young girl applying make up
Sarah Biren
Sarah Biren
March 24, 2024 ·  5 min read

The sad reality of children’s beauty pageants

Children’s beauty pageants began in the 1960s, imitating the adult Miss America pageant. They include categories like a talent showcase and fashion categories. However, the television series Toddlers and Tiaras put these kinds of competitions into the spotlight. It’s also been at the center of many controversies. The show displayed a four-year-old’s performance impersonating Dolly Parton with padded fake breasts and bottom, another little girl dressed like Julia Robert’s prostitute character from Pretty Woman, and another girl pretending to smoke while garbed like the “bad girl” version of Sandy from Grease. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. [1]

“Princess By Proxy” Pageant Moms

Many experts criticize the sexualization of young girls in these pageants, namely by dressing them as adult women in makeup and revealing outfits in order to judge their appearances. Additionally, many little participants are under a lot of pressure from the competition, especially from their own families. This could potentially affect their mental health later on in life.

In fact, the pageant dynamics are more about the parents than the child involved, according to a study by Martina M. Cartwright, a registered dietitian and adjunct professor who works in that institution’s department of nutritional sciences. Cartwright attended two filmings of Toddlers and Tiaras and observed the parents engaging when she called “princess by proxy” behavior. She dubs this “achievement by proxy distortion,” which means parents become obsessed with the opportunities the pageants bring. The risks to the child are considered secondary or not considered at all. She adds that child pageants are a billion-dollar industry. “I think if the public understands why the parents are doing that then they won’t pay as much attention to these pageants,” Cartwright said.

Read: “I Don’t Own My Child’s Body”: This Post about Kids and Consent Just Sparked a Really Important Debate

Pageant Mom Gives Her Daughter Botox

One noteworthy horror story is Kerry Campell who gave her eight-year-old daughter Botox to “make her look better” for her child beauty competitions in 2011. “A lot of the moms there are giving their kids Botox, I’m not the only one who does it,” said Campbell.

Her daughter, Britney, described Botox as painful. “It hurts. I just don’t think wrinkles are nice on little girls.” She added that the treatment made her appear “way better, beautiful, pretty – all those nice words.”

8-year-old Britney Campbell
8-year-old Britney Campbell. Image via BBC

According to Campbell, her daughter complained about her wrinkles. So Botox was one way for Britney to stand out. “It’s a tough world in the pageant and the kids are harsh. Being confident is something she has to be with them. When she does her smile she has lines and a few times that we did it, it would lessen the lines. We don’t do so much to her that it makes a big difference anyway.”

It’s not illegal to inject a child with Botox since it is used to treat certain medical conditions but it was not approved for cosmetic purposes. However, the U.S. child welfare services investigated Campbell and removed Britney from her custody. Trent Rhorer, from the San Francisco Human Services Department, who investigated the case, stated that removing a child is the last resort. “I would trust a social worker’s judgment because the reports from the doctors we consulted with say there is a very serious risk to a kid subjected to Botox injections,” he said. [2]

Read: Dad Pays Final Child Support With 80,000 Pennies, Then Mom and Daughters Donate Coins to Domestic Abuse Victims

Sending Bad Messages

Many people criticized this mother and what she was teaching her daughter.

“It’s sending a terrible message that her worth and her success in life is measured by her face and her looks,” said Logan Levkoff, author of Third Base Ain’t What it Used to Be. “The mother/daughter relationship is so fraught and complicated to begin with. How does this girl grow up knowing that she’s going to constantly seek approval based on this one thing and these unattainable goals.” [3]

This critique could also apply to the common use of heavy makeup, elaborate and sensual costumes, wigs, flippers (dental retainers to fill in missing teeth), high heels, spray tans, and even dieting in child pageants. Overall, it teaches the young contestants that they are not beautiful as they are — a disturbing message for preteens and actual children.

Causing Mental Health and Body Issues

In fact, pageants have been known to damage the self-esteem of contestants who are pressured to look flawless. This puts them at risk for eating disorders, depression, and other mental issues. As Cartwright wrote, “Issues with self-identity after a child ‘retires’ from the pageant scene in her teens are not uncommon. Struggles with perfection, dieting, eating disorders, and body image can take their toll in adulthood.[4]

What’s worse is that the girls can’t say no. If a parent wants to enroll her daughter in a pageant, the child has little say in the matter. Often, kids want their parents’ approval and they pick up that participating pageants is how they could get it. But while Toddlers and Tiaras has many girls talking about why they love pageants (sometimes sounding very scripted), there are many instances of girls crying throughout the ordeal. [5]

Maybe it’s better to let kids be kids and decide as adults to enter pageants. However, not all young pageant contestants have bad experiences; in fact, many reflect fondly on their pageant days and talk about how it helped them overcome their shyness or the like. [6] But in many cases with negative outcomes, the pageant isn’t about them; it’s about their moms.

Keep Reading: People want to bring home economics classes back to schools to teach kids basic life skills


  1. “The Untold Truth Of Childhood Beauty Pageants.” Lisa Flowers. October 28, 2018
  2. “Eight-year-old Botox user taken into care in America.BBC. May 17, 2011
  3. “Botox Mom Who Injected Daughter, 8, Under Investigation.ABC News. Kelly Hagan, Sarah Kunun, and Sabina Ghebremedhin. May 13, 2011
  4. “Beauty pageants can lower girls’ self-esteem.Lancaster Online. Emily Regitz. January 12, 2020
  5. “5 reasons child pageants are bad for kids.The Week. January 11, 2015
  6. “I Was a Child Pageant Star: Six Adult Women Look Back.The Cut. Laura Goode. November 14, 2012