'I was in beauty pageants as a child'

An image from the reality TV series <i>Toddlers & Tiaras</i>.

An image from the reality TV series Toddlers & Tiaras.

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.

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.

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Martina Cartwright, PhD, RD, wrote the foreword for my book, FATLASH! Food Police & the Fear of ThinA 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.

Mom 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, Mommy, 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 realized 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 sixteen, 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. Sexualizing 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

38 comments so far

  • Very very sad indeed. Narcissism at it's worst.

    Commenter
    Nicola
    Date and time
    December 12, 2012, 9:24AM
    • You are spot on, Nicola. I found 'Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers' by Karyl McBride, PhD. to be straight out of my 3 children's lives when they are with their mother. I have long ago divorced their mother, whom they still have to spend a little bit of time with, which they dread.

      Commenter
      Peter
      Location
      Kew
      Date and time
      December 12, 2012, 3:18PM
    • Wow.....hmm I need that book. How sad.

      Commenter
      Nicola
      Date and time
      December 12, 2012, 5:02PM
  • For other Australians under 50 reading this: a 500-calories a day diet is 2100 kJ (it's scary when see it like that!) and 285 pounds is 129.5 kg.

    And Fairfax, can't you set up some automatic check that finds [number} + calories/pounds/stones/inches/feet/miles/chains/pecks and other antiquated (and in fact illegal to use in Australia) measurements and then converts them into metric? I mean, you always manage to use dollars and cents for Australian currency, and that came in only about six years or so before metric . . .

    Commenter
    Susan_66
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    December 12, 2012, 9:36AM
    • sickos.

      Commenter
      thomas vesely
      Date and time
      December 12, 2012, 9:44AM
      • As a child of controlling parents, the main emotion I remember about childhood is frustration and feeling powerless. I can only imagine what it would be like to be forced into pageants and sexualised, or indeed perform sporting feats to gratify parents or as the only path to winning a parent's approval. I know I tried to do anything I could to earn approval, leading only to confusion and failure when I couldn't measure up. This story is profoundly disturbing, but I fear it won't serve as a wake-up call to many.

        Commenter
        jetsam
        Date and time
        December 12, 2012, 9:58AM
        • I did a double take when scanning this article from the raw, exposed little girl who was displayed in a beauty pageant by her mother juxtaposed with the advertising, using the stick thin models, for clothes no one but a barbie doll could wear.

          Commenter
          Nicola
          Date and time
          December 12, 2012, 10:08AM
          • I think child pageants are O K so long as

            (a) the child wants to do them ( and is old enough to make that decision on their own)

            (b) the parents aren't doing any of the following things to their children that I see on Toddlers and Tiaras

            - Fake Tanning
            -Teeth Bleeching
            -Making them use Flippers
            - Putting ridiculous Hair peices on them and torturing them
            - plucking eyebrows
            - Putting on fake lashes
            - fake nails, coloured contacts etc
            - sexualising them

            A pretty dress, nice hairstyle( own hair , no fake add ons please) and a little make up is all that should be required then its up to the child to go out there and use their natural beauty and personality to win over the judges .

            and please no fuelling up the kids with "pixy sticks " and "special juice" to keep them awake and performing .

            Commenter
            jenni
            Location
            sydney
            Date and time
            December 12, 2012, 10:27AM
            • "...its up to the child to go out there and use their natural beauty and personality to win over the judges ."

              Say what you want about pageants, they still come down to children being judged, mostly on their looks. Imagine the damage being done to their self esteem! Imagine going through life only valuing yourself as a person if other people tell you that you're the prettiest! The worst part of beauty pageants is not the false hair, teeth, lashes, tan or whatever else they find to fix what's "wrong" in their appearance, it's the way in which these children are being trotted out, lined up and evaluated like dogs by a group of strangers.

              Commenter
              Emma
              Date and time
              December 12, 2012, 11:30AM
            • at what age can a child make an informed decision on what they want to do & the impact of it. Parents need to make choices on behalf of their children to protect them from exposure to all types of harm, indirect as well as direct harm.

              Dolling a little girl up with make-up is still sexualising them, sexualising children involves any behaviours that are usually restricted to adults ie. using make-up. Its very different a little girl being allowed to put on make-up at home with mum or dad to make-up being used to increase the attractiveness of a child for public consumption.

              Parents can make the choice for their child, thats a fortanate or unfortanate thing at times, but it is the way it is but when a line is blurred - its 'ok' to put on make-up but not ok to use fake tan, the line has already been crossed IMO.

              Commenter
              Sammi_Bammi
              Date and time
              December 12, 2012, 11:41AM

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