Tag Archives: movies

toddlers, tiaras, and louisa may alcott

30 Aug

I need to start by saying that as a 25 year old woman, I’m still learning what beauty is. Some days I wonder why it’s so challenging to be comfortable in my own skin and to be content with the face God gave me. And some days I feel like I’m getting there, like it’s easier to remember what real beauty is and how little it depends on my face. As cliche a statement as “beauty comes from within” may be, I see evidence of that truth in the people I know and in what God says through scripture.

Somehow, I made it to the summer of 2011 without ever having seen an episode of TLC’s show Toddlers & Tiaras. As of a few weeks ago, I can no longer claim blissful ignorance. For those still living in that happy place, let me give you a bare bones explanation. The show, which debuted in January 2009 and is currently airing its fourth season, is a documentary-style view of child beauty pageants. Of particular fascination to viewers are the so-called “glitz” pageants, in which even the youngest babies are decked out in full makeup, wigs, false teeth, and glitter.

To the best of my knowledge, the episode I found myself sucked into watching was standard T&T fare; industry stars Eden Wood and MaKenzie Myers were squaring off at a glitz pageant. There were a few other child contestants featured, including one little girl whose mother seemed to regard every moment in front of the camera as an opportunity to extol her daughter’s beauty. Throughout the episode she spoke of her daughter’s physical superiority: “She’s just so beautiful,” she said. “Her face has a beauty that the other girls’ don’t.” Apologies for my paraphrase, but the sentiment was clear. I doubt that any observer would deny the little girl’s attractiveness, and in the context of the show it shouldn’t have surprised me. But I found the mother’s preoccupation with physical beauty disturbing. Part of it was the spray tan, caked-on make up, and hair extensions that went into showcasing her daughter’s beauty.

Toddlers & Tiaras stars Eden Wood (left, currently age 6 and retired from pageants to pursue a "music career") and MaKenzie Myers (age 5) in full "glitz" makeup, wigs, costumes... and airbrushing.

I came away from watching an episode and a half of Toddlers & Tiaras feeling inexpressibly grateful for the fact that my own childhood bore no resemblance to the experience of these little pageant winners. I was never in the running to win an Ultimate Grand Supreme title or a cash prize or a Princess Canopy Dream Bed as a little girl.

Physical beauty was not something my mother or father placed a lot of emphasis on, and it’s only in looking through the Toddlers & Tiaras lens that I can really appreciate that. Instead of practicing my walk for a creepy swimsuit competition, I was running through sprinklers in a one-piece from KMart, with mud between my toes and scabs on my knees. Instead of gluing plastic hair to my head, my parents just tried to make sure I used a comb occasionally and never fell asleep chewing gum.

In contrast, here is a posed picture of me around age 6. So homely. So blissfully unaware of plastic hair, eyelash extensions, swimsuit competitions, or fake teeth.

What kept echoing in my mind after seeing Eden and MaKenzie and the other girls prance around the stage in sequined dresses and workout clothes “inspired by the 1980s” was a scene from one of my favorite movies, the 1994 adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. The film features a stellar lineup that includes Winona Ryder, Gabriel Byrne, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes, and a young Christian Bale. Susan Sarandon anchors the cast as Margaret “Marmee” March, the mother of the four Little Women in question. In a scene adapted from the novel’s chapter Meg Goes to Vanity Fair, she listens to her eldest daughter’s confessions about the way she behaved at her first society party, eager to impress others with borrowed clothes and a coquettish manner. And then she gives the following advice:

“If you feel your value lies in being merely decorative, I fear that someday you might find yourself believing that’s all that you really are. Time erodes all such beauty, but what it cannot diminish is the wonderful workings of your mind: Your humor, your kindness, and your moral courage. These are the things I cherish so in you. I so wish I could give my girls a more just world. But I know you’ll make it a better place.”

As I said, this is an adaptation from the dialogue in Alcott’s novel, which was first published in 1868. The novel has Meg ask her mother whether she has “plans” for her daughters the way the gossips at the party speculated (ie, plans for them to marry wealthy men). Marmee responds,

“Yes, my dear, I do, a great many– all mothers do, but mine differ somewhat from Mrs. Moffat’s, I suspect. I want you to listen to my ‘plans.’ I want my daughters to be beautiful, accomplished, and good; to be admired, loved, and respected; to have a happy youth; to be well and wisely married; and to lead useful, pleasant lives. Your father and I trust and hope that our daughters, whether married or single, will be the pride and comfort of our lives.”

This scene is one of my favorites in the movie despite the changes, because it really gets at the spirit of Alcott’s novels about the March family. For all the adventures and misadventures that Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy experienced, they were rooted by the love and support of their parents. Contrary to the values of “society” people in their community, Marmee and Father March affirmed their daughters’ strength, intelligence, independence and unique gifts. They saw their children as much more than chattel and expected that their lives display more fruit than physical beauty.

A show like Toddlers & Tiaras couldn’t exist without viewer demand for it. Perhaps, like so many reality shows, people find themselves sucked in to a trainwreck of horror. I know I have a hard time turning off I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant, and “trainwreck of horror” just about sums that show up for me. But given the way that Western culture commodifies people and makes celebrities out of just about anyone, it’s especially disturbing to see children featured this way.

My heart goes out not only to the Edens and MaKenzies of this world, but to anyone fixated on what they see in the mirror. Our culture doesn’t provide us many opportunities to see that we are created to bear the image of God. I can only hope that with each passing day, I’ll learn to place less stock in my own outer beauty and be able to affirm the beauty of those around me– not what is “merely decorative,” but what time cannot erode.

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