If you’re looking for a fun, campy summer read, look no further. I finished Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens last week and laughed the whole way through. Seriously, don’t read it on the T or the bus because you get funny looks. Here are two of my favorite moments:
“Jennifer laughed. ‘Oh sure. I’ll just look her up in the Big Book of Lesbians. We get a copy of that with the purchase of our first flannel shirt.’” And “Tiara shuddered. ‘I’ve had so many bikini waxes, I cry every time I see a Popsicle stick.’”
Anyway, since it’s not historical fiction and I really can’t do the book justice, I suggest you check out Forever Young Adult’s review. If it hadn’t been for this review, I never would have thought twice about Beauty Queens. Actually, I probably would have shuddered at the sight of the cover and walked away (which is why I downloaded it onto my Kindle*).
After reading this part comedy, part social commentary and part Swiftian satire, I began thinking about pageants and their history. My background with beauty pageants stems from a few Miss America viewings, ogling the butter head of that year’s Princess Kay of the Milky Way at the State Fair, and of course, Miss Congeniality. My curiosity piqued, I did a little research, including watching instant episodes of Toddlers and Tiaras on Netflix. I was simultaneously horrified and fascinated, and I have to admit that I watched all of the first season.
Most people agree that pageants as we know them today started in 1920 at an Atlantic City hotel as a
gimmick to lengthen the holiday season. However, as far back as 1880 bathing beauty contests took place in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. According to A. R. Riverol “the women had to be no more than twenty-five years of age, a minimum of five foot four inches tall, and a maximum of 130 pounds” (10).
While the history of adult (if you can call 17-24 year-olds adults) is interesting, I was more intrigued by the evolution of child beauty pageants, a la Toddlers and Tiaras. When did someone decide to parade their children around, earning money? Adult pageants had a hard enough time finding acceptance when they first began, because many deemed parading about for judgement as beneath proper young ladies– that was limited to slaves and prostitutes (Riverol, 1). So how did child pageants become (arguably) socially accepted? My research points me to the 1960s as the turning point, but the first Miss America pageant also included a children’s division.
However, I highly doubt that the child pageants of the 1920s or even the 1960s looked anything like they do today. While, historically children dressed like miniature adults with training corsets and everything, pageants take the “adultificiation” of children to a new extreme. While watching Toddlers and Tiaras I found myself thinking, “Wow, I wish my skin looked that nice or look at those eyes! How did she do that?” I had totally forgotten in a span of 15 minutes that these girls were 4 or 5 years old. Of course they have wonderful skin, they’re babies. But they don’t look like babies! The extensive makeup, fake eyelashes, hairpieces, flippers and spray tans take away their child-like features. I’d also like to point out that I’m 24 and never had a spray tan or worn fake eyelashes.
Past mothers also demanded adult behavior of their children (remember that scene in Titanic where Rose is watching a mother and daughter at the table?), yet again, these pageant mothers are encouraging, to extremes, their child’s premature growth. They tell their daughters, “flirt with the judges,” “shake that thang,” and “where are your sparkle hips?” In the past, children were expected to act with poise and decorum, and “to be seen and not heard,” whereas today, I’m worried that girls are told to act sexy.
I guess I’m trying to wrap my head around the dichotomy here. On the one hand, we’re living in an era that glorifies youth, yet pageants are pushing for maturity. It’s almost as if pageants are encouraging a past way of life, when the same was expected of adults and children in terms of dress, behavior and earning potential.
The episode of Toddlers and Tiaras that most broke my heart ended with a little girl, no more than five, crying to her mom after winning a thousand dollars; “I won the money back, mommy, I won the money back.” No toddler should feel that kind of pressure. And in each little girl I see the face of JonBenet Ramsey, whose picture on tabloids and newspapers fascinated me as a tween in line at the grocery store. I was twice her age but she looked so much older.
* While downloading Beauty Queens onto your Kindle has the advantage of hiding the embarrassing cover, it does make reading the humorous footnotes difficult. They’re found at the end of the chapter, not the bottom of the page, so you have to continually click through to find your footnote, or hope you remember what the footnote refers to once you reach the end of the chapter.
Riverol, A.J. (1992). Live from Atlantic City: a history of the Miss America Pageant. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press