In the 1920s, when beauty pageants first became popular, Christian preachers spoke out against them. In an effort to win them over, pageant organizers decided to try and do an “image makeover” to exalt the ideal Christian woman. The contestants had established curfews, were forbidden from speaking to men while alone, and were encouraged to openly talk about their Christian faith. Prominent Christian preachers were also invited to serve as judges. The ploy worked, and today, many right-wing Christians have become defenders of beauty pageants. The swimsuit competition is perfectly fine because it “glorifies God“ by showcasing how the contestants take care of their bodies.
Although beauty pageants exploded in popularity in the early 20th century, it was not uncommon for cities to hold "Most Beautiful Child" contests in major cities―especially during the “golden age” of beauty pageants in the 1950s. The birthplace of the modern child pageant is typically attributed to the debut of the Little Miss America pageant held in Miami in 1961. That pageant had contestants as young as 5 years old competing. Originally, there was an age limit of 13, but since so many people wanted their daughters to compete (and it helped tourism in the area where the pageant took place), they opened it up to younger children. Since that time, child pageants have grown into a lucrative, $5 billion industry. There is no age limit for these contests, as the age division ranges from 0-11 months (Baby Miss), 12-23 months (Petite Miss), 1-3 years (Little Miss), 4-6 years, and so on in increments of three until the teenage years.
Modern child pageants heavily emphasize physical appearance and feature provocative costumes in several categories. There’s always a swimsuit competition, as well as western wear, evening wear, and sportswear, along with an interview and talent competition. Child contestants typically don thick makeup, high heels, elaborate wigs, and even fake teeth.
TLC’s show “Toddlers & Tiaras” highlighted some of the more disgusting behavior from parents who subject their children to competing in this type of contest. Actions on the show included a routine where a child smoked a fake cigarette during the talent portion of the competition, a parent who forced a child to wear fake breasts, a parent who allowed her child to dress like a sex worker in the "outfit of choice" category, and a mom who forced her 5-year-old to get a painful eyebrow waxing to improve her score.
Defending child pageants can be difficult, and to be fair, there’s not a lot of Christian conservatives who do. However, they aren’t condemning them, either. I can find many, many articles justifying their attacks on LGBTQ+ people because they claim they are “protecting children.” Yet they say absolutely nothing about the open sexualization of children forced to participate in these pageants.
It’s also telling where these pageants are being held. The states that hold the most contests are Florida, Georgia, Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky. All of these states have passed anti-LGBTQ+ bills, including bans on adult drag shows, for the expressed reason that they are protecting children from “inappropriate sexualized conduct.”
Without any hint of irony, Republicans in Tennessee pushed a bill this year that would allow child marriages by eliminating age requirements. Due to tremendous public backlash, the state GOP backed down. Here in Florida, we had the distinction of having the second-highest incidence of child marriage after Texas until 2018, when the law was changed thanks to intense lobbying efforts from survivors of child marriage. (The old Florida law was that children of any age could marry if pregnancy was involved and a judge approved, hence rapists being able to marry their victims.)
Yet Florida is still the world capital of child pageants. There are more child pageants held here than any other state, and not one Republican legislator has called for banning these contests. This is rather odd since Gov. Ron DeSantis has pushed through numerous draconian laws that he claims are aimed to stop grooming children, from his “Don’t Say Gay” law forbidding discussions on sexual orientation in K-12, or his new law to forcibly remove transgender children from their families. He even accused Disney of promoting the “sexualization of children” because of its positive portrayals of gay characters.
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Yet neither he nor any of his legislative allies have done anything about child pageants.
There are reasons. First of all, none of DeSantis’ attacks on marginalized communities were ever about protecting children, but an excuse to gin up hatred and fear to help his campaigns. Furthermore, those who participate in child pageants tend to be rural mothers who believe their children exemplify the long-standing Eurocentric white beauty standards that all beauty pageants epitomize. In other words, they are very likely to be among his strongest base supporters.
The pageants also rake in a lot of money. Costs can run into tens of thousands of dollars per year. The pageants have exorbitant entry fees, along with travel expenses, elaborate outfits, makeup artists, daily manicures, spray tans, hair, and more. Then there’s also the fact that many prominent Republicans are directly involved with these contests. A certain creepy person who runs in GOP circles used to own the Miss Teen USA pageant.
I genuinely wanted to know justifications for child pageants from conservatives who defend anti-LGBTQ+ laws. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find any—at least none who were willing to go on the record. I did manage to interview one Orlando resident, Mike Waguespack, a self-described DeSantis supporter who strongly backs Florida's anti-gay laws.
“Why do dudes got to dress up like trans demons in front of kids?” he asked me. When I pointed out that I haven’t heard any DeSantis supporters speak out against child pageants, he thought for a moment. “I’ll tell you what,” he told me. “I’ll back a ban on child pageants if we can get back the child protection law!” He was referring to DeSantis’ “Protection of Children” law, which penalizes businesses who let children attend live performances considered to be “adult” in nature, and is currently being blocked by the courts.
Thankfully, a judge has temporarily blocked this law after a local restaurant that featured servers in drag, Hamburger Mary’s, sued to stay in business. The judge wrote that “fifteen years of incident-free, harmless drag shows demonstrates the absence of any substantial harm to Defendant or to the public interest. Moreover, existing obscenity laws provide Defendant with the necessary authority to protect children from any constitutionally unprotected obscene exhibitions or shows.”
To be clear, an adult male dressed in women’s clothing is considered obscene in DeSantis’ Florida, but child pageants that require the premature sexualization of young children are perfectly legal. Beauty pageants are controversial enough without involving children. I, among many others, believe that they are relics of the past and should have ended decades ago. Yet they have been resilient at redefining themselves. The Miss America Pageant, for example, now tells people they aren’t as much about judging beauty as they are a scholarship program. In fact, they claim to be the world’s “largest scholarship program for women” by providing a whopping $45 million in scholarships. The reality: not so much. John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” did a whole show debunking their extraordinary claims on how much money these pageants actually give out.
To be fair, there have been pageant winners whom I greatly admire, such as Averie Bishop, the first Asian American contestant to become Miss Texas in the pageant’s 85-year history. Although she is a first-generation law school graduate, she also has millions of followers on her social media platforms that she uses to fight against the cruel Texas GOP policies on migrants, gun violence, abortion, and race. Her activism has led her to recently announce a run as a Democrat for House District 112, a swing district in Dallas County.
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Unfortunately, for every Bishop there seems to be twice as many Carrie Prejeans. She was the former Miss California who gave a hateful (and stupid) answer about why she supported “opposite” marriage over gay marriage. (She is still in the news today for her crusade against trans rights.)
Yet at least these contestants are young adults. Child pageants are harmful, even for the children who want to participate, due to the oversexualized nature of these pageants. They are harmful in other ways, as well. Child pageants reinforce the false notion at a very young age that beauty is the primary determinant of worth and success, and children, particularly girls, are taught to prioritize external beauty over other qualities, leading to body image issues and low self-esteem.
A research study done by the University of Arizona discusses the psychological behavior engaged in by parents who force their kids to participate in this kind of contest. It’s called "achievement by proxy distortion," meaning parents are craving success for financial or social gain while simultaneously abusing the needs of their own children. This behavioral distortion allows their own child be objectified to the point of emotional and even physical child abuse.
As bad as that sounds, it can be even worse. The hyper-sexualization of these pageants attract pedophiles, and I mean real ones—not the imaginary ones conservatives blame for all their issues. The murder of 6-year-old child pageant star JonBenet Ramsey made headlines around the world. People were outraged about her murder, but were downright disturbed over videos of the scantily clad child strutting across a stage. Ramsey’s footage caused an uproar with the public who felt they were watching something bordering on child sexual abuse material.
Do you know where there hasn’t ever been a kidnapping or assault? A drag show. Democrats shouldn’t let conservatives off the hook. DeSantis and other GOP politicians don’t want to talk about child pageants because they don’t want to alienate people in their own base. Democrats should be promoting bills to abolish child pageants and force Republican legislators to either defend them or support getting rid of them. Either way, it’s a victory.
As long as we are on the subject, if Republicans were really serious about protecting children from sexual abuse, they’d bar children from the one place where thousands of reported sexual abuse incidents occur each year. But don’t count on it.
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