Hey beau­ti­ful

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - NEWS -

I went through a phase of men­tally kick­ing my­self whenever I told my daugh­ter she was beau­ti­ful.

Par­ent­ing rules change all the time and right now you’re sup­posed to tell girls that they’re strong, funny, smart, tough… any­thing but pretty. Be­cause you don’t want to re­in­force the no­tion that looks are para­mount; that beauty will earn them love and give them worth. It makes sense but, like many the­o­ries, it works best in a book. Be­cause kids don’t live in the fil­tered, cush­ioned worlds that we cre­ate for them. They live in the real, bru­tal world. They have eyes in their heads and bul­lies in their play­grounds. They know that their ap­pear­ance af­fects their place in the peck­ing or­der. We can’t shield them from that.

And then there’s the fact that they are beau­ti­ful – kids – all of them. They have soft skin and lit­tle but­ton noses. Of course, kids don’t see this in each other. At school your ex­quis­ite child is prob­a­bly get­ting called four-eyes or freak face or some­thing. When they come home, I say they need af­fir­ma­tions. I mean, if they can’t be a knock-out in the eyes of the most bi­ased per­son on the planet, what chance have they got?

And yet... there’s an in­stinc­tive re­coil­ing on the part of many par­ents, in­clud­ing my­self, when it comes to chil­dren’s pageants or mod­el­ling – any­thing that puts their ap­pear­ance to the test, opens it up to com­par­i­son and po­ten­tially mon­e­tises it.

But then, many kids love be­ing a part of that stuff – they love dress­ing up, show­ing off, the prospect of fame. It’s fun and maybe there’s no harm in it?

“I was quite torn about my feel­ings,” says jour­nal­ist Eleanor Black, who tracked the lead-up to last month’s New Zealand Su­per Kids and Teens Model Com­pe­ti­tion. “If it’s fun for kids, then OK, but do they un­der­stand what they’re do­ing, re­ally? And are they just try­ing to please their par­ents?”

I ask Eleanor about the crit­i­cism of­ten lev­elled at th­ese things: that the chil­dren are sex­u­alised. She pauses. “One kid crunked [a pelvic thrust­ing dance move] and wore a crop top in every seg­ment,” she ad­mits. “That was a lit­tle un­com­fort­able, but the whole thing wasn’t sexy. It was cheese­ball and weird but it wasn’t up­set­ting.

“The par­ents that I spoke to were good par­ents,” says Eleanor. “They didn’t have ques­tion­able mo­tives.”

But as a par­ent, would she in­volve her own kids in this kind of thing? “No,” she says. “I wouldn’t want that kind of at­ten­tion for my chil­dren.”

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