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Pity the children

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Esther Cepeda
September 22, 2011
— Gone too far? Too much, too soon? Should they be stopped?

The answers to these questions—blaring from a People magazine spread on the controversy surrounding TLC’s “Toddlers and Tiaras” show about the world of pre-teen beauty pageants—are yes, yes and hell yes.


After weeks of social media outrage sparked by a Sept. 7 episode in which a pageant mom dressed her 3-year-old daughter in a prostitute outfit resembling Julia Roberts’ character in the movie “Pretty Woman”—micro-mini, blond wig, shiny thigh-high boots—People put the topic of this show’s appropriateness into the national conversation via the grocery checkout aisle.


As if the connection between the issue’s 5-year-old cover girl and the outrage Americans felt nearly 15 years ago at seeing murder victim JonBenet Ramsey’s porcelain-doll face gracing the front of the same magazine wasn’t clear, Larry Hackett, the magazine’s managing editor, crystallized it in his editor’s letter.


Missing from his foreword in the Sept. 26 issue was any acknowledgement of the culpability that celebrity and gossip publications have in featuring children—and the boneheaded families who initiate this exploitation process—in the name of reporting on a cultural phenomenon.


The article itself is chock-full of photos of the little “Pretty Woman” as well as other tiny children between ages 2 and 5 striking sultry poses in skimpy two-piece bikinis and Madonna-esque cone-shaped bras.


The copy gives readers the same gossipy details I imagine the show shares with viewers (I admit I can’t know for sure, as I’ve only subjected myself to short video clips): the application of French-manicured press-on nails, spray tan, hair extensions, cosmetic teeth, eye lashes, and faux breasts and butts.


And there are the pint-size, sometimes sexy clothes and high heels. Yes, for pre-kindergartners.


There are advocacy organizations such as the Parents Television Council trying to get the show canceled and grass-roots groups pushing fledgling “Boycott ‘Toddlers and Tiaras’” Facebook pages. But that’s not going far enough.


You see, “Toddlers and Tiaras” is just one example of the growing international acceptance of the practice of sexualizing children, usually little girls, as marketing opportunities.


A French lingerie company raised eyebrows last month by offering adult-looking panty and bra sets for girls ages 4 to 12. The designer was simply flabbergasted that anyone who saw the print ads featuring red-lipped, heavily made-up, tousle-haired little girls reclining in lace-trimmed underwear thought them untoward.


More blatantly, “Pequenos Gigantes”—“Little Giants”—the hugely popular Spanish-language TV variety show about kids broadcast in the United States by Univision, regularly showcases pre-teen girls dressed in skin-tight, belly-bearing costumes bucking their underdeveloped hips to the ultra-sexual songs of Shakira and others. In one recent episode, a little boy in drag was wildly adulated for shaking his fake female parts to a popular tune.


Back when the professional pageant photos of JonBenet Ramsey started appearing in the media, I remember a radio talk show host exclaiming that the dead 6-year-old was hot.


“I’d ‘do’ her,” he said, “I mean I hate to say it, but look at her. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to think when you look at her?”


People are still reacting that way to little kids who have no idea what they’re being cheered on for.


The child sexualization industry is thriving because people either don’t get why this is wrong or don’t care. They either watch the TV shows, buy their children provocative clothing or consume media that ask people to wonder whether this behavior is damaging to both children and adults—while feeding them a big, four-color eyeful of it.


Like many unpleasantries of life, merely ignoring this issue won’t make it disappear. Even in our suffocatingly politically correct society, we must find ways to openly express the opinion that treating small children as if they were consenting adults is not OK. This might mean joining uncomfortable conversations you’d usually stay away from with friends, relatives, or even the children in your lives.


It’s not going to be any fun, but no one said taking a stand to reject the sexualization of very young children would be easy.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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