I never thought it was terribly sinister that I was in beauty pageants as a kid. The problem wasn't so much the pageants themselves as the kind of parents who chose to put their children in them.
OPINION: In my case, they were just part of my mother's obsessive need to show me off. She was a "stage mother on steroids" who first put me on the stage at the age of three, just as her mother had done with her. As part of her preoccupation with my weight and appearance, she policed what I ate and imposed severely restrictive diets.
As a natural extrovert, I took to "show biz" rather well and received plenty of praise for my performances. But there was a darker side: The old men scratching their crotches while I performed in skimpy costumes. The latent and confusing fear of being looked at sexually, which continued even into adulthood. And the haunting sense that I had no face when it was not made up for the stage.
Though I was used to performing a lot as a child, I thought my mother was joking when she entered me in my first "Little Miss Pageant," Me? In a beauty pageant? I knew I could never be the delicate and demure girl in the framed photograph that was ever-present in our house. The blonde five-year-old in the picture was in a perpetual and perfect splits pose and adorned in a feathery, sequinned costume. My mother, circa 1931.
Martina Cartwright, PhD, RD, wrote the foreword for my book, FATLASH! Food Police & the Fear of Thin-A Cautionary Tale and has-at last-given us a name for the syndrome in which appearance-obsessed moms live vicariously through their children: "Princess by Proxy." That my mother was also a child performer is a particularly clear example of how generational and progressive the problem is. These "pageant parents" search for their lost childhoods through their children and, in so doing, rob the children of theirs.
I had no idea about the ways in which my early pageant experiences affected me until I was well into my thirties, when a flood of memories and feelings came back to me in vivid and sometimes frightening pictures.
I remembered that my tutu was so stiff I could rest my arms on it as I waited for my turn to perform. With bright red lips and bouncing, corkscrew curls I prepared to step out onto the stage as hundreds of people watched. Before I took my place in line, my mother bent down and looked me in the eye.
"All right Susie Q, don't worry if you forget all the steps, just keep on shaking."
Why did my mother send me to dancing school if she didn't want me to do the steps? I asked myself. We made our entrance. As the other girls began our dance, I began to shake my hips-only a little at first, but by the end, I was shaking with all my might.
Mum rushed up to me when I finished. She was glowing.
"You brought the house down!" she raved. "They ate you up!" I was near tears.
"But, Mummy, why did the people laugh at me?" my confused toddler self asked.
"They weren't laughing at you, Karen, they were laughing with you," she said. "You stole the show!"
I swallowed my tears and studied my mother's face. I'd never seen her look so happy. I realised that I had done that. And I could do it again, too. All I had to do was keep on shaking.
I realised my mother exploited this for the show by directing me to shake my hips on purpose. It is also an example of how she sexualised me in ways I doubt the other mothers would ever have considered.
My mother's dietary restrictions continued to escalate until, at the age of seven, she put me on a five-hundred calorie a day diet. This fueled a rebellion in me, which grew into a weight problem that took years for me to understand. At 16, I weighed 285 pounds.
Despite the pain of my excess poundage, I achieved several unconscious secondary gains. My girth worked as protection. It was a FATLASH, if you will, against my mother's dietary controls and demands for thinness, as I tried to own my appetite. My weight created a much-needed boundary between her "self" and mine. It also guaranteed that there would never be another beauty pageant.
Princess by Proxy was rarer when I experienced it in the 1960s. Today, the syndrome is on the brink of being accepted as part of popular culture. I've grown up to see a collective repeat of many of the mistakes my mother made. Toddlers and Tiaras and "Honey Boo Boo" it's time to draw the line - with the power of education.
I tell my story as a cautionary tale and with the hope that we can spare yet another generation of girls from feeling the need to write a book like FATLASH. Child pageants will be an anathema when parents and audiences alike understand that boundaries are necessary for children to attain body ownership and a sense of body integrity. Sexualising them rushes them past important developmental stages, and prevents them from reaching healthy adulthood. The greatest challenge for parents who live vicariously through their children may be to first recognize that they haven't successfully reached that level of adulthood themselves.
Karen Kataline, MSW received her master's degree from Columbia University and has practiced in a variety of non-profit and corporate settings. Her book Fatlash! Food Police & the Fear of Thin is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble and wherever books are sold. She can be reached at www.fatlash.com.
- Daily Life