Too young to strut their stuff on the catwalk?

STRIKE A POSE:  Hopefuls at Whangamata Beach’s  Miss Whangamata – which had contestants aged 4 to 18 – strut their stuff.
STRIKE A POSE: Hopefuls at Whangamata Beach’s Miss Whangamata – which had contestants aged 4 to 18 – strut their stuff.

Across the nation, kids are strutting their stuff. Toddlers twirl, 5-year-old boys pump their biceps like skinny mini-Arnies and pubescent 11-year-olds strike hand-on-hip model poses.

From Timaru's Caroline Bay, to Oakura Bay in Taranaki, to Northland's Glinks Gully, January is beach carnival season, and alongside the sausage sizzles, sandcastle competitions and treasure hunts, there's almost always a beauty contest.

But is it harmless fun to anoint 10-year-olds as Miss Glinks Gully or Junior Mr Muscles Opunake? Or are we on the slippery slope that ends in the creepy swamp of American-style under-age pageants where mentally unstable stage moms dress their toddlers like drag queens and sit in the audience mouthing the words of their songs?

Auckland portrait photographer Nicola O'Sullivan is appalled at child beauty contests, even low-key Kiwi versions. In the unlikely event that any of her children (daughters aged 6 and 13; a son aged 10) wanted to take part, she'd say no. She objects to the implicit message to children that you're only worthwhile if you're pretty. "I want them to learn to value who they are, not how they look."

O'Sullivan is uneasy about the sexualisation that goes with beauty contests. The poses girls strike focus on showing off her figure and curves, even if she has none, "and why would a parent encourage their child to be more conscious of how their body looks?"

O'Sullivan takes a lot of family portraits, and is often asked by parents for advice on how to get their daughters into modelling, but never by the children themselves. She suspects there may be a similar blurring of motivation around beauty contests. "I presume mothers would do it because it makes them feel good, but I can't see what the children gain."

Lois Finderup is organiser of the Miss Taranaki beauty pageant, a rather more formal affair than the beach contests. She sees them as harmless fun. The kids who enter the "junior" categories might be young, but there's no pressure - a world away from the extremes of US-style "toddlers in tiaras".

"The difference is that the New Zealand girls are more natural - they don't have the hairpieces or heavy makeup and eyelashes."

But even those "natural" New Zealand girls are being asked to get up and show off their curves, when they're still just kids. Isn't this sexualisation and objectification - pressures the girls will encounter soon enough without a parent's premature urging? Not at all, says Finderup. It's about "making a young lady feel confident enough to get up there in front of a whole lot of people and do a little turn".

At a recent Opunake show, girls wore shorts rather than bikinis, so you can see "the emphasis has gone away from beach babes to young ladies that want to get up there and have a good time".

Auckland child psychologist Rebecca Daly-Peoples doesn't see beach pageants as the end of civilisation. All the same, they're another facet of the pressures placed on young people, especially women, to see themselves as sexual objects, and to overrate physical appearance. "Anything that sexualises children is not good," says Daly-Peoples. "Kids are getting bombarded enough, particularly by music videos."

The daft parts of the carnivals - cute toddlers having a twirl, or 8-year-old boys striking a body-builder pose - strike Daly-Peoples as innocuous ("Even back in the 1950s you'd have beautiful-baby competitions") but when the competitors are pubertal girls of 10 or 11 being judged for their physical beauty, she's uncomfortable. "There are enough body-image issues out there already, without sanctioning it in the community."

It's one thing for a young girl to want to dress up and totter around home in her mum's high heels, says Daly-Peoples, but it's quite another to put that child up on a stage to be judged.

Obviously, taking part in a lighthearted seaside beauty contest won't mean you're doomed to get an eating disorder, but "everyone's affected by the images we're bombarded with", and the longer we can protect our kids from that, the better, says Daly-Peoples.

"Without being too critical of the mothers that make that choice, probably half the time they'd like to be up there themselves. Your children are an extension of yourself and you are responsible for what you expose them to."

When a mother tells her daughter it's OK to strike a pose and earn a ranking, Daly-Peoples suggests she should perhaps ask herself this question: "Is this going to advantage her in her life, or will it potentially tap into her insecurities?"

Sunday Star Times