I never thought it was terribly sinister that I was in beauty pageants as a kid. The problem wasn’t so much the pageants themselves as the kind of parents who chose to put their children in them.
As a natural extrovert, I took to “show biz” rather well and received plenty of praise for my performances. But there was a darker side: The old men scratching their crotches while I performed in skimpy costumes. The latent and confusing fear of being looked at sexually, which continued even into adulthood. And the haunting sense that I had no face when it was not made up for the stage.
Though I was used to performing a lot as a child, I thought my mother was joking when she entered me in my first “Little Miss Pageant,” Me? In a beauty pageant? I knew I could never be the delicate and demure girl in the framed photograph that was ever-present in our house. The blonde five-year-old in the picture was in a perpetual and perfect splits pose and adorned in a feathery, sequinned costume. My mother, circa 1931.
Why did my Mother send me to dancing school if she didn’t want me to do the steps? I asked myself. We made our entrance. As the other girls began our dance, I began to shake my hips—only a little at first, but by the end, I was shaking with all my might.
“You brought the house down!” she raved. “They ate you up!” I was near tears.
“They weren’t laughing at you, Karen, they were laughing with you,” she said. “You stole the show!” I swallowed my tears and studied my mother’s face. I’d never seen her look so happy. I realized that I had done that. And I could do it again, too. All I had to do was keep on shaking.
I realised my mother exploited this for the show by directing me to shake my hips on purpose. It is also an example of how she sexualised me in ways I doubt the other mothers would ever have considered.
Despite the pain of my excess poundage, I achieved several unconscious secondary gains. My girth worked as protection. It was a FATLASH, if you will, against my mother’s dietary controls and demands for thinness, as I tried to own my appetite. My weight created a much-needed boundary between her “self” and mine. It also guaranteed that there would never be another beauty pageant.
Princess by Proxy was rarer when I experienced it in the 1960s. Today, the syndrome is on the brink of being accepted as part of popular culture. I’ve grown up to see a collective repeat of many of the mistakes my mother made. Toddlers and Tiaras and “Honey Boo Boo” it’s time to draw the line— with the power of education.