Spray tans, heavy makeup, false eyelashes, hair pieces, choreographed dance routines, fake teeth, temper tantrums and entangled mother/child relationships characterize TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras, an addictive reality show about child beauty pageants.
The show goes deep into the worst of what I affectionately call “My America,” revealing the hopes and dreams of middle-class moms who pour money, time, creative energy, and emotion into the long shot of having their child win the coveted pageant title of “Grand Supreme.”
Each episode follows three children as they prepare to compete with each other at a particular pageant. Though the children and their families differ, trends emerge. There seem to be three strains of pageant children:
1) brainwashed mamma’s girls who take to the pageants as a way to please their mothers;
2) savage little beasts, who, spoiled out of their minds, terrorize and dominate their parents until they step out onto the stage to masquerade as precious darlings; and
3) the shy children, who struggle against their own sweet and private natures in a doomed effort to please their mothers.
And in almost every episode you hear the pageant moms repeat the same tropes.
“We swore we would never get fake teeth, spray tans and hair pieces and here we are doin’ it.”
“As soon as [child’s name] says she doesn’t want to do pageants anymore, we’re done with it.” [This always followed by a shot of said child wailing in protest as the mother forces her into pageant attire].
And the pageant dads always say (as if they have a say):
“I don’t really like seeing [child’s name] wearing so much makeup.”
The pageants are generally held in a hotel conference or ballroom, with no spectators except the families of participating children. The single $1,000 cash prize is always talked up by the pageant director, but what isn’t mentioned is the exorbitant fees each family pays to enter their child in the pageant. The $1,000 prize awarded the Grand Supreme would often not even cover the cost of one pageant dress, much less hotel, travel and pageant fees. It’s easy to wince at the sight of middle class families shelling out thousands of dollars for their 6 year-old’s fake tan, pageant dresses, hair pieces, fake teeth and coaching lessons.
Though the mothers often mention the cost of the pageant, they seem to think it worth the chance to have their own longings fulfilled. For the showy, slender, made-up moms, it’s a chance to perhaps relive their own days in some long lost spotlight. For the obese moms it’s a chance to live vicariously through their 4 year old’s strutting in a bikini. For all the mothers, it’s an opportunity to have their children publicly recognized as exceptional.
What is never mentioned is the potential damage done to little girls who are taught early that their own natural beauty must be supplanted by eight pounds of makeup and fake everything, who are expected to “shake it” on-stage in midriff baring tops and swimsuits, who see their mothers’ happiness and approval staked on their own ability to perform onstage.
The show is funny, disturbing and often painful; and the more dysfunctional the dynamic of the featured pageant families, the more fascinating the episode.
Warning: This show is the television equivalent of junk food. Consuming more than one episode of Toddler and Tiaras will make you feel worse than eating a half pound bag of candy corn.
Toddlers and Tiaras is available to watch instantly on Netflix.