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Dr. Gregory Jantz, Ph.D.

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Toddlers & Tiaras: A Cultural Car Wreck

Posted: 09/20/11 03:02 PM ET

I'm not a fan of gratuitous violence in films. I'm an adult; I understand why it's there. It's the therapist part of me that's the problem, having sat in my office and experienced horrific destruction through the lens -- not of a camera -- of other people's pain. I guess I've been exposed to savagery from the eyes of real people so often that it's hard for me to watch even when I know it's not real. Art has a way of imitating life, not only in beauty but also in brutality. I get enough of that in my day job; I'm just not a fan of watching it on my off time.

I've had a similar reaction this week to another sort of violence that's being projected across the public stage, but this time it's from a reality show and not a Hollywood movie. However in some ways, I felt the same as I do after watching a really violent, "blow-em-up, shoot-em-up, drop-em-dead" film, especially when I'm with a bunch of "normal" people. After it's over, they'll usually laugh and recount their favorite death scene, while I'm left silent and feeling slightly nauseous. I know it's the outrage-de-jour but I have to admit, this whole Toddlers & Tiaras controversy makes me queasy too.

I picked up the latest People magazine, with the image of that made-up, dolled-up, primped-up (some might argue pimped-up) five-year-old on the cover. The question in large bold print on the front asked "Gone Too Far?" After uttering an emphatic "Yes!" while I stood in line at the check-out with my skim milk and paper towels, part of me was glad the question was at least being asked. Then that other part, the queasy part, took over because my $4.99 plus-tax purchase of that magazine signaled to someone, somewhere, this sort of cover produces results. That someone would know I bought the magazine but wouldn't know why.

In my 25+ years as a therapist I've done a large amount of work with eating disorders, which is to say I've sat and listened to skeletal anorexics argue they were fat and therefore unworthy of love. I've argued with bulimics, teeth corroded into nubs by vomiting up stomach acid, who swore they couldn't stop because bingeing and purging was the only way to fill up the cavernous hole in their soul and still fit into their jeans. I've seen the violence an eating disorder can do to the human body. I've witnessed the destruction it can do to the human spirit. As I looked at that magazine cover I saw the same thing. I couldn't help but feel like a spectator on the road, who comes up alongside the aftermath of a car wreck; it was terrible to see that 5-year-old, so "perfectly" pretty, but I couldn't turn my eyes away.

This "oh it's so terrible I can't not look" reaction is all over the Internet. People are aghast at this show and these pint-sized beauty pageants. I've seen commentaries on boycotting the advertisers to banning the show's production to legislating against the practice altogether. I've seen the mothers blamed, the region of the country blamed (there are more pageants per capita in the south) and society as a whole blamed. I've seen it called a form of child abuse and can empathize in a way with each of these positions. There may be a collective condemnation of this show at the moment but it's been on since 2009; this is its third season.

I don't know what's going to happen to Toddler & Tiaras. Some of that will depend on how long it takes for the next car wreck of a reality show to appear and shove it aside. And while I don't know what's going to happen to this show, I have a pretty good idea of what's going to happen to some of those little girls. They're going to wind up in my practice or in someone else's, angry and hurt and bewildered. They're going to grow up and stop being cute and precocious and adorable and start being obsessed and demanding and abandoned.

So, I'm going to hang on to this magazine. I just might need to read it again in six to eight years.

 
 
 

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