I’ve been pondering children’s beauty pageants, why it is that I recoil from them, what it is that troubles me? One of the themes that I am weaving through my novel-in-progress, The Fire Trail, is the early sexualization of girls in our culture, a concern I share with many mothers and grandmothers and fathers too. The boundaries of permissiveness have been redrawn, the taboos redefined. Wrong has merged into right; deviancy has blurred into the new norm. Ah, freedom! And without responsibility! The great sixties legacy. But is it a coincidence that crime is up, out-of-wedlock births more common, single parent families a larger portion of the population. Delinquency is clearly related to fatherless and broken homes.
Many women, seeking their career as they have been urged to do, never find Mr. Right (don’t count on a man to support you, they are warned, and probably correctly so). Their biological clock races forward and soon test tube babies are the answer to their natural longing for motherhood. Adding to this, and a result of this as well, many men never grow up, take sex where they find it, sex being so available, are never held accountable for their actions, never become fathers to their children or breadwinners to their families. They drift through life, suddenly finding themselves, well, adrift, and perhaps slightly depressed.
The traditional family, with all of its imperfections, has tried to protect women (and men) from exactly this situation. Sex within marriage ensured two parents raising children, or at least if did not ensure, won the prize for the best chance we had and have today to create stable homes for the raising of the next generation. And why must we have stable homes? Because broken homes are just that – broken – and do not provide the environment in which children can grow to become healthy adults, reach their God-given potential. This brokenness also puts tremendous stress on the single parent raising a child alone.
Full disclosure, I was divorced and a single parent. The pain involved in the breakdown of a marriage and the brokenness of a family is enormous. The guilt, the fear, and the sheer exhaustion all take their toll on mothers (and it’s usually the mothers) who try to be all to the child and at the same time provide food and shelter. There are not enough hours in the day to do both adequately, and usually food and shelter come first.
So as I see more and more of this brokenness in our culture, due largely to easy artificial birth control and casual sex that lead to casual marriage or no marriage that lead to casual families holding together until falling apart in casual no-fault divorce. These are serious, sacramental events – sex, marriage, childbearing – that have serious consequences for our children and for our society.
This coarsening is somewhat reflected in child beauty pageants. But wait. Am I against spelling bees involving ten-year-olds? How about my church Christmas pageant with the cute preschool angels? Are all stage competitions and productions involving the young something we should worry about? I think not. While adoration and fame may create a false impression of the real world, it is a good thing for children to experience success and be recognized for it. I played in a piano recital when I was ten, as did my son when he was ten. Folks listened and clapped. We sang in choral concerts, church and school. My husband played solo violin and even sang a few solos as he was growing up (until his voice changed), performing with adults in the Oakland Symphony Orchestra.
So what is it that bothers me? Where is the line crossed, the fire trail breached by the flames? We all recall Jean Benet Ramsey of Colorado and her tragic death at the age of six. What troubles many of us is the sexual aspect to some of the pageants: the adult makeup, the adult costumes, the pouting lips, the luring looks, the posing and flirting and acting the part of a Hollywood ingénue or a Las Vegas stripper. In these instances, the children are molded in a strange (even dark) way to value skin-deep beauty and to see sexual manipulation as a good thing. They are also taught that it’s okay to be treated as an object, to be objectified, and in the end, to be used.
From the audience’s standpoint, men are gazing upon children who are striking sexual poses. It’s supposed to be “cute” but, in the words of Dan Rather, it’s really “kiddy porn.” And Internet porn has become an international pastime. It says, hey, it’s okay to look at these children this way. And Facebook encourages the uploading of “selfies” by wannabe teens in response to “modeling” calls. The culture tells the children and the adults who look that it’s okay.
But it’s not okay.
In researching these pageants across the country I’ve noticed that many have two “types,” one called “natural” and one called “glitzy.” The natural ones require modest clothing; the glitzy ones do not. The natural ones require no makeup; the glitzy ones encourage makeup. So perhaps the industry is policing itself to a degree. The murder of Jean Benet Ramsey spotlighted child beauty pageants in the 1990s, and perhaps things are changing on their own.
Probably not soon enough. I’m all for free enterprise and as little government regulation as possible, but I was pleased when I read that France was banning these pageants for young children. The role of government is a proper one when it protects children in their younger years. We have laws against child pornography, Internet and otherwise. We have laws against parents abusing their children and even parents who neglect to protect their children from harm.
In our highly sexualized culture, with the power of the Internet setting things on fire, let’s discourage children from growing up too fast. Let’s give them, at the very least, a chance to grow up.
Today, this First Sunday in Lent, we cry “Lord, have mercy.” We weep and we cry out, not only in repentence for our own selfishness, pride, envy… but for our families, our nations, and our world.
Thanks, Father, for your comment and all your supportive comments! It’s good to hear your take, from someone “in the field”. Yes, women and children remain vulnerable, and somehow, I believe, have been indescribably hurt by developments in the last fifty years, as traditional protections have been eroded.
Dear Christine: I agree with you sentiments. From about 1988 until 1997 I was a paralegal in San Franciso ( one of my jobs while training for the diaconate) and did pro bono work at the Battered Women’s Shelter in Martinez and at the Home for unmarried pregnant women, mostly. The situations in both places were and are heart breaking. I am proud that my granddaughers are being raised with a sense of modesty in their dress. Thank you for your comments. God bless you in your work. Fr. Donald True ( retired).
Thanks, Deb! Well said. And I should add that my husband and I just celebrated our thirty-second anniversary (yay too!) God has been good in giving us the grace to see not only do we commit to one another, we commit to marriage itself and to God. Not to say there aren’t challenges, but with grace we grow from them and through them.
Christine, I concur with your sense of sorrow and outrage over our culture’s sexualization of children, and over the general breakdown of marriage and the family. Thanks for your humility in disclosing your own past marital situation, but as a wife of 40 years this fall (yay!), I join my voice with yours in recognizing God’s grace and purpose in the sanctity of this institution. Your message in your new book is one that needs to be broadcast!