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Child Beauty Queens

© Lauren Greenfield

A flurry of feathers, faux eyelashes, fake hair and “flippers” (fake teeth worn to perfect that pageant smile) surround the toddler pageant hopefuls and their frenzied moms backstage at the California Gold Coast Beauty Pageant in Oxnard, California. Hours before the pageant, little girls are preened and primped backstage. The toddlers get full spray tans and eyebrow waxes. Parents hire professional hair and makeup artists to paint their children’s faces and tease their hair into perfect curls. Lastly, the girls are nestled into glitzy outfits (often with $2,000 plus price tag) and placed in childrens’ high heels. They are groomed to become little dolls for their minute onstage, a moment that validates all the tears and tantrums when parents glimpse their children smile and transform.

It is estimated that 250,000 children compete in more than 5,000 pageants across the United States each year. The world of child pageants has reemerged on the pop culture scene with the popularity—and shock— of the TLC reality series, “Toddlers and Tiaras.” The show, now in its fourth and final season, documents contestants and their families as they prepare for pageant shows across the country. “Toddlers and Tiaras” recently made headlines when the series showed a 3-year old dressed as Julia Robert’s hooker character in “Pretty Woman”, complete with crop top and leather thigh high boots. Her mother, Wendy Dickey, shocked at the outrage and media frenzy, explains, “Well, at this pageant there was an option to do celebrity wear. Julia Roberts is my favorite actress of all time. I thought it was real cute to do Julia. She’s 3, if she was 10 I never would have considered this. But as young as she is, I thought it was very comical.” Other episodes have featured a mom adorning her daughter with fake breasts and padding on the butt to portray Dolly Parton, and another dressing her daughter in a gold conical bustier as Madonna in the 80s.

Critics are outraged at the overt sexualization of young girls in pageant culture and warn that its extreme focus on physical appearance will negatively affect their self-confidence. The child beauty queens will grow up with the understanding that they are not good enough, and that their worth is in the glitz and glamour of the pageants. Conversely, many pageant moms claim that winning a pageant is the biggest confidence booster for their children. “My daughter is so much more confident and outgoing than other kids her age,” Dickey said. “She has a huge personality. That will be important later on.”
At the California Gold Coast Beauty Pageant, Kailia Deliz, 5, wins every category in her age group. Her awards include Front Cover, Most Photogenic, Character Centerfold, Swimsuit, Universal, Best Smile (with the help of her “flippers” or fake teeth) and the High Point Scorer for the entire pageant, a $500 prize. Deliz is coached by Miss Utah contestant, Cambrie Littlefield.

For these families, pageants are an all-consuming lifestyle that requires dedication of both time and finances. Eden Wood, a child pageant star featured on the show, has traveled the national pageant circuit since her first birthday, before “retiring” at age six to pursue singing and modeling. Her mother, Mickie Wood, estimates spending close to $100,000 dollars on costumes during Eden’s pageant career.

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