Toddlers & Tiaras Justice
Pageant mom Lindsay Jackson put her daughter on TV in a Dolly Parton costume. Now she might lose custody for it.
Jackson then turned to the child-beauty-pageant community for support, spreading the word via social media. On Aug. 18 she posted a Facebook message beginning with the plea, “Right now, I’m not asking the pageant community to come together, I’m begging them to do so. If this judge rules against me … he is in violation of my first amendment rights to freedom of privacy and freedom of choice.”
While Jackson has received some support from the pageant community—an online petition garnered nearly 1,300 signatures—the response has been surprisingly lukewarm. A website set up to collect donations for “Pageant Star, Maddy Verst’s, Legal Defense Fund” only brought in $179, far short of the stated $25,000 goal. Ryan believes that this is because “Pageant moms are absolutely terrified. A lot of pageant moms are single moms, struggling moms, and this sets a precedent that they can lose their kids because of pageant participation.”
Is this a rational concern? “There’s nothing inherent about child beauty pageants that is harmful,” Jeannie Suk, professor of law at Harvard Law School, tells me. As child beauty pageants are legal in the United States, Suk, who has taught both family law and the law of the performing arts, explains that the Verst case “should not be taken as about child beauty pageants in general. It should be about the ways in which an activity impacts this child.”
Still, the case has inspired a small group of pageant moms to speak out against the TLC show that brings so much negative attention to their community. Some 200 pageant moms have endorsed this image on Facebook:
Even if the Verst case shouldn’t be a referendum on whether or not child beauty pageants are a form of abuse for all children, family lawyer Mark Momjian acknowledges that most people will “impute” to all child-beauty-pageant families. In other words most people will assume this means that child beauty pageants are now legally recognized as a form of abuse and can be the basis for altered custody arrangements and other legal action.
What sets the Verst case apart, according to Momjian, is not just that Maddy participates in child beauty pageants, but that she has done so on a television show with her story broadcast to the world. Momjian knows a thing or two about children on reality TV, having represented Kate Gosselin, former star of another controversial TLC show, Jon & Kate Plus 8, in her divorce and custody case. He believes that regardless of the outcome, the fact that child beauty pageants have become such a public issue in this case does not bode well for future participants on this show, or others featuring girls in competitive activities like dance (see: Dance Moms) and cheerleading (see: Cheer Perfection).
Jackson has asserted that, within the context of pageants, costumes like Maddy’s police-officer getup and the dance moves that accompany them are not considered sexual. Having studied child beauty pageants for over a decade, I agree with her. Within that world, they are just seen as “cute,” not sexual, and are what you must do in order to win the biggest crown. They are just moves. But that shared understanding in the pageant ballroom isn't present in the wider world, and once these routines are broadcast to a wider audience, they are rightly seen as having sexual elements in them—batting eyelashes, blowing kisses, and thrusting hips. Which is why allowing young children to be on these television shows is problematic.
What is the long-term impact of participation in child pageants that may sexualize girls at such a young age, and certainly do focus on physical appearance? We all suspect negative impacts on self-esteem, an increase in eating disorders, and an obsession with perfection—but the truth is that we simply don’t know. One study that looked at a small group of former child-beauty-pageant contestants in young adulthood found that they have higher rates of body dissatisfaction, but don’t have more serious problems like depression and eating disorders. We need more of this research, though, before using participation in pageants as a basis to judge parenting, or, in the extreme, alter family dynamics.
While child beauty pageants have been vilified since the 1996 death of JonBenét Ramsey for violating numerous social norms about childhood and sexuality, Maddy’s case appears to be the first public legal challenge to child pageants (though of course it is possible that other families have quietly and privately settled their differences in family courts). Even if Jackson is granted primary custody of her daughter and can continue doing pageants with Maddy, she almost certainly has had a long-term impact on child pageants, and on how pageant moms—an often unfairly vilified bunch—will think of the spotlight going forward.
Hilary Levey Friedman is an affiliate of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is a sociologist currently writing a book about beauty pageants and American culture.