If Child Pageants are Bad, Shouldn’t they be Illegal?


France has introduced legislation to make pageants for children under the age of 16 illegal.  Britain is considering similar measures.  This has sent a new wave of requests  my way for interviews and comments.  Most are certain that, in light of my book and outspoken condemnation of child beauty pageants (which hasn’t changed a bit), I would applaud this news.  Some are quite surprised when I do not.

While I am glad to see this issue being discussed publicly and at such length by people from a variety of disciplines, the issue of child sexualization cannot be adequately addressed by simply making a law.  In fact, the results are likely to be counter-intuitive.  What is required, is for parents and the public to understand why it’s necessary to be the adults in their childrens’  lives rather than attempting to recapture their own childhoods through the lives of  their children.  Parents need to find their own self-sufficiency and learn that healthy child development requires that children be allowed their childhood.  Otherwise, the problem grows exponentially, which is exactly where we are today.

To simply make the government the new parent in the lives of these parents with governmental edicts telling them what is and is not appropriate, is to remove exactly the adult responsibility that is so sorely needed.  Such an approach simply shifts the burden of responsibility from the parent to government.  Another boundary crossed, and more “unintended consequences” for the future.

We have a unique opportunity to turn back the tide of this hyper-sexualized, child-centric pop culture through education and understanding.  Kids do not want their parents to be their friends.  They need parents who know the right thing to do and who do it by choice –not because doing otherwise could get them arrested.

Kids Behaving Like Adults, Adults Behaving like Children

What do these stories have  in common?

Story #1:  USA Today reported that 9-year-old Hannah Robertson scolded McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson for “marketing fast food to children.” She was there they say, with the backing of her “nutritionally savvy” parents as well as the activist group, Corporate Accountability International. It picked up the family’s travel expenses to Chicago, where McDonald’s is based and held its annual meeting.

The adults who engineered the stunt achieved the desired outcome.  Their fast food beef was covered by USA Today.  Does any reasonable person believe that these are the age-appropriate concerns of a child?  Is Hannah Robertson “nutritionally savvy” enough to know that there’s a difference between marketing food which allows you to choose whether to eat it or not, and imposing food restrictions with force as a certain Mayor of New York City has attempted but so far, failed to do?   In that case, she has no choice.  One has to wonder how much choice Hannah had in being used as her parents’ proxy for their political passions.

"Spends like an adult"

“Spends like an adult”

Story #2: An ABC News article featured a child named Isabella Barrett who was praised as a “six-year-old-millionaire.”  The article appears on AOL News in the Career section.  Hmmm, her career?  Has little Isabella really chosen this vocation after rejecting flying school or an MBA?   Or is she being pushed to play out her dressup fantasies in the real world by a mother who has no clue of what is age-appropriate for a six-year-old?  Apparently, the media doesn’t either, nor do many others who celebrate this misguided notion of “success.”  Isabella is yet another beauty pageant participant from “Toddlers and Tiaras.”

The article continues:  “Isabella is now in first grade, and she’s already a fashionista. She owns more than 60 pairs of shoes and has her own pageant room worth more than $100,000…Isabella is young, but her spending is very grownup. She once spent more than $1,000 on room service and, during a recent trip to Los Angeles, purchased 14 velour track suits at a Juicy Couture ” I bought so much stuff it wouldn’t fit in the car,” Isabella said.

Today, it is apparently considered “grown up” to spend irresponsibly. What’s childish?  The ability to delay gratification?  The line has blurred so much between some parents and children that a child can emulate the childish behavior of her parent and she is rewarded for acting like  an “adult.”  Did you get that?

Story # 3:  The troubled life of Michael Jackson is in the news again.  New information about his personal life has come to light in the wrongful death suit against Conrad Murray.  Like his longtime friend, Elizabeth Taylor, Jackson was robbed of his childhood. Apart from accusations of impropriety, many have speculated that Jackson’s childlike behavior and obsession with children was part of his attempt in vain, to get it back. Yet, the culture seems to be on a collective and “trendy dissent” toward more of the same.

The lack of understanding about the consequences of using children to feed the unrealized dreams and the personal and political agendas of adults should be disturbing.  What’s more, the stories are mounting at an alarming rate.

It’s deceptively simple, but here is Kataline’s Remedy #1:  Children need adults to be grown ups in order for them to successfully–grow up.

How Do You Define ‘Child Sexualization?’

Defining Child SexualizationBefore we can have a discussion about whether the sexualization of children is damaging to their development, we need to be able to recognize it when we see it.

Why do some people see the inappropriateness of thrusting children into adult sexuality and others don’t see it at all?  It’s unfortunate that the issue is so controversial but therein lies much of the problem.

I began thinking about this over fifteen years ago when I searched for a co-writer to help me write my book.  I located an established writer who seemed interested in my story and I traveled to Vermont in the dead of winter to meet her.  She looked at a few of the more disturbing pictures from my personal album (they are not in the book) of me at about the age of six, draped across a stone ledge, one leg up in a Marilyn Monroe-like pose and a grown-up pout on my face.

The writer’s response was,  “I don’t see a problem with these.”  Maybe she expected to see something more like kiddie porn.  Needless to say, she wasn’t destined to help me with my book. Ultimately, I had to write it myself with the help of a terrific editor, Jessica Swift.

We often project adult sensibilities onto children and forget that they haven’t reached those sensibilities yet.  Or, we have been sensitized to a parade of overly-precocious children in sitcoms and elsewhere who are usually smarter and more sympathetic characters than their parents.

There has always been a healthy debate about exposing children to sexual material in movies and entertainment.  Isn’t that why we have a film ratings system which is constantly revamped every decade or so?  There are laws protecting minors from all manner of adult activity including drinking, gambling and marriage licenses. Yet, child sexualization is hard for some people to recognize and it is controversial.

Here’s a working definition of child sexualization: 1) Displaying or exposing a child in an age-inappropriate manner or in sexual situations. 2) Using a child for the titilation or glorification of an adult.

What would you add or change?

John Ramsey: Still Oblivious After All These Years

JonBenet Ramsey“It’s very bizarre,” he says outright. “And, it certainly– Patsy and JonBenet didn’t approach it that way.  We– they just did it for fun.”

That’s a full quote of John Ramsey in a recent interview in which he says (finally?) that he regrets that his daughter JonBenet was put in child beauty pageants and comments on the program, Toddlers and Tiaras.

Under fire once again after breaking news that the grand jury in his daughter’s murder case had voted to indict him and his wife for their daughter’s murder, but Alex Hunter said no.

Asked about the current “Tiger Moms” who parade their daughters in programs like Todders and Tiaras, he says,  “Patsy and JonBenet didn’t “approach it that way.  We-they just did it for fun.”

In John Ramsey’s revealing comments, he appears to still think Patsy and JonBenet chose it.  The fact that he still thinks this was JonBenet’s choice is indicative of an absent and oblivious father.  A six-year-old child doesn’t choose to be paraded and sexualized in beauty pageants.  Their parents, most often their mothers, choose it. Ramsey initially eludes to his part in the matter and then says it was Patsy and JonBenet who did it “for fun.”

These aren’t “Tiger Moms,” they are “Princess by Proxy” moms.
Not that there isn’t an overlap, but the former primarily pushes the child toward excellence in a “type A” sort of fashion.  The latter lives through the child and is oblivious to the child’s separate identity -thus, sexualizing them in highly inappropriate ways.  The Huffingont Post just reported on a pageant mother who has been tanning her toddler since she was a baby.

Dads are all too often oblivious to this sort mother-daughter dynamic  and parental pathology. Ramsey’s response is  illustrative of this. I had a 60’s Dad much like him who thought his only job was to put food on the table.  He would have said something quite similar.

Former beauty queens don’t live through their children, put them in pageants, dye their hair, put them on diets, etc. etc.  “for fun.”  There is just a bit more to it than that.  That John Ramsey either believes this or would like us to believe he does is as he puts it, “disturbing.”

Diets and Display: What’s the Connection?

Fatlash! Food Police and the Fear of Thin by Karen KatalineChild beauty pageants and issues about food and weight seem to go together like pizza and beer, peanut butter and jelly, lettuce and tomato.  –But why?  In the case of “Honey Boo Boo,” we see a child who is a bit chubby, with a food-obsessed family and an overweight mother. I was a bit chubby too, but had a thin-obsessed mother who wanted desperately for me to be as thin as she had been when she was put on the stage by her mother.In both cases however, weight and diets figure prominently and usually do in families who put their children on display. What’s the connection?  In most people’s lives, food is about much more than sustenence.  It’s about control, it’s about nurturing, and it’s about boundaries.  When food is the instrument that expresses a dysfunctional family, it also becomes the tool that expresses separation from that dysfunction.Whether Honey decides to assert her independence by becoming diet-conscious, or whether she becomes just as heavy as her mother, these issues have been thrust upon her by a family that is feeding off her appearance and cuteness. Can Honey ever truly be an independent person as she grows older?  Time will tell. In the meantime, pass the pork rinds, but for heaven’s sake, not too many.

Children on the Stage: A Rare Example of Doing it Right

www.KarenKataline.comIn the current and bizarre climate of  “Dance Moms,”  pageant mothers gone wild, “Princess by Proxy,” and horrifyingly sexualized children, it’s hard to imagine how things could get much worse.  But just when you think you’ve seen it all, there’s a story about a mother who puts her four-year-old in butt padding and fake boobs.

In such confusing times, should parents simply avoid giving their kids dancing lessons or putting them on the stage until they turn twenty-one?   Should they forbid their grade schooler to take gymnastics or acting lessons for fear they’ll be cast as Marilyn Monroe at the age of seven?  Of course not.  But with the worst examples currently serving as the most publicized norm,  how can parents recognize and set the proper boundaries and responsibly protect their children?

I found a welcome, real-life example recently, at a dance recital I happened to attend by the Studio “M” Dancers.   This was an extensive recital at an outdoor festival in Northern Colorado which featured dancers of all ages, some as young as three and four.  It was particularly refreshing to see children enjoying themselves, dancing to modern but not suggestive music, not dressed up to look like Las Vegas show girls or worse, prostitutes, and wearing little if any makeup.  Their costumes were charming and even flashy but not age-inappropriate. It’s possible for children to dance and entertain without being thrust into premature sexuality, but to do that, there must be an adult in charge who understands boundaries and is committed to setting them.

I spoke to the director of Studio “M” Dance, who said she fights this cultural pressure all the time.  I wasn’t surprised. She has even lost a student or two, who may have been more influenced by Jennifer Lopez or Lady Gaga than by…who?  Is there a healthy example in the current culture for a young girl today?  To find it, you may just have to go to a small town and attend a homegrown dance recital.  Cheer for them and support them.  Thank you Studio “M” for doing it “right.”

Memo to Dara-Lynn Weiss: Living Through Your Daughter Isn’t “Brave”

FATLASH! Food Police & the Fear of ThinI’ve never met Dara-Lynn Weiss but a few things about her are certainly familiar to me.   Weiss is the “diet mom” who wrote a piece for Vogue about putting her seven-year-old daughter on a diet.  The piece was reviled and roundly criticized.  What happened after that?  She got a book deal.

Ms. Weiss’ unapologetic book, ” The Heavy,” came out last week. In some corners, some of the old criticism has turned to praise.  Some have even called her “brave” to dare put her daughter on a diet.

What has happened that a growing number of people accept the idea of food police in their everyday lives and the lives of others?  I could write a book.  Oh, wait a minute…

There’s so much to say here but just to begin: Mothers don’t have to put their daughters in beauty pageants to suffer from “Princess by Proxy” syndrome.  Weiss’ book, the tour and the praise is clearly all about Weiss herself.  But who speaks for the children?  Just as with extreme pageant moms, we may have to wait a few more decades to find out.  In the meantime, Weiss is being rewarded with exactly the kind of national recognition that “Honey Boo Boo”‘s mother Mama June is enjoying.  Who would have thunk such different moms had so much in common?

No matter how much a child may say that it doesn’t bother her to be scrutinized and displayed,  she cannot answer the question for the same reason that it is inappropriate to thrust her into adulthood in the first place.

By the time these kids can speak out, it’ll be much too late. Finding one’s way to a healthy adulthood is challenging enough.  Such unnecessary stumbling blocks of body and boundary violation must not become an accepted part of the popular culture. If they do, who will speak out for children then?

Daniel Callahan: The Fred Phelps of Fat

FATLASH! Food Police & the Fear of Thin

Looking Different

I’ve had a  lot to say lately about Daniel Callahan, the researcher who proposed a policy of shaming fat people so we can “embark on a new era of zero tolerance for body fat.”

We all know “Closet Callahans.” So obsessed are they with their own and everyone else’s weight that every societal ill, every physical ailment is due to the perilous problem of too much poundage. Callahan has done us a great service by being “bold” enough to tell us what he really thinks:  Shaming fat people is “for their own good.”  (FYOG’s”  see:  FATLASH! Afterword for more on this.)

Here’s a guy who has proclaimed himself the final arbiter of what is physically and socially acceptable and he means to shame and berate everyone else  into complying with it.  Even more dangerous, he wants others to feel good about berating people as well. Where have we seen such insanity?

Well, Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church comes to mind.  I refuse to promote it by supplying the link, but you can certainly look it up.  Phelps you’ll remember, is the loon who protests at military funerals, proclaiming that “God Hates Fags.”  Phelps has the right not to like gay people just as Callahan has the right not to like fat people.  But isn’t it fascinating how these single-issue guys see everything through the same used piece of gauze?

What we have the right to do is roundly repudiate such proposals and pronouncements not as  “edgy and socially motivated public policy” but as boldfaced attempts to bully others who are different whether by choice or not,  into submission.

FYOGs out in Full Force

From Mayor Bloomberg’s large-sized soda ban and a myriad of other culinary commandments, to burgeoning student protests about their school lunch fare, there appears to be a food fight brewing that could rival John Belushi in National Lampoon’s Animal House.

The ever-changing controversy about what is and is not healthy for us to consume is not unusual.  What is disturbing here, is that some people whom I refer to as FYOGs (For Your Own Gooders, pronounced Fahye-Ogs) have appointed themselves lord and master over the rest of us and over our appetites.

Who gave them this jurisdiction some of us would like to know?  Was it written in the Constitution?  “Thou shalt have the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and control over what other people eat ?”  Or was it when the hysteria over the “obesity epidemic” caused some to take leave of their senses and tolerate intrusion into their lives and stomachs, the likes of which we’ve never seen?

Either way, kids seem to understand the fundamental boundary that has been crossed when FYOGs mess with their munchees.  In Wisconsin, students staged a strike out of hunger and frustration, as seen in JS Online. Wallace County High School in Sharon Springs, Kansas, created a YouTube video, “We Are Hungry,”  pointing out the absurdity of grossly applied calorie guidelines.  In New Bedford, Massachusetts there’s a new appetite and a black market for chocolate syrup.

This troubling trend puts some very serious issues on the menu. If anyone, whether fat or thin, young or old, is willing to tolerate dictums from self-appointed food dictators, will they ever learn to be in command of their own appetites?  And even if they don’t make the choices we might make, are we willing to cross the line that may well lead to a nationwide FATLASH?

Bloomberg’s Unabated ‘Ban Binge’ Shows Gluttony for Power

Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg has attempted to ban salt, trans fats, big gulps, baby formula, escalators, colorful cigarette packages and Nanny Bloombergstyrofoam cups. That’s not a complete list.  Now,  he plans to ban electronic cigarettes, according to newly drafted tobacco bills leaked by the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association (CASAA). Rather than asking what’s wrong with legal substances and those who use them, it’s well past time that we ask what’s wrong with Mayor Bloomberg.

We laugh and sometimes mock such comedic arrogance, but this orgy of bans has serious and damaging consequences. To be robbed of the right to make one’s own choices and therefore, one’s own mistakes, keeps people in a perpetual child-like state. The greatest risk to our health right now is the loss of the whole notion of freedom and responsibility.

What is and is not healthy for us has never been without controversy and those opinions continue to change and evolve.  Artibrarily banning products and services and claiming that doing so will make everyone healthier, thinner or safer often has the opposite effect.  The notion that anyone can change another person’s personal habits through force or coercion is preposterous.  That anyone would seriously try, is what is particularly disturbing.  In the area of food and weight concerns, it adds to the shame and the sense of powerlessness, which can create or exacerbate weight problems and eating disorders in the first place.  For example, a ban on “junk food” in school lunches in California last year produced a black market in chocolate syrup.  Chocolate milk has never been so popular.

What’s more, to blame a substance for individual behavior is not only odd but a little silly. We come into contact with dangerous things every day, from sharp knives, to automobiles, to common household bleach. Almost anything can be dangerous if it is used irresponsibly. Not long ago, it was reported that a man assaulted another man in a grocery store with a frozen flounder.  Bad behavior can’t be eradicated by banning the flounder.
The public should stop asking what’s wrong with themselves, their bodies and their lives and start asking what’s wrong with bureaucrats and politicians like Mayor Bloomberg.  Despite rhetoric to the contrary, they show a blatant intolerance for the choices, opinions and even the appearance of others  if it differs from their own.  A perplexing kind of grandiosity allows  them to feel entitled to impose their personal preferences on everyone else with the use and power of law—laws that were expressly written to protect Americans from just such hubris.
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