Let me be upfront: I don’t really like the French. I have been to France a handful of times, and I used to speak passable French, but I was still treated with derision and scorn. So imagine my surprise to find that the French have come up with an idea that I find brilliant. Not only brilliant, but one that should be implemented the world over. What is that, you may ask, that is so revolutionary that it could turn this cynical writer’s national allegiance?
The French, it turns out, despise child beauty pageants and are making a concerted effort to ban them. A mid-September vote in France’s Senate proposed banning beauty competitions for anyone under the age of 16. Violators would face up to two years in prison and $40,000 in fines. What is particularly interesting to me is that the ban sprung out of a debate about a women’s rights law, indicating that the French are looking at the bigger picture on how media images can affect children throughout their lives.
While I can see the positives to pageants like overcoming stage fright or earning college scholarships, they are severely outweighed by the negatives. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders Inc., 91 percent of women surveyed on a college campus had attempted to control their weight through dieting, with 86 percent reporting the onset of eating disorder by age 20. Forty-three percent reported an onset between the ages of 16 and 20.6. A 2003 study published in the journal Eating and Weight Disorders that surveyed more than 100 female beauty pageant contestants found that 57 percent were actively trying to lose weight—despite any success they had on the stage. I am not suggesting that pageants cause eating disorders. I am, however, suggesting that given the pressures and the fact that judgment is based upon one’s looks, that pageants may tip the scales, so to speak, in that direction.
My husband is not terribly picky about what he watches on TV, and while I can tolerate just about anything as long as I have a book in hand, I draw the line at “Toddlers and Tiaras.” I have gotten up and left the room on several occasions when he has stayed just a little too long on that abomination. Now that I know that we will be blessed with a little girl this January, the urge to vomit when I come across that program is infinitely stronger. I think about how I didn’t know eyeliner from lip liner until I was 16, and here are 5-year-olds applying it with the skill of a professional makeup artist. I look at the outfits they are wearing for which my mother would have pitched a fit had she even seen them hanging in my closet. I think that TLC would serve its viewers well to follow up with these girls during their adolescence and see how being exposed to that environment at such an early age has affected them.
What if the French are right? What if doing away with pageants can prevent even one girl from thinking that not eating her dinner will make her thinner, prettier and more of a winner? What if that helped move our society one step closer to valuing citizens on their true talents, accomplishments and contributions to the greater good rather than their looks? Believe me, I know that doing away with pageants does not abdicate my responsibility as a parent to instill self-esteem, self-respect and lifelong healthy habits in my little girl, but not having to compete with the noise might help.