Campus & Community

The whys and woes of beauty pageants

6 min read

They wore the latest colors of lipstick and matching eyeliner. Some had fake hair and even fake teeth. They pranced on stage in sequined gowns and rhinestone-studded jeans.

Occasionally there was a problem. One girl in a pink sequined dress began to cry. The tears carried streaks of mascara down her face. Her mother grabbed her and tried to get the girl to stop crying. When she didn’t stop, her mother dragged her off the stage by the hand.

Meanwhile, an unfazed announcer told the audience that the girl was 2 years old, from Massachusetts, and her life’s ambition is to bring happiness to all who come into contact with her.

The girl stopped crying and began to eat Cheerios with the other beauty-pageant contestants. Her mother began laying out her rhinestone-studded jeans for the next phase of the competition – modeling.

That’s the way Hilary Levey ’02 describes a scene at one of the beauty pageants she studies. “You have to wonder if that kind of thing is right,” Levey commented. “I’m interested in understanding why people behave that way; so instead of just passing judgement, I decided to study it objectively. With the death of JonBenet Ramsey, there’s been a barrage of interest in beauty pageants but no sociological studies.”

Levey applied for a grant from the Harvard College Research Program, which allows undergraduate students to design and carry out their own research rather than assisting a professor. She received $850 and, after being refused access to a couple of the events, headed off to pageants in Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire where girls, and some boys, between ages 2 and 6 competed against each other. Academia was pleased enough with the result to give her a spot on the podium at the national convention of the American Sociological Association in August.

False Teeth and Barbie

Beauty pageants fit well with Hilary’s background. Her mother is a former Miss America (1970), and she has judged many of them. “I never competed in pageants myself, although they always interested me,” Hilary noted.

From her researcher’s view, Levey got a good idea of why people do and don’t participate. When some of the children lost baby teeth that had not been replaced by pageant time, their parents fit them with false teeth. When a girl’s hair was too short to curl like Barbie’s, fake additions were fitted. “Things like this showed me that these are not just contests to judge natural beauty,” she comments.

It’s not cheap to show off your child’s beauty. Parents typically spend between $100-$200 on pageant clothing, although some pay as much as $1,000 for a gown. Pageant fees cost another $100-$200 per contest, and the 41 mothers who Levey interviewed competed in an average of five pageants during the past year. In addition, those with higher incomes may hire someone to do the child’s hair, or a pageant coach to give their child an extra advantage.

One mother told Levey: “I know people who have spent so much on pageants, they lost their trailers.”

Of about 120 “beauties” Levey saw, five or six were boys. One mother said she puts her son in pageants because he likes being on stage and to have people clap for him. “It gives him confidence,” she said.

Gaining poise and confidence is cited most often by parents as the reason for putting their child into these contests. “She learns skills such as going out in a crowd, not to be shy, and to be herself while people are watching and focusing on her,” one mother noted.

“You see this a lot among people on the lower-income and education scales,” Levey comments. “They want their kids to learn skills that are needed to move up the social scale.”

One mother put it this way: “I want my child to be aware that there’s always going to be somebody better than her. It’s a hard thing to learn – it was for me – and I want her to start early.”

Dealing with Competition

Parents with higher incomes and education beyond high school often cite teaching a child how to deal with competition as a main reason for entering pageants. Many of them want their daughters to be doctors, dentists, or to have professional careers, Levey discovered in interviews.

Moms on lower socioeconomic levels also think competition is healthy. “My daughter looks like Barbie,” one said. “I tell her to exploit it. This is your life; you take what you have and run with it.”

A high percentage of parents said they enter their children into beauty contests so they can meet others. “Pageants help my daughter make friends,” one mother noted.

Other parents put their children into the competitions because they themselves found them to be helpful. “Pageants were a positive experience for me,” another mom commented. “I became less shy, learned about public speaking, gained job interview skills, and got rid of a heavy Maine accent.”

“While the mother of the crying girl in the pink sequined dress may be competitive while wanting the best for her daughter,” Levey observes, “it appears that the little girl will be doing the same for her child a generation from now.”

Three parents who were interviewed put their children into pageants because they have birth defects. “Her plastic surgeon thinks it’s wonderful because he sees parents hide their children with a facial defect,” according to one mother, whose daughter has a cleft palate. “We don’t go for competition or for her to win. We go to meet other children and parents. We don’t want her to think she’s different, that she isn’t beautiful.”

The primary reason people do not participate in pageants, Levey found, was the so-called “JonBenet factor.” “The murder has attracted so much media attention, it has made pageants socially unacceptable to many people,” she explains. Secondary reasons include costs and believing the contests are too competitive, too “grown-up.”

Levey intends to keep observing and interviewing at pageants until she presents her findings in August before the American Sociological Association. Afterward, she is thinking about expanding the research into a comparison with Little League and other competitive childhood activities.

She also sees law school in her future. “I want to go into government service and get involved in policy work,” Levey says. “I think that trying to understand why people do the things they do is a good way to prepare for such a career.”