The world of beauty queens and pageants was in the hot seat last week, and not just because of the racist online comments hurled at Nina Davuluri after she became the first woman of Indian descent to be named Miss America.
In France, legislators moved to ban child beauty pageants on the grounds that they promote the "hyper-sexualization" of minors. A measure even proposes jail time and a fine for violators — including parents and organizers — who sponsor or encourage "access to these competitions" for anyone under age 16, the Associated Press reported.
The French Senate approved the bill on Tuesday, but it must be passed by a lower house of parliament before becoming law.
According to The Guardian, the attention to the "Mini-Miss" beauty pageants was prompted by debates over a 2010 photo spread in French Vogue featuring a 10-year-old girl in heavy makeup, high-heeled shoes and tight clothes and pouting provocatively.
Such a ban wouldn't fly in the USA, says sociologist Hilary Levey Friedman, a research associate at the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and author of the new book Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture.
"Historically and legally, our system defers to parents to make the right decision for their child," she says. "We see the family as more of a private entity."
Karen Kataline, a mental health professional near Denver who participated in child beauty pageants in the 1960s, says she understands the motivation to ban the competitions, but doesn't think that's the answer. The problem "is not just the pageants, it's the parents" who support and encourage the sexualization of their children, Kataline says.
"I'm not against children singing and dancing on stage, but you want them to sing and dance and perform in age-appropriate ways," she says. "Today, we've pushed the envelope to ridiculous degrees."
"People need to be educated as to why exposing and displaying a child in sexual ways beyond their years is wrong," says Kataline, author of the memoir FATLASH! Food Police & the Fear of Thin – A Cautionary Tale.
The proposed penalties of up to two years in prison and $40,000 in fines "seem a bit extreme" but the concerns are certainly legitimate, says Martina Cartwright, an adjunct faculty member at the University of Arizona. Her research on child pageants was published last year in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
A task force of the American Psychological Association noted that "girls who are sexualized early will tend to gather their self-worth as an adult based on their appearance," says Cartwright. And there's also the issue of certain adults who "make the assumption that the girls have the ability to make adult decisions just based on the way they look rather than their actual age."
She doubts, however, that a ban will adequately address the issue of girls and women "being judged solely on appearance, and the idea that self-worth is only based on how they look. READ MORE