Independent Group Motion: Condemning the Holding of Child Beauty Pageants in Ireland

Wednesday, 5 March 2014
Link to full debate
I move:

“That Seanad Éireann –
-recognises that childhood, as a time-specific and unique period in a person’s development, is a distinct space from adulthood;
-appreciates the difficulties and pressures faced by children and parents as the distinct space between childhood and adulthood becomes increasingly blurred through media, advertising and popular culture;
-believes that every effort must be made to protect children and childhood against sexualisation and undue gender stereotyping;
-echoes the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs endorsement of Responsible Retailing: Retail Ireland Childrenswear Guidelines (June 2012) and her statement that ‘the preparation of these guidelines is yet another example of how working together we can, as a State and society, help to foster a culture where childhood is preserved and children are protected’;
-commends An Coimisiun Le Rinci Gaelacha, The Irish Dancing Commission, for introducing additional rules prohibiting the use of make-up including false eyelashes, tinted moisturiser, or any artificial tanning products for the face for all dancers aged 10 years and under. (Effective 1 March 2014.);
-believes that the participation, for financial gain, in a competition by minors, judged on attractiveness and physical attributes rather than discernible skill is contrary to the protection of children and preservation of childhood and therefore condemns child beauty pageants in Ireland;
-further holds that child beauty pageants run contrary to the values set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child;
-cognisant of the current economic climate, greatly appreciates the significant decision by each of the hotels approached by Universal Royalty back in September 2013 to decline hosting a child beauty pageant on their premises and welcomes the support of the Irish Hotels Federation in opposing child beauty pageants in Ireland;
-calls on all stakeholders to be resolute in opposing child beauty pageants in Ireland;
-calls on all Senators to formally endorse the appeal made by Senator Jillian van Turnhout in Seanad Éireann on 19 September 2013 to send a clear message that child beauty pageants have no place in Ireland; and
-seeks political consensus in its opposition to child beauty pageants across both Houses of the Oireachtas and invites Dáil Éireann to pass a similar Motion.”.

I welcome the Minister to the House and I thank her in advance for her support. I also thank my Independent Group colleagues, Senators Fiach MacConghail, Mary Ann O’Brien, Marie-Louise O’Donnell and Katherine Zappone for allowing our time to be used for this debate. In particular, I thank Senator O’Donnell who will be seconding the motion. I thank each and every Senator for their unanimous support of the motion. It is wonderful, heartening and exciting to see Seanad Éireann united across political divides and ideological differences and to hear Members speak out for children and protecting the sanctity of childhood.

I have made my opposition to the holding of child beauty pageants in Ireland well known since the ultimately futile efforts by Universal Royalty to secure a hotel venue for a child pageant in September 2013. The campaign started from the floor of this House. Regrettably, albeit on a much smaller than anticipated scale, the event did go ahead in a beer garden in Castleblayney, County Monaghan, and Universal Royalty pageant organiser, Annette Hill, has reportedly confirmed her intention to host at least one more child beauty pageant in Ireland in the near future. This is why, with the support of my group, I have tabled the motion condemning the holding of child beauty pageants in Ireland.

We are old enough for long enough. I firmly believe that childhood is a time-specific and unique period in a person’s development and that participation, for financial gain by others, in a competition by minors who are judged on attractiveness and physical attributes rather than any sort of discernible skill is seriously problematic and contrary to protecting childhood. I am not alone in the strength of my conviction in opposing child beauty pageants taking place here. I have already referred to the support from the House. In particular, I commend the transition year students in Mount Mercy College in Cork. They developed a transition year project, “Don’t Let the Wrecking Ball Wreck You”, a clever reference to Miley Cyrus’s hyper-sexual music video and the negative impact of an increasingly sexualised pop culture on our young people. As part of the project they launched a petition on to help stop child beauty pageants being held in Cork. The students contacted me in the early stages of the project development and I was most impressed by their initiative, commitment and drive.

The Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, ISPCC, has also spoken out against child beauty pageants and communicated publically the harm it believes such pageants can inflict on the self-esteem and self-image of children. Children at Risk in Ireland, CARI, has also come out in support of the cause and I agree fully with them.

Negative body image, especially but not exclusively affecting women, starts early. I presume it starts as early as children and teens become cognisant of the relentless images of perfection we are all bombarded with through the media, advertising and popular culture and it can be very damaging. Negative body image can cripple people’s confidence and prevent them from participating in sports and other activities with health benefits. There are numerous health risks associated with crash and fad diets and, at the extreme end of the spectrum, negative body image is linked to self-harm, anorexia, bulimia, depression, and anxiety. It is becoming a major problem throughout the world, so much so that in 2009 the Australian Government set up a national advisory body on body image to recommend initiatives to improve the body image of Australians. In Israel, where the leading cause of death for those aged 15 to 24 years is anorexia, Photoshop laws have been introduced whereby any Photoshopped image must have a clear warning covering 7% of the surface area of the photo. The law there also requires that all models must have a body mass index of 18.5. In France, specialists involved in the research behind the parliamentary report, Against Hyper-Sexualisation: a New Fight for Equality, which is the report that prompted the French Senate to introduce a ban on child beauty pageants, concluded that precocious sexualisation affected mostly girls and caused psychological damage that is irreversible in 80% of cases.

I have had the displeasure of watching several televised child beauty pageants from the USA in the lead-up to this debate. I heard some frankly grotesque statements from so-called pageant moms. One said:
When I see Ronnie up on stage I can’t believe she is only two. She did her sassy walk and really shook it. She also did her blow kisses.

Her mother went on to translate for us that “blow kisses” means “Hey judges, come get it, baby.”

She is two. I need not elaborate on why this is inappropriate behaviour for a two year old child. It became clear to me that the best personality prize is in fact the default prize for the children who did not win in the real categories of beauty, casual wear and swim wear. If it is obvious to me then it is obvious to everyone involved in pageantry, including the children. The suggestion is that those with the best personalities are the losers. This is not acceptable and it does not bode well for the development of well-rounded, grounded and confident children with strong internal value systems.

I emphasised the point earlier about beauty pageants not involving any discernible skill in an effort to distinguish child beauty pageants from Irish dancing, which was frequently drawn as a comparison when I was discussing the pageants in September last year. I did not know much about the Irish dancing world. My gut said that it was an unfair comparison since Irish dancing is rather technical and timing, rhythm and footwork are of the utmost importance. It takes years of practice and discipline to master these skills. However, as I have acknowledged in the motion, I am aware of the difficulties and pressures faced by children and parents trying to navigate the world and make choices in the face of an increasingly sexualised and adult world. I tried to find out whether anything could be done to protect children from this in Irish dancing. I was pleased to learn from An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha, the Irish Dancing Commission, that as of 1 March 2014, it has introduced new rules prohibiting the use of make-up, including false eye lashes, tinted moisturiser or any artificial tanning products for the face, for all dancers under ten years of age. Ten years of age seemed a low threshold to me initially but a representative from the commission explained that it would be virtually impossible to impose the rule on dancers worldwide beyond the age of ten years because they are competing in world championships, but I will continue to urge them to go further.

Also, the new rule is in addition to an existing rule that has been in place for many years which prohibits make-up for any dancer in the first two dancing grades, the Bungrad and Tusgrad and their equivalent, up to and including the 12-year age group worldwide. Let me give another example. The British Dance Council has introduced a strict requirement that costumes must be of one colour and without glitz so we can see that there have been moves in this direction.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has rightly stressed the importance of a right to play for children. A few years ago the Children’s Rights Alliance consulted children before going to the UNCRC and the children put their right to play as the number one recommendation and priority to be raised with the UN committee.
It is clear to that this is an issue on which society is eager to stand united. Last September when I spoke against the pageants I received more telephone calls, emails and notes of support from the public than I have for any other issue that I have worked on. The issue is not about us being a nanny State; it is about collective social responsibility towards children.

Some people have asked whether I would consider bringing legislation but that would be a sledge hammer approach. The unanimous support that we got in the House is a strong call to action that we, as a society, have a responsibility. For me, tonight is a call to action not only to my colleagues here as I hope Dáil Éireann will pass a similar motion. It is a call to action for civil society organisations, parents, young people and society at large. We need to send a clear and unified message that there is no place in Ireland for child beauty pageants.

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