A US-style child beauty pageant featuring children as young as six months has arrived in Perth, reigniting debate about whether they are a dangerous form of “child abuse” or harmless fun.
Spray tans, fake nails and photos airbrushed so their subjects resemble dolls are welcome — but not mandatory — at this month’s Glitz & Co pageant, where contestants ranging from six months to 38 years old are judged on routines and technique while modelling different outfits.
Fans say pageants are a fun way to build confidence, and liken them to dance competitions, which can involve make-up and elaborate costumes.
Critics say pageants should be banned because they encourage girls to equate their value with their appearance and risk sexualising children.
Director Michaella Evans said the pageant, which is not open to the public, was the first of its kind in WA.
“What we say to a contestant is you do what you’re comfortable doing,” she said.
“It’s not like the girls are on show. The girls are not penalised for wearing less make-up. We have limitations on how short their dresses are.”
The contestant handbook says participants will be judged on their “technique and attire” but not on their “physical appearance”. It also encourages “over the top, blinged costumes and dresses” and says fake tans, fake nails, hairpieces and flippers (fake teeth) are allowed but not required.
Illona Perovic’s 11-year-old daughter Lexi will be one of 22 contestants to take part in Perth. She said pageants had been a positive experience, building Lexi’s confidence and helping her raise money for charity.
“It’s meant to build the girls up, to give them self-worth,” she said. “It’s not all about beauty and that shallow appeal.
“I wanted to make Lexi feel like she was beautiful in her own skin. She’s always loved fashion, she’s always loved modelling.
“It’s totally built her up. We’ve always talked to her about the fact that she doesn’t need make-up to be beautiful, we don’t put an emphasis on winning.”
Prominent Australian adolescent psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg would like to see child beauty pageants banned, likening them to “a form of child abuse”.
“I think it blurs the lines between childhood and adulthood,” he said.
“To me this is premature sexualisation, which is directly correlated to eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and body image issues. While I understand that some parents may see the pageants as extra curricular activities that help develop self-confidence in young people, in my opinion such pageants are likely to cause body dissatisfaction, and the hyper attention and judgment towards children’s physical appearance sends all the wrong messages.”
His sentiments were echoed by WA Commissioner for Children and Young People Jacqueline McGowan-Jones, who said while some might find the pageants confidence-boosting, negative body image was a huge problem for girls.
“I worry about their mental health, I also worry about what is the reason for the beauty pageant: people are making money out of this,” she said.
“I just don’t think that’s the right message we should be giving young girls, that your looks are what makes you competitive.”
Minister for Youth Simone McGurk said young girls should be told their value was “so much more than their appearance” and beauty pageants undermined that. But she said a ban was not needed.
“There is increasing awareness of the dangers of the sexualisation and exploitation of children through beauty pageants, as distinct from talent contests, and people are right to be concerned,” she said.
“Child beauty pageants aren’t common in Australia, so I don’t see a role for government in regulating them. As a State Government we strongly support young people having access to a range of sporting, recreational, educational and leadership opportunities.”
Child beauty pageants are big business in the US, where the infamous 1996 unsolved murder of contestant JonBenet Ramsay fuelled controversy about them. Her death was never linked to the pageant scene but photos of her in full pageant regalia featured heavily in media coverage. Pageants have also been the subject of Hollywood films like Little Miss Sunshine and an episode of The Simpsons.
More recently, reality TV show Toddlers & Tiaras ran for seven seasons until 2013 and spawned four spin-offs and no shortage of controversy for the use of make-up and provocative costumes and routines.
The last time a high-profile child beauty contest was proposed for Perth in 2011 rallies were held outside Parliament. A 2014 WA parliamentary report into the sexualisation of children recommended examining if there was a case for regulating pageants.
The Glitz & Co pageant includes a formal wear and fun fashion judging component and optional interview questions and photo submissions. The photos can be given what is known as the “glitz” treatment, a form of photoshopping that aims to make contestants resemble dolls and which, Ms Evans concedes, can be confronting to outsiders.
“The girls love it,” she said.