Gautaman Bhaskaran
an indian journalist
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In Fashion…Kids must not wear a tiara

Once, India’s adman Alyque Padamsee told me that advertising created desire. Advertisements propelled one to dream: the aspiration to possess all things beautiful. But, I feel, that not all should shut the eye and fantasise. Not children, anyway. No.

Two things have been troubling me lately. A clothes company commercial, screened in theatres, shows a pretty little girl class dressed not in school uniform, but in fancy finery. She rises high above her chair, cocking her head, fluttering her eyelashes, attracting the attention of her class-boys, before foxing her teacher with a sexy “present sir”.

The other disturbing fact has been children participating in fashion contests, decked up to the skin and dolled up silly. Up for a Best Picture Oscar soon, “Little Miss Sunshine” (by husband and wife Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris), hits out precisely at this uglier side of ambition and expectation.

Abigail Breslin
The Hollywood film is a hilarious piece of adventure that gets together several members of a family into a rickety bus that rambles across the American continent to a children’s beauty pageant in California. At the centre of this group is little Olive, played with panache by Abigail Breslin (just 10, but eight in the movie and nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar). She has a dream, to win the tiara in the Little Miss Sunshine Beauty contest. But, she is plump, wears glasses and is not exactly someone idea’s of a beauty queen. So what, her family – her father, mother, brother, grandfather and uncle – thinks that she fits the bill to the T.

“Little Miss Sunshine”, despite its candyfloss look, is a damning criticism of the American consumerist culture that converts little lasses into pretty puppets, turned around and twisted almost out of shape by parents, who never seem to know when to stop pulling the strings. The film has an extremely powerful scene in which one sees tiny girls in garish costumes with hideously made-up faces dancing on the ramp to vulgar pop tunes.

Beauty pageants for children are not uncommon in India. In fact, these can be seen even in schools, which under the garb of fancy dress competitions encourage even very young boys and girls to wear fashion on their sleeve. I have seen many such galas where children not only copy a Mahatma Gandhi or a Pandit Nehru, but also a popular cinema star. Often, mini versions of Shahrukh Khans, Rajnikants, Ranis and Shilpas strut about the stage.

In the U.S. – where brand and image sell lifestyle, success and stardom – beauty contests are dime a dozen. About 3,000 such events are held there every year, and they are meant only for girls between 5 and 12. Imagine, teaching them to look stunning even before they learn how to walk or speak clearly! And thousands of parents do not seem to mind this: blinded by a peculiar drive, they force their toddlers to live out their own (perhaps failed) dreams.

Psychologists say that it is almost cruel to make a six-year-old behave, even if it is for a short time, like a 20 something. It harms the psyche of a child who may be taught to seek attention, not face failure. Such a disappointment can inflict on the little one not just mental agony, but also a feeling of low self esteem. A child who may have gone through the whole punishing process of rehearsals and changing costumes mainly for gaining parental love can well get shattered when it finds the crown on another head.

Such beauty contests reached their nadir in the U.S. when six-year-old Jon Benet Ramsay was found brutally murdered in the basement of her own home in 1996. She had just won the Colorado beauty pageant.

In Calcutta or Kolkata, as the city is now called, a Barbie look-alike competition some months ago caused concern when judges found that some mothers had crossed all lines of reason and reality in order to get their daughters to look like the doll. Some of the girls were positively anorexic.

And, all this pain came to nought when most girls lost. One social scientist says “excessive pre-occupation with the body leads to body image problems and eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia nervosa. Body image is how you see, picture and perceive your body.

"Emotionally, it includes how you feel about and how you feel in your body. Intellectually, it includes what you think/believe about your physical appearance and how you think others perceive you.

"A negative body image in a woman ... is detrimental. It leads to unhappiness, relationship issues and various psychological problems. Her body-related perceptions, feelings and beliefs will govern her life plan - who she meets, whom she marries, the nature of her interactions, her day-to-day comfort level, what she pursues in life, etc”, adds the scientist.

The moral here is clear. Fashion and beauty are not for kids, and, for goodness sake, do not get them into the habit of looking in the mirror early on. Little girls can end up hating themselves.

(Webposted February 20 2007)