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Reel Mama: Is your child “facially gifted”?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Is your child “facially gifted”?

Most parents are concerned for their children’s success in life, and most hope that their child is “gifted,” shining with an ability to excel creatively and academically, indicating a potential for great success later in life.  But there is another category of “gifted” that for most parents is an afterthought: for parents entering their children in child pageants, the child being “facially gifted” is the single most important factor for success.  At least according to Dena Jackson, Director of the International Fresh Faces pageant as seen on last night’s TLC broadcast of the fascinating reality series Toddlers and Tiaras. 

“Facially gifted” is the pageant’s politically correct term for beautiful, but Jackson was remarkably straightforward in the second half of the program that her pageant is judged exclusively on “facial beauty and personality.”  Interesting that they don’t want to use the word "beautiful" when it’s clearly what they are looking for.  Unlike “grownup” pageants that have adamantly laid claim to the title “scholarship competition” (Miss America) and shun the title “beauty contest,” the child pageant judges unapologetically insist that the girls must be beautiful, or they don’t stand a chance in hell of winning.

Child pageants have endured a great deal of flack since our nation turned its eye to them after the Jonbenet Ramsey tragedy.  A lot of the criticism is justified, but they do have some redeeming qualities.  After watching Toddlers and Tiaras, I can see that some of the contestants genuinely love to do the pageants with their moms.  For them it is quality mother-daughter bonding time, albeit one that costs a fortune.  They seem to have fun with it, while learning poise and the importance of discipline when practicing to reach a goal.  The experience can be confidence building, but all too often this confidence can be shattered when the girl fails to bring home the coveted monstrosity of a crown representing the top, supreme, and ultimate prize.

Sadly, other girls are forced into it by psycho stage moms bullying their daughters to “win, win, win!”  I can hardly wait until next week’s episode, when one such mom decrees that she’s taking her daughter to a fast food restaurant to get her child a Mountain Dew (loaded with sugar and caffeine) so that her little girl can step up her game.  This is scary parenting.  I realize it’s going too far to say that we need to put Child Protective Services on speed dial for such parents, but when some moms take it to such extremes, forcing the children to perform very much against their will, and pressuring a win by any means necessary, it can verge on abuse.

A lot bothers me about the child pageants.  I am very disturbed first and foremost by the contestants’ heavy makeup.  With a few exceptions (i.e., ballet recitals or the occasional dress-up game), I feel that makeup on any pre-adolescent girl is inappropriate.  The child pageant contestants are required to wear inch-thick makeup much more suited to an aging silent film star grieving over lost youth, like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.  The moms seem to pile it on with a spatula.  Secondly, if again there is poor judgment in parenting, the girls are taught to act like little adults, with provocative dance moves, even costumes, sexualizing these children well before their time.  (Apparently last week there was a Pretty Woman number—yikes).

But my greatest problem with the child pageants is the message they send that facial giftedness is the single determining factor for success in life.  “When I take off my glasses, I turn into a beauty queen!” gushed an enthusiastic competitor.  Unlike academics and other life skills and lessons, where we can positively influence our children, invest in them, and help shape their minds by teaching them and helping them develop a love of learning, looks are just something that our children are born with.

True, appearance can be tweaked or even radically altered later in life, but right now our children are and will continue to be judged by looks in the crazy pageant we call life.  It’s important to impart the life skills necessary for our children to cope with this reality, helping to instill in them the confidence to navigate the treacherous waters of the terribly subjective “facial giftedness,” emerging into adulthood recognizing the tremendous importance (which sometimes gets lost in our image-conscious world) of inner beauty.


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