What’s acceptable fashion for a 3-year-old? What about a 6-year-old? Where do you draw the line? The topic is recurrently explored on TLC’s reality television series, Toddlers & Tiaras, which has been extremely controversial since its 2009 debut. It’s also causing fallout well beyond the realm of television, reaffirming the notion—for some—that any publicity is good publicity.
According to TLC, Toddlers & Tiaras “showcases the competitive world of child pageants, as three families have their children judged on beauty, personality and costumes.” The show revolves around the high tension lives of child beauty queens, and their families, as they navigate the pageant circuit and its multitudinous complexities, many of them still young enough to someday forget this phase of their lives.
Episodes, frequently named after pageants, boast such titles as “Beautiful Dolls,” “Viva Las Vegas” and “Tiny Miss USA.” These names speak for themselves, as the young girls are intended to simultaneously replicate, not only hyper-sexualized adult women, but also flawless playthings.
One former contestant on the show, 6-year-old Maddy Verst, now finds herself at the center of a controversy sparked by the series. In one, now infamous, televised pageant appearance, her mother, Lindsay Jackson, dressed the young girl as Dolly Parton, “complete with figure-enhancing padded bra and sculpting underwear,” reports the Huffington Post. Viewers and child experts everywhere were outraged, but perhaps no one more so than the girl’s father (allegedly).
Maddy’s father, Bill Verst, is now claiming the girl’s mother sexually exploited her by dressing her in the outfit and is trying to gain full custody of the child. For the foreseeable future, Jackson is prohibited from signing Maddy up for more pageants, while the case remains pending.
Jackson extrapolated from her daughter’s situation in a statement, saying this case could start a precedent in which girls were not able to reach their full potential, for instance, being prohibited from becoming “gold medal winners.”
“We wouldn’t have Miss America, we wouldn’t have Miss USA,” Jackson told Fox News.
One week after Maddy appeared as a racy Dolly Parton, another 3-year-old contestant appeared as prostitute Julia Roberts circa Pretty Woman.
Even beyond ascertaining what fashion is acceptable for young children, what should the repercussions be of violating these standards? When a parent has entire control over a child’s wardrobe, and “violates” that control, is this an ethical conundrum—a source of potential child endangerment—as Verst’s custody battle suggests, or simply a matter of questionable taste? Many defenders argue no harm could possibly come to the girl, but how can anyone determine what the longterm fallout might be for an easily scandalized child model?
The Toddlers & Tiaras debacle is reminiscent of the controversy that emerged last year when the French high fashion magazine Vogue featured a 10-year-old model in skimpy, cutaway clothing, sparking debate about fashion advertisement and the sexualization of young girls. Her poses were called “oddly adult” by many, reported ABC News, further complicating the shoot’s intent. As in the case of Maddy Verst, the controversy took a serious toll on the girl’s family.
ABC reported Veronika Loubry, fashion designer and mother to the 10-year-old high fashion model, swooped in to defend her daughter. Many would argue, when a child is young and naive, a parent’s job is to defend and not exploit. But are the two mutually exclusive? If anything, the Toddlers & Tiaras fallout reveals the line is certainly a blurred one.
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