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The Evolution of American-Style Child Beauty Pageants

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The Australian press and public have reacted strongly to plans to hold an "American-style" child beauty pageant in Australia this summer. Since I wrote a summary and a response to the "Australians Against Child Beauty Pageants" situation, the media attention has increased. Last weekend numerous articles appeared about this issue in Australia's newspapers. Now some in Ireland have raised concerns about having an "American-style" Miss Princess Ireland pageant.

What are the historical roots of these "American-style" child beauty pageants? Having studied these events for over a decade, first as an undergraduate and now as a professional sociologist, I can offer some insights. Somewhat ironically, the first event that would evolve into an "American style" child beauty pageant actually started in a Commonwealth country.

A British art critic and historian named John Ruskin got the idea to hold a springtime festival for young girls, honoring their girlish innocence (Ruskin was actually rumored to be a pedophile...). Ruskin called his events May Queen festivals, since one girl would be selected queen, the "likeablest and loveablest" of all the maidens. The first of these festivals was held in England in 1881 and they quickly spread to North America, where they found a strong reception in the United States.

These competitive festivals soon developed into more systematic baby competitions -- baby parades and better baby contests -- which rewarded children for their looks and their costumes. The historic Asbury Park baby parade was arguably the most famous of the baby parades and contests that started at the turn of the twentieth century. It was the first baby parade ever held on the East Coast and in its heyday, in 1893, it drew 30,000 spectators. It was so popular that Thomas Edison made one of his first movies of the event, on September 12, 1904.

The fame of the Asbury Park Baby Parade set off a string of imitators in Hoboken, Jersey City, Newark, Long Island, and, of course, Coney Island. Coney Island started its famous baby parade in 1906. The Coney Island baby parade had 1200 participants in its first year, 600 of whom competed for the title of "most beautiful baby."

Coney Island's parade continued to thrive into the 1920s. The 1923 and 1928 events boasted around 400 entrants who won in a variety of get-ups. A three-year-old girl won in a harem costume, a two-year-old won as a "Vanity Girl," and a six-year-old won dressed like a "Show Girl." Clearly, children dressing up like sexual adults started long before the twenty-first century. And in spite of, or perhaps because of, these little nymphs, audiences turned out in large numbers. The New York Times reported that the 1929 Coney Island Baby Parade had 500,000 spectators.

Though they did not attract nearly as many spectators as the baby parades, healthy baby contests were the most organized of all of the turn-of-the-century baby events. Better baby contests, which started small in 1854 but did not reach their peak until 1913, were part of the progressive movement devoted to improving the health of infants (though they were also often linked to the "genetic purification" aims of the eugenics movement). For a time these contests, which placed a greater emphasis on physical perfection than on facial beauty, were more popular than the pretty baby contests that had been a mainstay at state fairs throughout the second half of the nineteenth century.

Annette Dorey, an expert on baby contests, explains that at each better baby event, babies were stripped naked and then judged by physicians according to a "meticulous point system like that used in cattle judging." Winners of the contests often received large cash awards or merchandise as prizes. Communities competed with one another to find the "most perfect" baby.

The last known better baby contest was held at the Iowa State Fair in 1952. This was around the same time that the baby parades and beautiful baby contests also ended. All of these public events that involved children stopped in the 1950s due to health concerns about the spread of polio in large groups of children. (Child beauty pageants as we know them started in the US in an organized way in the 1960s; but that is a story for another time.)

The baby parades and better baby contests had their share of other problems. The New York Times headline about the 1936 Coney Island baby parade speaks for itself: "Baby Awards End Joy." Irate and tired mothers threw a fit when the winners were announced that year, hours after the parade ended, saying that the competition was tainted and disorganized. Other years, parents complained that the quality of the prizes the winners received were not what they should have been, and that judges knew the contestants they were judging.

It was also reported that at some better baby contests parents lied about their children's ages to help them win. Other parents took more drastic measures. They falsified residency documents so their child could compete in multiple state fairs, in the hopes of winning more (an early form of "state-hopping," a practice that happens in adult pageants when women vie for state titles, like in the Miss America and Miss USA systems).

In addition to insider complaints, outsiders attacked these events saying that they exploited children and treated them like objects. The chief of the preschool division of the Pennsylvania Board of Health condemned baby parades in 1932 as a "deplorable exploitation of childhood." These types of complaints will sound familiar if you follow contemporary child beauty pageants, and these are common refrains even in the United States. One different complaint voiced today is that many express dismay over the sexualization of girls in child beauty pageants -- though this could also have been a reasonable complaint about the May Day festivals.

In short, the existence of these events and concerns about them are nothing new. For these reasons I'm not sure efforts to stop them will succeed in Australia and in Ireland. Of course, America is known as being more competitive than other nations. Organized, tournament-like competitions are held for the seemingly mundane, the inane, and the arcane in the United States. We have competitive eating contests, bodybuilding competitions, spelling bees, video game tournaments, and the list goes on -- not to mention any competitive sporting event you can imagine, from soccer on inline skates to childhood games like dodgeball. And, of course, we have beauty pageants.

Whether childhood contests focused on children's appearances will stick in other parts of the world is a question. In the past few years a child beauty pageant circuit has developed in the UK, as reported by the BBC, though there have been few protests and it continues to grow. It will be interesting to see how many child beauty pageants are held in Australia, or Ireland, five years from now. In the meantime, I will be following the scheduled rally in Australia on May 24th with great interest.