Where is the scientific data on the effects of child beauty pageants?

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.

High GlitzI 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.



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  1. india says:

    Greg I completely agree with you. We need data! I am currently attending a child abuse/neglect class and we have to write a paper on a topic involving child abuse/neglect. The instructor had this listed so I decide to give it a try and there are just opinions, none are facts. It is impossible to say beauty pageants effect a child but there is no proof. Especially since parents force there children to do things they don’t want to do on the daily.

    • Greg Stevens says:

      It’s such a hot button issue, I wish there were some kind of study that went one way or the other. The cynic in me says that people have probably looked and found “no statistical effect” …. which is often not the kind of result that one publishes.

  2. simon says:

    I stumbled across your article while looking for data myself (in fact it was the only Google result that didn’t say “Pageants are bad” outright so grabbed my attention).

    My personal opinion (knowing very little on the topic) is that they’re horrific, however, I agree that’s no reason to make a decision.

    I’m sure you’re aware of Brooke Breedwell’s comments on her time in pageants?

    From my limited knowledge, the youngest contestants have no idea what they’re doing. In some cases, it seems they enjoy themselves and the parents support them. I don’t have much of a problem with that. My concerns stem from the fact that a lot of them seem to dislike it intensely and are forced, bullied and cajoled by parents who don’t seem to care so much for their children as for an award and reflected glory. That troubles me deeply, especially since it’s not possible for the children to say “No” at that age.

    As an aside, I’m not American so don’t get the stigma/dislike you have with the term “liberal”. Surely liberals are pro- personal freedoms? As such wouldn’t they tend to be for allowing pageants if those involved want to participate? Your anti-liberal rant detracted from the impartiality/value of your post for me.

    • Greg Stevens says:

      Simon,

      Thanks for your comment! I agree that being put through this kind of experience is probably something many (or most?) children do not enjoy. But I also think that belongs to a conversation that has a much broader context. In some cases, parents feel justified making their children do something that the children don’t enjoy (at first), because they feel it broadens their horizons, or is good for them, or will end up being something they learn to love later on. Sometimes, children decide they “don’t like” something without much information to go on, so in some cases it might be worthwhile for a parent to “push” a little with SOME experiences.

      The conversation about exactly what things parents should or should not push, and how hard and for how long, is extremely complex and nuanced. But I also think it’s a much broader conversation than the one about beauty pagents in particular.

      Now, about the “liberal” comments! I’m fascinated by your perspective and reaction to this article, because sometimes I’m so caught up in my own point of view that I don’t see how things come across! Let me explain.

      I am extremely liberal. I am what we call “far left” in the United States. And as a result, I am (as you suspected) very pro personal freedoms.

      As a result — in my own mind, anyway — my “anti-liberal rant” was somewhat ironic. It was me being very frustrated with “my own kind” (as it were) because I feel as thought liberals who are very against beauty pageants are being hypocritical…. for exactly the types of reasons you specified.

      So please understand that I wasn’t merely “lashing out” at “liberals” in a universal or undirected way. I was very specifically saying (or trying to say) that it makes me sad to see people who I normally agree with on everything being closed minded on this one issue.

      I hope that makes a little more sense, and I’m sorry I was not more clear about that in the main article.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. Helyn Williams says:

    I too am looking for some data on this subject, however there is a thing called common sense, which is often given a bad rap. I think that is what the above response is referring to.
    I would not like to parent in this day and age. Thank goodness I am over the hill or should I say hump.

    H

    • Greg Stevens says:

      Helyn, I appreciate what you are saying, but the problem with “common sense” is that it is radically different for different people, it’s based almost entirely on a person’s own prejudices and upbringing, and there are LOTS of times in history when it’s been proven to be simply wrong.

      Please remember that for some people it’s “common sense” that gay people are sick, for other people it’s “common sense” that black people and white people shouldn’t get married, and for other people it’s “common sense” that government should be based on the Christian bible.

      If we’re trying to understand an answer to a scientific question we need data, not “common sense”.

  4. Bobbo says:

    You know, Greg, I’ve read a lot of your stuff and I get the impression that you could benefit from going with your gut once in a while. I spend a lot of time listening to economists and I swear by good data, but you’ll never find data to cover every topic on the planet. As humans, we study a lot of things, but there’s no way we’ll be able to study everything. Even if you had all the data, there’s not always a way to know which data you can really trust and which you can’t, unless you performed the experiments yourself.

    Sometimes you can just look at the cliff and say, “I don’t need to know what percentage of people died jumping from there to know that it’s a stupid thing to do.”

    So what am I saying? Well, if child beauty pageants creep you out, maybe there’s something to that. Not that I think we should all rally to stop them or anything. I’m just saying when your daughter of barely speaking age says she wants to join that circus, maybe you’ll want to err on the side of caution and tell her no.

    If you wanted to study the topic yourself, though, I think you’d be doing a great service.

    As for pinning distrust of the pageants on liberals, I don’t have much data on that myself, but I’m a conservative and most other conservatives I’ve talked to are pretty disgusted with them too. I think it goes on both sides of the fence.

    • Greg Stevens says:

      You say: “So what am I saying? Well, if child beauty pageants creep you out, maybe there’s something to that.”

      Really?

      Gay people creep a lot of people out.
      Atheists creep some people out.
      Hell: white people creep some people out.

      “This creeps me out, therefore it must be objectively wrong” is one of the stupidest and most destructive arguments that’s out there in the world. You’re going to have to do better than that.

  5. guypaul says:

    really makes me thinkl….i’m one of those liberals who was very critical of child beauty pageants….ur right

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