Toddlers & Tiaras: A Moral Conflict Between Obligation and Rights


It’s irrefutable that child pageants cause numerous psychological and physical harms. With all of the scrutiny the industry receives, numerous studies have been done that looked at the negative effects child pageants can have on young girls, ranging from self-esteem issues to distorted body images (Nussbaum, 2010). But even if we all agree it’s a terrible thing, what can we do to stop it? This conundrum presents itself as an extremely difficult question of morality—obligation versus rights. This conflict between our obligations to make a change, yet also allowing people to use their rights as citizens is very difficult. We have a responsibility to try to regulate or even stop a “sport” that is hurting children in such an obvious way; however, if we did decide that it should be regulated, where do we draw that line, and who’s to say that a third party is morally correct in drawing that line? On the other hand, this has been done before. Regulations in sports are common, just not in such a subjective manner.

There are plenty of other ways in which parents can regulate their own child’s actions that are similar to pageant life, like deciding when it’s time that they can appear “mature” and “adult-like”—even “sexy”.  Some parents let their children wear make-up when they become a teenager; while others buy their daughters vanities and make up kits by the time their daughters are old enough to twist off the cap of lip-gloss. Other parents are more concerned with showing too much skin at a young age, and will only let their daughters wear bikinis when they hit their teen years, even though major stores sell bikinis made for newborns.  Then comes the question of dating—when is that socially acceptable? Many parents make the cut off high school, or when a child turns sixteen, but why then? These issues do not occur in a vacuum; societal pressures and environmental norms constantly influence parenting. These major parental decisions are regularly being made, and the rules and standards often overlap with one another.  Looking at parental choices regarding maturity from the organizational and legal side, how is allowing your child to participate in a child pageant any different than the other conventions being made by parents with their children every day? Why would the law come into play when child pageantry is often looked at as just another sporting activity that parents enroll their children in everyday? In an ideal world, regulations would be made to make pageants more socially acceptable and similar to other feminine “activities” young girls participate in, such as dance and gymnastics lessons. That way, parents would not be forced to make those judgment calls, and the adverse effects of these pageants could be limited—but would that completely solve the problem, or is it the entire intention of pageants that’s the problem?

A historical look at child beauty pageants, as well as an overview of the current laws in regards these pageants will certainly inform a more precise argument regarding these pageants and what can be done about them. Beauty pageants became part of the American society in the 1920’s, while child beauty pageants didn’t emerge until the 1960’s. Beauty pageants began as a marketing tool in 1921 by an Atlantic City hotel owner who wanted to keep city tourists in town. A local news reporter started the notorious term, still used today by saying, “lets call her ‘Miss America’!” As time went on, pageants became a major part of society by serving as political, education, and entertaining events. Scholarships were awarded to winners, and often participants receive a cash prize as well. Child beauty pageants in particular consist of modeling sportswear, evening attire, dance and talent. They are judged individually on several categories: looks, capability, poise, perfection, and confidence—what the judges like to call “the complete package. A typical day for a child contestant requires time and patience, as hair can typically take 2 hours, while make-up takes another hour. Not to mention the hours of practice that goes into being a child beauty pageant contestant long before pageant day (Nussbaum, 2010).

According to the Attorney General of the Department of Justice in California, “There is no law that prescribes how a pageant must be managed, the rules are set by each contest promoter.” (Nussbaum, 2010) As it turns out, the majority of child beauty pageants have little to no restrictions, therefore, if self regulations were to be made, it would certainly be useful to look at them one by one, and analyze to what extent they would improve child pageants, and also where the line would need to be drawn to satisfy both the legal and moral obligations at stake.  Due to previous research, it seems that there are several distinct categories of child pageantry that could be improved upon to make it more appropriate, from attire to “flappers”, all of which push the maturity level of contestants and contribute to the adverse effects on children’s emotional and physical well-being.


One suggestion is to put restrictions on the outfits they can be wearing during the pageant. One child made national news for her outfit that was, by no mistake, shockingly similar to the streetwalker outfit that was worn by the main actress in Pretty Woman. This skintight outfit featured a dress with a cutout stomach and knee high leather boots.  It’s a possibility then to say that outfits cannot have a bare midriff, but what about tightness and how low-cut the outfit is? How can we possibly make a cut off like that legally when it’s so subjective? In the case of the Pretty Woman outfit, it was both a bare midriff and very tight; however, the judges would likely have a difficult time creating an exact cut-off for length and tightness, and in this case, although the dress was clearly inappropriate, it didn’t bare the whole midriff—only the sides were cut out. These outfit restrictions are all very difficult to implement when it deals with such subjective judgments, although it’s certainly worth consideration.

Talent Portion

Another possible regulation could be put in place for the “talent” portion, where many young girls do provocative dances. The most frequent controversies revolve around the age appropriateness of the music and choreography. Any music that makes sexual references could be banned, and choreography that is considered too sexual could be as well. However, this is also very difficult due to its subjectivity. Who’s to judge where they need to draw the line? One option would be that the judges make that subjective call on what’s inappropriate, and disqualify the child from the pageant; however, with intense some of these pageant parents can be, that may cause more harm than help.

Make-Up/Hair/Extensive Preparation

Another option would be to rule out aspects of child pageantry that are seen as being the most controversial. Some pageants have done this already, such as those run by Beatriz Gill, a child pageant director and former participant herself. In her pageants, she does not allow excessive make up, snug clothing, or hypersexual presentations. Therefore, if a child appears to be crossing the line, they are disqualified from the pageant. Because of these restrictions, her pageants have become some of the most respected in the industry—so why doesn’t the government take her example? Unfortunately, the majority of pageants not only allow, but actually encourage things like spray tans, flappers (fake teeth), and extensive amounts of make up and hair products for children.


If the concern is that there are members of the audience who are looking at the children as sexual objects, why not restrict the audience to family and friends only? The pageants could force anyone in the building to register with their child and show identification. If security was made more strict, everyone would feel more comfortable. The only issue with that is it would, in a way, force parents to reconcile with the fact that child pageants are over-sexualizing their children, but maybe that’s a positive thing.

Age Restriction

Another option would be to put an age restriction on who can enter pageants. Right now, children are entering pageants as young as just a few days old, and continue until their early twenties. The difficulty with an age restriction is that if you make the cut off around 13 or 14, even those girls are immature and subject to scrutiny at an age when they are most vulnerable. But if the cut off were 18, that takes away a parents right to enter their child in an “activity” of their choice. Parents are always making judgment calls on when children are allowed to dress themselves, wear make-up, hangout with boys, etc. And is there really that big of a difference between a 13 and 14 year old? It’s important to consider that children mature at different rates, and this becomes especially relevant when talking about puberty. As of now, over 250,000 children under the age of eighteen are competing in pageants (Nussbaum, 2010). To outright tell all of those parents that they can no longer have their children participate would be very controversial.

Although these restrictions would certainly help dilute the harmful effects of child pageantry and early maturation, they still do not solve the problem. Yes, restrictions would lead to less sexualization of young girls and a more safe environment; however, it still doesn’t get rid of the idea of a pageant, which revolves around sexual ideals, forcing young girls to feel the need to be perfect, all the while feeling judged (because they are literally being judged) on physical attributes rather than inner beauty. No matter what changes are made, parents will fight back for their rights to make decisions for their children; however, because of the extensive research that’s been done, I believe it would be justified to ban child pageantry all together. Although these harmful effects are not simply with child pageants, there is certainly something to be said about introducing this too young. Young girls are at a critical age where they begin to form a self-identity, self-confidence, and ideas of how the world works. Pageants have been shown to do nothing but harm self-esteem and promote sexist ideals—and no restrictions can truly mediate that without changing the entire meaning of pageantry. The true problem lies with how parents need to respond to this, and how far the government would be willing to go with hyper-regulating the pageants to the point where they might as well ban child pageantry all together. It seems that regulations would not be the answer as they make the entire process more complicated and still leave too much room for loopholes. My suggestion is to ban child pageantry in hopes of encouraging young girls to place their self-value in the inner beauty rather than their physical beauty.



Nussbaum, K. (2010). Children and beauty pageants. Retrieved from