Pageants Arent Always Just About The Kids
October 28, 2012

Pageant Parents Exhibit Signs Of Princess By Proxy

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

Read our exclusive interview with Martina M. Cartwright about her research.

Although Honey Boo Boo has captured the imagination of the American audience with her boisterous personality, she isn't the only little girl on the beauty pageant circuit. Thousands of children compete each year, and a new study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry takes a critical look at these pageants.

Martina M. Cartwright, adjunct professor at the University of Arizona and a registered dietitian, suggests that these high-glitz child pageants are often more about the parents and their needs and have little to do with the children at all. The study also suggests that participating in these events can actually be harmful to children's health and self-esteem.

These pageants have been popularized by The Learning Channel's reality show "Toddlers and Tiaras" and its spin-off, "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo." As part of her research, Cartwright attended two live tapings of "Toddlers and Tiaras."  Cartwright claims that some pageant parents exhibit "princess by proxy," a unique form of "achievement by proxy distortion." Adults with this condition are driven primarily by the social or financial gains earned by their child's accomplishments, regardless of risk involved for the child.

The glitz pageant is a $5 billion dollar industry in America, which was first introduced to many through the death of 5-year-old beauty queen Jon-Benet Ramsey in 1995. Cartwright focused her research on these types of pageants, where contestants wear heavy makeup and ornate costumes, sometimes costing more than $1,500. Cartwright estimates that along with entry fees, photo and other expenses such as wigs, fake tans and artificial teeth known as flippers, the average cost of participating in a single contest runs between $3,000 and $5,000.

Glitz pageants have prizes that include cash awards, crowns, trips, puppies and sometimes even "bit parts" in movies. These prizes and the potential for fame and fortune may contribute to "achievement by proxy distortion" in parents, according to Cartwright.

A benign form of "achievement by proxy" is often seen in the parents of young athletes. These parents experience joy and pride through their children's achievements while still recognizing the child's limitations. Cartwright has done extensive work with young athletes and dancers as a dietitian.

When parents struggle to differentiate between their own needs and those of their child, "achievement by proxy" can become "achievement by proxy distortion." In order to achieve what they perceive as success, the parents may engage in risky behaviors, objectification or even abuse and exploit the child. Cartwright said she witnessed elements of these at the glitz pageants she attended.

“I think it´s fun if they want to play dress up for a little while, but to insist on making that a career or that they´re going to be a model or a Hollywood star, the chances are very slim,” she told UA's Alexis Blue. “Parents have to know their child´s limitations and not press them beyond that because later on that knocks their self-esteem.”

Some parents Cartwright spoke to made risky financial investments to support their child's pageant participation. They spent way above and beyond the contest's top prize. Other parents Cartwright observed put high pressure on their daughter's to look "flawless" and win at all costs. These children were pushed to adopt an unnatural and adult-like appearance. The parents chastised the children for poor performance, lack of enthusiasm or a flawed appearance.

“Everything was based on what these kids look like and the way that these children were displayed or dressed,” Cartwright said. “They were fully made up; they looked like adult women, pint-size. They were judged on personality, but none spoke a word.”

A large concern with such behavior is that it could lead to adult body dissatisfaction and potential eating disorders in the children being put under such pressure.

The glitz-pageants also sexualize young girls, encouraging them to look like adults. One participant in particular caught Cartwright's attention, wearing a Playboy bunny costume and being carried onto the stage by her father, dressed as Hugh Hefner.

Another major concern, according to Cartwright, is the physical health of these young girls.

Participants range in age from 4 months to 15 years old in the pageants, and Cartwright said in the contests she witnessed tears and tantrums were commonplace. Parents would deny their children naps or breaks during the grueling schedule of the pageant for fear that sleeping would dishevel their appearance. She witnessed parents giving their children caffeinated beverages and Pixy Stix candy — referred to as pageant crack — to keep energy levels high. One mother was overheard saying, “We´ve gone through two bags of crack and two cans of energy drink so she can stay up for crowning.”

“It´s concerning because when you raise toddlers, they have to be put on a schedule of some sort, with regular meals and regular naps,” Cartwright said. “With the ℠pageant crack´ and caffeinated beverages, they´re feeding them pure sugar to keep them awake. The smell in the hallways was so sweet it was like being in a carnival.”

Cartwright's study isn't calling for an outright ban on child pageants, but she does say she thinks it is important that parental motivation for entering their children in these pageants is understood.

“If we can understand why the parents are doing what they´re doing, then we can start addressing the problem,” she said. “And I think if the public understands why the parents are doing that then they won´t pay as much attention to these pageants.”

Cartwright emphasized the importance of teaching young children that self-esteem is not all about looks, and urged teaching adults and children alike about other ways to garner self-esteem.