in a part of the country where they are an integral part of the culture, and I’ve never hung out with people who were involved in them. So it is only natural that I find them a little strange and a little ridiculous. And creepy, to be honest.
But it honestly freaks me out more when I’m confronted with the self-righteous screams of (usually) liberals who call it “child abuse” and “pedophilia” and claim that the parents must be “mentally ill” and on and on and on.
First, let’s clear something up: It’s not “child abuse” and it isn’t “pedophilia” and to say either of those things is to be downright insulting to the real horrors that go along with actual child abuse and pedophilia. So get a grip and stop it with the hyperbole.
Second, the broader question of whether participating in child beauty pageants is harmful to children is an empirical question. It cannot be answered by “logical arguments” that seem to make sense. It can only properly be answered by measuring real, actual data that shows a connection between being in child pageants and trauma or later psychological dysfunction.
Yet, when I scour the internet and medical journals looking for information on this topic, I see so little actual data.
I see lots of opinion. I see articles like the one at familyeducation.com, where you read a “professional opinion” of a person who is “passionate” on the topic, and feels that pageants put undue emphasis on appearance, and undue pressure on children. There are articles where people make all kinds of generalized claims that these things will make children more focused on looks, or more insecure, and are “likely” to lead to all kinds of trouble later in life.
The problem is that these articles have no data. They suffer from the same problem that so-called “conspiracy theories” suffer from: they make connections that “sound sensible” without showing any actual evidence.
There does seem to be one study, that many sources all refer to when they are pushed to provide evidence. It is a paper entitled, “Childhood beauty pageant contestants: associations with adult disordered eating and mental health” in Eating Disorders Journal by Wonderlich, Ackard, and Henderson.
I haven’t found the full paper, including the complete methods section, but based on the summary it seems that their data are a comparison of 11 women who were in child beauty pageants with 11 women who were not. These women were specifically matched in terms of various physical and psychological factors to try to ensure that the groups were comparable.
The study found that the 11 adults who had participated in childhood beauty pageants were not statistically more likely (as a group) to have eating disorders or be depressed or have low self-esteem, however they were statistically more likely (as a group) to be dissatisfied with their own bodies and to have problems trusting other people. The summaries that I have read gave no indication as to the magnitude of these differences.
Obviously, with that small a sample size, a bunch of questions automatically come to mind. Did they show a distribution of socioeconomic backgrounds? Could there be regional influences, and would the results be the same if the study were done in urban versus rural settings? Would the results be the same for people raised in the north versus the south? What was the age distribution of the adults? And so on. When you compare 11 people to 11 people it’s interesting, but it’s hardly enough to make a really solid generalization to the population as a whole.
However, none of these questions are really the biggest problem with this study.
The biggest problem with the study is that they did not use the correct control condition.
Let me ask the question this way: had the 11 people who had not participated in child beauty pageants ever been forced to enter into a competition of any kind as children? Were they ever forced to be in a performance? Did they ever play sports? Were they ever in school plays?
There is nothing in the way these groups were selected or defined that controls for this question. There is nothing to suggest that the experimenters even asked.
Why does it matter?
Because the difference that we see between these groups might not have anything to do with child beauty pageants in particular. The differences in adult psychology could be the result of being a child of parents who pressure children into competing in activities at all.
And if we did a new study that actually controlled for that condition, and we matched children of parents who were obsessed with child beauty pageants against the children of parents who were obsessed with their little boys being football stars, or against children of parents who were obsessed with their boys or girls being on stage or singing, what do you think we would find?
Would the children who were in child beauty pageants be unique, and somehow harmed specifically by child beauty pageants?
Or would we find that the real culprit isn’t child beauty pageants, but merely parents who obsess over their children competing and performing in things?
Because that opens up a whole new ball of worms… will the people who decry child beauty pageants as “child abuse” now turn their rage on school plays and Little League?
Somehow, I don’t see that happening.
If you are a liberal, then you should know better. Just because you find someone else’s cultural traditions “odd” or “icky” doesn’t automatically mean they are wrong or bad.
If you are a liberal, then it shouldn’t be enough for you to just say: “I don’t like this, therefore people who do like it are crazy.”
If you are a liberal, and your argument is that child beauty pageants harm children, then you should demand to see good, solid evidence that that child beauty pageants really do harm children before you snap to judgment.
And if this evidence is out there, and I’ve just missed it: send it to me, and I will make and update and a correction here. I am pro-science enough that I’m willing to be convinced by data, if the data are good data.
That means, don’t send me this: “I feel we put too much emphasis on appearance already, therefore these people are bad parents.” That’s not a scientific argument.
Instead, send me some data that show that the amount of damage caused by children being forced to participate in these performances is statistically, reliably different from the amount of damage that is caused by forcing children to perform in a school play. Or on a sports team. Or in Boy Scouts. Or any other compulsory activity that we allow parents to force on their children every day.
Show me a study that controls for the level of obsessiveness of the parents, so that we can actually tell whether it is the specific activity of child beauty pageants that is causing the problem, or just parental pushing in general that is at issue here.
Show me the data.
Anything less than that is just spinning tales.