Last year, then-five-year-old Maddy Verst showed up in a “Toddlers and Tiaras” beauty pageant wearing a padded bra. She was dressed as Dolly Parton, and according to her mom, Lindsay Jackson, people always loved the outfit and Maddy always did well when she wore it.
Unsurprisingly, other people watching the show didn’t feel as kindly about it as Jackson did. Seeing a child in a padded bra sparked outrage. Fingers were wagged. Strongly worded letters were written.
But the outrage, as it turns out, didn’t stop with the viewing public. For what might be the first time in the show’s history, one of the girls’ parents thought that things had gone too far: West’s father, Bill Verst, used the incident to demand full custody of his daughter.
Verst apparently thought that slapping fake breasts onto a child constituted sexually exploiting that child. But Lindsay Jackson, Maddy’s mom, disagreed, comparing Verst’s assertion to what might have happened if Gabby Douglas’ parents didn’t let her do gymnastics:
We could really open up Pandora’s Box to set a precedent all over the world. What if years ago Gabby Douglas’ father said, ‘She’s not going to be a gymnast. She’s not going to move away from home and practice gymnastics because I won’t allow it,’ and he and Gabby’s mother got into a fight? We wouldn’t have gold medal winners, we wouldn’t have Miss America, we wouldn’t have Miss USA.
So…yeah. That happened. I’m not going to waste time here telling you why that’s dumb, because honestly, some things need no further explanation. But I am going to talk a little bit about how drawing the line in child beauty pageants when a kid is in a padded bra is totally random and makes no sense at all.
From where I sit in my armchair psychologist’s office, the damage inflicted on little girls by enrolling them in beauty pageants — if any damage is inflicted at all, because I would argue that the Honey Boo Boos of the world seem to be having a grand old time — begins way, way, way, way before the pageant. It begins when the child’s parent decides to enroll her in pageants in the first place. Unless the parent does so because that child is begging and pleading to compete, it’s likely because of the mom or dad’s misplaced value on looks, or living vicariously, or an unhealthily competitive streak, or some other poor parenting quality that I don’t even know about. And if that quality exists in the parent, it’s been internalized by the kid well before she finds herself with tits at the age of five.
The problem, of course, gets worse when a TV network decides to broadcast the whole spectacle. But nitpicking about which outfit is causing girls in beauty pageants to be exploited is kind of like a 90-year-old lifelong smoker who is dying of emphysema wondering exactly which cigarette did him in.
In other words, it’s about the big picture.