You're going to want to sit down for this one. Have the smelling salts ready. All set? Here goes:
This week's People cover story breaks the staggering news that the kiddie beauty pageants featured in TLC's Toddlers & Tiaras might be (gasp!) sending the wrong message to their sweet young contestants and the girls who might want to be just like them.
Another "outfit of choice" featured 3-year-old Paisley strutting her stuff in a "Pretty Woman" getup:
But when the crowns were handed out, guess who walked away with the Grand Supreme title?
Enough, cry the experts. Stop sexualizing our innocent girls. Stop telling them their value as people is directly tied to their looks. Stop pitting them against each other in contests where appearance and cuteness is all and prizes are won or lost on the brightness of their smiles and the style of their shoes.
Fine and dandy. Right behind you.
But don't waggle a disapproving finger with one hand and then dig into your wallet with the other to pay for the trappings of a very mixed message.
Why is it terrible to decorate a girl's room with trophies and crowns, but not with Disney princesses? Why is it wrong to spend tons of money on beaded pageant gowns, but not on T-shirts that say "Her Highness" and Halloween costumes of Rapunzel and French maids?
Why, yes. There's a huge difference here.
Why do we tsk-tsk over 5-year-olds in full competition makeup, but post pictures of our own girls getting their nails done at birthday parties? (Nearly half of all 6-year-olds wear lipstick or lip gloss, by the way.) Why do we scream at the moms on the TV screen when "Toddlers" is on, but say nothing to our children when they watch commercials for dolls with pouty red lips, elaborate wardrobes and hair-styling paraphernalia? Why is frill-loving Fancy Nancy a better role model than Fancy Paisley?
For that matter, why put on the I'm-shocked-shocked! act over a girl dressed as the ultimate hooker with a heart of gold, when we were part of the audience who made Julia Roberts a star because of that very role? Why are we suddenly squeamish when a child wears a belly shirt, short skirt and boots? Don't we see similar separates in the juniors section of the mall every day?
How about this "lingerie for girls" line from the French company Jours Apres Lunes?
Speaking of the mall, let's not even get started again on the Forever21 T-shirts that proclaim, "I'm just a girl - I don't need to bother myself with silly things like math and school."
"Oh, but that's different," you argue. "What we really object to is the whole idea of competition and parading these girls around in public."
Mm-hmm. And you'd never enter your daughter in a soccer match or a dance recital, either. You've never made a fuss over a girl dressed in her holiday best or exclaimed to a trick-or-treater, "What a beautiful princess you are!" Your local high school has to beg its female population to try out for the cheerleading squad - no Cheerios here! Nope, it's the kiddie beauty pageants that are wrecking our girls' self-esteem and tarnishing our otherwise spotless ideals of femininity.
As Peggy Orenstein points out in her excellent Cinderella Ate My Daughter, girls are bombarded by the pretty-pink-princess culture virtually from day one. But while parents can't avoid the exposure entirely, they can monitor what their children watch and wear, talk to them about what it means to be a girl and be aware of their own language when they talk about women, beauty, sexuality and self-worth. We can encourage our daughters to follow their own paths and discourage them from the negative messages.
What we can't do is get outraged about a show while still watching it often enough to make it the topic of magazine covers. And if we're truly serious about changing our society's fixation on beauty, let's examine our own behavior before we cast the first rhinestone.