Extra Credit: Conversation about books, movies, and beauty industry buzz.
Okay, I just read High Glitz, the new book about child beauty pageants by photographer Susan Anderson that has everyone (Salon, Village Voice, Japanese Designers Project) in bit of a lather right now. Of course, we’re used to demonizing pageant moms at this point (thank you, reality television) so this book, in some ways, is part of the to-be-expected backlash to the backlash, defending the glitter and spray-on tans as every little girl’s right.
Says Simon Doonan in his preface:
If only someone in our house were to have figured out that all I ever wanted was to parade about — like a Madame Alexander doll come to life — in front of a cheering crowd, bathed in adoration and soft pink light. […] But seriously, folks, are child pageants any more pernicious and manipulative than Little League and cheerleading? The knee-jerk antipathy towards this all-American ritual is starting to bore me.
Anderson shot all of the portraits in the book just before or after each contestant’s moment in the spotlight. “They’ve just done their performance, or are waiting to go onstage. It’s this very charged environment,” she tells Salon. And as you go through the book, those emotions — excitement, sadness, frustration, hope — peek around the false eyelashes and flippers (fake teeth that are applied over a contestant’s baby ones) in a subtle, haunting way that Toddlers and Tiaras and the like never bother to capture.
So when I reach page 64, and see two-year-old Savanha* with her intense, unsmiling stare and French acrylic nails, one of which has broken off to reveal her little baby fingernail underneath — well, my heart breaks a little.
I’m not going to deny that dress-up and little girls often go hand in hand. My parents had to instigate “Pants Wednesdays” when I was little, to get me to wear anything other than party dresses and I begged my mom for a perm at age 7 in the hopes that it would give me the very cascading ringlets that most of these girls are sporting. (It did not.) But there was a freedom to the way my sister and I dressed ourselves in layers of tulle and trailing scarves and paraded off to kindergarten convinced we were the most glamorous creatures on Earth. Sure, we took our fashion cues from Barbie and Disney movies, but we were playing, like kids do, figuring out how to make these looks our own. And without a panel of judges scoring us on factors like “Facial Beauty” and “Over-all Package.”
I guess it’s the rigidity of pageant beauty that’s most disturbing. Those plastic smiles and frozen hairstyles — the Madame Alexander dolls haven’t come to life.
They’ve just been made life-size.
*I couldn’t find Savanha’s photo to post here, but she’s #7 in Salon’s slideshow.
[All photos via powerHouse Books]