Child pageants come in for criticismJanuary 22, 1997
Web posted at: 5:30 a.m. EST
From Correspondent Tony Clark
LA MARQUE, Texas (CNN) -- The murder of JonBenet Ramsey focused national attention on the subculture of beauty pageants for very young children.
More than 100,000 children under the age of 12 compete in about 3,000 child beauty pageants around the nation such as the recent Miss Mardi Gras Pageant in La Marque.
Some critics say such contests are inappropriate, even sleazy. But pageant parents argue the events foster self-confidence in the youngsters and offer healthy peer-group interaction.
Sylviane Kitchen, the Miss Mardi Gras pageant's organizer, encourages an atmosphere where every contestant is a winner.
"I do ask my audience, 'Please applaud for each of them,'" said Kitchen. "Because that gives them courage."
Developing social skills
Child psychiatrist Duane Hopson offers some support for the contention that pageants can help a youngster's development, but cautions the affect varies from child to child.
"I think for some children, it might provide them with the opportunity to work on their development of the social skills they need to interact with their peers," said Hopson, "whereas another child the same age might be totally overwhelmed."
Bunny Bennett is convinced the child pageant experience helped her two nieces who have lived with her for six years.
"When they came, they had very low self-esteem," said Bennett. "They could not have been in public easily."
Now, Bennett says, the two girls have "just blossomed."
Bennett's niece Heather Brinegar says she is "proud of myself" as a result of her child pageant experience, making it easier to interact in public.
"Little Barbie dolls"
Bennett worries critics are taking a positive experience and "making it look like we're creating little Barbie dolls."
Pageant organizers contend the image of overdressed children caked in makeup is overblown. They say most children are presented with only minimal enhancement, a gloss to highlight their natural beauty.
But some child pageant organizers, like Tony DeGuilio, admit some parents are over-zealous in preparing their children for the pint-sized glamour contests.
"I think a lot of times these parents go way too far with their children," said DeGuilio. "Sometimes the dresses are too low. There's too much padding."
Jody Alexander is a Hollywood talent agent whose business is finding the next pretty face. But even she wonders about the pageants' goals.
"It seems to me," she said, "that in pageants, the children are primarily taught to mimic adults."
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