Text: Sharon Haywood, AnyBody contributor
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What Is The Learning Channel Really Teaching Us?
You don’t need to sneak behind the scenes of a fashion magazine photo shoot to catch a glimpse of packaged perfection. Instead, just tune in to Toddlers and Tiaras: a weekly U.S. reality show on The Learning Channel (TLC) that documents the world of children’s beauty pageants. Its cameras reveal that kids apparently need a lot of help being beautiful. False lashes and penciled brows magnify eyes. Hairpieces add body and volume. Spray-on tans bronze lighter skin tones. French-manicured fingernails shine impeccably. Short ruffled skirts bare silky shaven legs. And ‘flippers’—retainer-like contraptions that give the appearance of a perfectly veneered Hollywood smile—camouflage unsightly gaps caused by lost baby teeth.
An estimated 250,000 babies, toddlers, and children participate each year in beauty pageants across the United States, never failing to generate controversy. It’s of no surprise. Contestants, some not even out of diapers, compete for the crown of The Prettiest Princess by sashaying for judges in formal attire and shimmying down the runway in the latest swimwear. When TLC’s latest series premiered in late January 2009 the online public reacted. Bloggers were disgusted. Mothers were appalled. Then, the strongest voices emerged and expressed their anger: two female high school students from the city of St. Catharines in Canada created a group on the networking site Facebook aimed at taking Toddlers and Tiaras off the air.
These students, Karrin Huynh and Lesley Cornelius, have spoken out against the exploitation and sexualization of these children. They have also drawn attention to the negative messages about body image and self-esteem the show sends young viewers. Their group members, over 5000 Canadians and Americans and still growing, continue to support the proposed ban via emails to Discovery, the show’s parent network. For the moment, shutting it down doesn’t seem forthcoming; however, somebody at the network appears to be listening. The Toddlers and Tiara’s website had previously given viewers the opportunity to vote on the appearance of child contestants, using a scale of one through ten. This feature, as well as before-and-after shots of participants, has thankfully been removed.
If TLC is truly interested in educating the viewing audience, the show’s producers should take a closer look at young women like Huynh and Cornelius. By putting a spotlight on the newest generation of role models and activists, TLC could really teach us something of value.