Society is obsessed with presexualised girls
Ireland has a history of moral panics about female sexuality, but we’re not the only ones in a tizz about child beauty pageants
The greatest threat to the next generation of women is not fertility rights, female circumcision, the gender pay gap or the emergence of a rape culture. It is, at least if recent media coverage is anything to go by, the phenomenon of little girls parading themselves on a stage with acrylic nails and mini ball gowns.
I know, I know. Child beauty pageants are grotesque. If I had to choose, I would sooner encourage my seven-year-old daughter to take up free solo climbing or street luging than to plaster herself in Fake Bake in a bid to become the next Honey Boo Boo.
But it seems to me that the near-hysterical reaction to last weekend’s Universal Royalty beauty pageant – which was moved following protests from a hotel in Dublin to a pub in Castleblayney, Co Monaghan – says more about us than it does about this weird, tasteless offshoot of American beauty-queen culture.
In the end, only about 20 children took part in the pageant, a total dwarfed by the number of articles published about it – and probably a smaller turnout than the number of journalists who pitched up at Corrigan’s Kitchen at the weekend.
As a society, we have become obsessed with the issue of the premature sexualisation of children. No, not children: little girls. We are terrified of paedophilia and, as a consequence, deeply wary of anything that seems to present children – female ones in particular – as nascent sexual beings.
But not wary enough that we don’t like seeing close-ups of the miniature, besequinned Dolly Partons plastered all over our newspapers.
What about boys?
Oddly, there doesn’t seem to be anything like the same level of concern about boys becoming sexualised too young by exposure to the same popular-culture influences as girls, or by the confusing messages they might be getting from the porn they can access on their smartphones, or the off-field antics of some of their sports heroes.
Girls aren’t the only ones growing up too fast, but even our outrage about childhood innocence is, it seems, subject to double standards.
Ireland has a history of fostering moral panics about female sexuality, but for once we’re not the only ones in a tizz. In recent weeks, France took steps to restrict children under 16 from taking part in beauty contests.
Amid all the usual hysteria about the “hyper-sexualisation” of young girls, the French former sports minister, Chantal Jouanno, made a valid point when she said girls should not be “made believe from an early age that their only value is their appearance”.
Looking closer to home
That is a genuinely laudable aim. But if we’re serious about impressing on girls that their self-worth should not be tied up in the girth of their waists or the bounciness of their hair or the size of their breasts, then we need to forget about beauty pageants, and start looking much closer to home.
Because by far the most powerful and enduring messages girls get are the ones they are subtly drip-fed by their own parents and friends.
These messages can tell girls that being courageous or smart or kind is nothing if you’re not pretty too. They can reinforce the idea that while ambition is to be applauded in a man, it is a less endearing quality in a woman; they may reward girls for being gentle and caring and knowing how to compromise, while boys are encouraged to be brave and outspoken and tough.
Try this. Next time you find yourself in conversation with a young girl, don’t tell her she’s gorgeous – tell her she’s smart. Don’t admire her dress – praise her for her wide vocabulary, her vivid imagination or her strong overarm throw. Don’t warn her that if she eats sweets, she’ll get fat; tell her she needs to eat well if she wants to stay healthy. (And while you’re at it, don’t call yourself fat in her earshot either.)
If you’re a parent, don’t raise your daughter to be a people pleaser; instead, raise her to speak up for herself and others. And don’t buy her a glittery manicure set if you’ve just given her brother a Lego kit.
Beauty pageants are vulgar and unsettling, but they aren’t the biggest problem here; they’re just one of the symptoms of a society still deeply conflicted about the kind of women it wants to raise.