Child Beauty Pageants. Poise or Posion?

Reader:  Hi Athol, I have some questions about raising daughters, and I’d like your perspective on a few cultural things:  the whole sexy + appealing vs modest + safe issues, HOW do you guide your girls?

I watched an episode of Our America with Lisa Ling last night on child beauty pageants and I was just wondering what you think about them. A few things that struck me:  even Lisa seemed to note that pretending beauty didn’t matter is unrealistic, and that perhaps life is like a pageant- we are all judged, beauty does matter.

I grew up in the South where there were a lot of pageants, and while my Yankee feminist mother NEVER would have allowed me to do pageants (she wouldn’t even let me be a cheerleader, and forced me to wear glasses until college because she said I looked like Gloria Steinem).

Something that has struck me about girls I’ve known who have done pageants is that they have a lot of poise.  Poise is not something I naturally have – I tend to be more intellectual and have my head in the clouds rather than in my body.  But in the times in my life where I have felt really pretty and I’ve been more aware of people looking at me, I naturally had a higher sense of poise.  Do you think beauty pageants are good for girls/teens/women?

And in a related topic- my husband and I are Christian and have been coming across a lot of messages about modesty recently.  I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that modesty is overrated, and I’ll teach my girls about being a lady, not about hiding themselves.

As a side note, I’m naturally very pretty, though I do have to watch my weight.  I’ve found being pretty to be a bit of a disadvantage in some ways- the prettier (thinner) I am, the more threatened I’ve felt.  When I lived in the south as a child some men even said disgusting things they would like to do to me while I was in front of my father!  The prettier I am, the less I can trust men. They will lie, cheat, and pretend to be someone completely different than they are if I’m TOO pretty.  I happen to have married a wonderful man who loves me for me and not for my looks and no matter what my weight is  (perhaps because I look a lot like his mom did when he was a kid, perhaps because he’s even more intellectual than I am, perhaps because both of his sisters and his ex are obese), so I don’t feel much pressure there, but I do notice that looks help a lot in my career.

One thing that I don’t know how to teach my daughters is how to be safe around men.  Teaching them to hide beauty with being a nerd, or by being a little bit fat, or with false religious modesty seems really stupid.  But I don’t have another safeguard (other than a blackbelt husband).  How are you teaching your daughters?

What age do you start discussing game?

Athol:  Jennifer and I actually watched some of that show last night, so I know exactly what you’re talking about. My feeling on the child beauty pageants is that they are simply ways for less attractive mothers to live vicariously through their daughters and to feel better about themselves. It’s certainly not an activity that the kids have any ability to win at, as all the skill in the competition is taking place on the level of the mom rather than the daughter. It’s more like a Pokemon battle than anything else.

Jessica uses Charm!

It’s effective!

Bobby-Jo uses $3000 Dress!

It’s super-effective!

Jessica uses Smile!

Jessica missed!

Bobby-Jo uses Pornstar Makeup!

It’s super-effective!

Jessica is knocked out!

I don’t have a problem with teenage beauty pageants in that beauty is simply a fact of life and if girls want to enter a pageant they can. Appearances matter and it certainly doesn’t hurt to get good at your appearance if you’re female. Though my caution would be that if you’re starting pageants when you’re 15-years-old, you may well experience good early success, but eventually you’re going to run into girls that have already been doing pageants since they were five-years-old and they will defeat you easily.

The one downside of pageants is that they focus solely on being eye candy. So it’s all female Alpha and nothing on the Beta. I mean it’s not like you can pick a wife out of a beauty pagent line up because while looking good in a swimsuit and and playing the flute is great and appealing… well you can only bang a hot chick for about 30 minutes a day and that leaves 23.5 hours to fill up with her Beta skills. If I was devising a competition to pick a wife out of, there’d be a few more segments in the pageant. Say a cooking segment, running a mile, chess, shop for an outfit with $100, archery, orienteering, dancing, sheep shearing and the most popular… the demolition derby.

Come on admit it, you’d watch a show like that.


So poise… yeah it’s probably nothing more than the inner game of knowing you look good right now. That men are going to come to you and seek you out. That’s about it. So look good and they will come.

Modesty and looking good is a real balancing act. The basic rule is to never show more than 40% of your body as bare skin. I.e. you can show off your boobs, midriff or legs, but not more than one of those areas at a time. In terms of makeup, I think as natural looking as possible is the best.

If you’re “too pretty”, you do run into the effect of being too hot for regular nice guys to think you’re within reach, and every other male with a libido wanting a little piece of you. This is why hot girls are notorious for “Bitch Shields” and snubbing guys fairly firmly. Though I agree with Mystery that these are in fact not Bitch Shields, but Protection Shields. If you walk down the street and ten different men check you out and look like they would make a move if you showed any hint of interest in them, you can’t let your shields down and show any interest to anyone if you want to finish your day.

In terms of our own girls… well the most fun eldest has dressing up is doing special effects bloody wounds for her zombie costume for the Con. They are in fact somewhat disturbing to look at lol. Youngest is a tiny thing and to her mother’s disgust is a Size 0. Finding her shorts is a challenge and when I found a bunch of Size 0 shorts in Gilly Hicks I excitedly announced I had found some figuring I was gaining points, but youngest declined interest because, “I don’t like short shorts.”  So I’m pretty much failing on the slutting them up front, for which I assign blame to their modestly dressed mother. :-)  (Jennifer: Okay, all you ladies who are getting worked up about “slutting them up”…breathe, it’s a joke!)

You have always been teaching your kids about sex and relationships from the day they were born. Jennifer and I have a happy and obviously vibrant sex life… though that’s obviously something we do behind closed doors. Every day we’re modeling a happy married life for them. The girls are aware of the books and the blog, though neither claim to have read it, though if they have it’s not a problem to me. They certainly get a good grounding in basic sexuality at school, so they aren’t naive by any means. Otherwise it’s a case of paying attention to your kids a looking for the teachable moments.

In terms of teaching Game itself, eventually I will be getting to a “MMSL for teens” type book as it’s one of my most requested things I get through email, but it’s a ways off yet. And as a final thought on beauty pageants… while tens of thousands of young women have said they were interested in world peace, I believe beauty pagents’ successes in actually bringing world peace about have been… modest.



  1. Catalyst says:

    If you want to safeguard your daughters, perhaps a better idea than a black belt husband is black belt daughters. Martial arts a great hobby for girls. It keeps them fit and active, and teaches self-defense skills. My daughter has been doing it for about a year now, and it gives me a lot more confidence as a father knowing that she’d have a fighting chance against any asshole who tried to start trouble with her.

  2. whatmeworry says:

    I wouldn’t consider ‘modesty’ overrated, and I’m not religious nor terribly conservative at all.
    When the average tweens and teens are wearing outfits that in my day were common on $10 hookers, something is wrong. If the term ‘modesty’ annoys feminist sensibilities how about ‘decency’ or ‘class’. If on a 1-10, 1 is a bur-qua and 10 is a stripper’s stage outfit, I’m seeing an overall average of 8 pretty frequently on younger and younger girls. I’m guessing many of the fathers are either whipped or absentee.

    They’d at least be good for eye candy if half of them weren’t 20+ lbs overweight and tatted up.

    There really is no such thing as ‘too pretty’. Low key natural beauty can be inconspicuous. Hair, makeup, and clothing turn on the neon signs.

  3. Dear Reader,
    I grew up around beauty pageants also and I just wanted to say that I think the local beauty pageants are much more harmless, less focused on beauty, and just fun for teenagers. Most of the girls in my HS class participated in these; it was a chance to perform in front of large audiences, work on our interviewing skills, hang out with other girls, and develop a talent. Also, daddy got to buy her a pretty dress and all the grandparents and cousins got to come visit and watch. I think the local ones are harmless and could be beneficial.

  4. I agree with whatmeworry. Modesty is NOT overrated. Additionally, the reader seems to be confusing modesty with “hiding beauty.” They’re not the same. Browse through fashion photos from about 1925 to 1970; modesty isn’t frumpy. Modest clothing can be beautiful and make a woman look desirable, without screaming, “Look at my skin and my undies!”

    Women who lack beauty and taste, are the ones who need to pretend that dressing like whores is perfectly appropriate – because that’s all they have to offer. Show class to the world, show skin to your husband; let your lacy scarlet bra straps be a treat for his eyes only.

  5. @Suz:

    “Additionally, the reader seems to be confusing modesty with “hiding beauty.” They’re not the same. Browse through fashion photos from about 1925 to 1970; modesty isn’t frumpy. Modest clothing can be beautiful and make a woman look desirable, without screaming, “Look at my skin and my undies!””

    I think that a lot of this misunderstanding is because the people screaming loudest about modesty nowadays DO equate it with “hiding beauty” or even “making yourself deliberately ugly/uglier”.

    It’s a massive problem. Firstly, because it’s obnoxious. Secondly, because it poisons the very concept. I keep seeing ostentatiously “Christian” women lecturing on modesty, and looking incredibly ugly, with shapeless dresses, bad hair (it’s straggly and poorly kept, but at least its long!), terrible glasses, awful shoes…

    I always think that at the core of modesty, for both men and women, is a sense of keeping things inconspicuous, unless the occasion calls for it. Not dressing like a stripper is only part of it. Basically putting a sign up that says “Look! I am Being Modest! Look at my modesty! Loooooookkkkk aaaattt meeeeeeeeee!!!!” is *not* modest.

    What I read from this reader’s comments (I’m open to correction) is that she does want some sense of modesty. She just wants to avoid the obnoxious people who have coopted it as a way of showing how ossum they are, and make far too big a deal of it, and use it as an excuse to look ugly.

  6. GetItDone says:

    “One thing that I don’t know how to teach my daughters is how to be safe around men.”
    —Krav Maga and a handgun permit.

  7. I’d pay real money to watch a combination beauty pageant/orienteering contest. The archery would just be a bonus.

    Of course, there is already a name for this — The Amazing Race, that show on CBS.

    The whole show is devoted to the relationship dramas in the male-female teams. They showcase the “dating” couple, the “newly married” couple, or the “we’re in the process of negotiating a divorce Last Chance” couple.

    Every now and then, you’ll see a single-sex pair, but only half of those are actual friends (and they often start flirting with another same-sex friend team, usually comprised of NFL cheerleaders), and the other half are gay couples, so those count as relationship dramas, too.

    The show will also usually include parent-child and sibling teams, but they are almost always total losers, and never get very far.

    Basically, the show is a gigantic dating and/or marriage-suitability test.

  8. pdwalker says:

    “MMSL for teens”

    My eldest turns 12 shortly. I’m giving you three years before I come over there and beat the book outta ya.

    No pressure though.

  9. GumbyMan says:

    Lots of interesting stuff here-
    I love the concept of the ‘Bitch shield’ that makes so much sense. I also think that after a while it would become a habit that would be hard to turn on and off, however, that would make it more of a barrier that a potential mate had to get over though, so it may work. Also, It could be very annoying to have loser guys hitting on you constantly and that brings out the bitch.
    -there are a lot of really friendly, sweet girls that are also gorgeous, so it can work with out resorting to being a bitch.
    On Modesty: Like Athol said, use the 40% rule, only show off your best feature not all of them, Don’t always go with the latest trends – Fit is attractive! go with what works on your body type!!! can’t say this enough! The Bare mid-drift fashion is fabulous and very sexy on a very fit, VERY thin girl. If you have it go for it. HOWEVER- when it was a fashion everyone did this, and even the girls that were thin by most standards, show off a little muffin top which doesn’t look good (and is bad for self-esteem). Same girl in a longer belly covering top with cleavage might be a show stopper. So work with body type not the current fashion. Teach your daughters about body type and basic fashion.
    Modesty can be attractive, especially if the girl is fit and thin. Jeans and a tee-shirt is very nice on a fit body. Princess Kate is beautiful and fit, she dresses very modestly but still is hot. The fitter you are the less skin you have to show for attention… I also note that fit good looking men can go to the bar in a pair of jeans and a three dollar undershirt and still attract attention.

  10. I’d say that there has to be a balance. Beauty isn’t everything, but it’s not NOTHING either. The OP’s mother forbidding cheerleading and forcing Gloria Steinem glasses on her is one extreme; from what I’ve seen of child beauty pageants (and maybe there are exceptions that I’m just not aware of), they’re the other. Neither seems like a very healthy way to go.

    As for how to strike that balance, I’d say it depends on your kid and what her natural inclinations are. If she’s naturally a girly-girl and interested in clothing and makeup and such, then don’t discourage that, but also remind her that being a well-rounded person means cultivating other interests as well. If she’s naturally a nerd and drawn to intellectual pursuits, don’t discourage that either, but remind her that first impressions and presenting herself to the world as someone who knows how to take care of herself and her looks are important too.

    (Note: I use “nerd” in the most loving sense of the word. I’m a nerd and so’s my lady. All our friends are nerds. Nerds are great.)

    When I was still in the dating market, I thought of it as the bait and hook dilemma. If you’re all bait (looks) and no hook (substance), the fish will swim right up, take a bite, and then swim away. I saw it time and time again with my good-looking friends who didn’t know Thing 1 about how to keep a girl interested. But if you’re all hook and no bait, you’re stuck waiting for a fish to randomly bump into your line, and that’s a long lonely fishless wait. (This was my problem, by the way.)

    You’ve got to find a balance. Only when you have tempting bait to get the fish to come to you, plus a hook strong enough to keep them on the line, will you stand a chance of landing a prize-winner.

  11. lafemme says:

    Beauty contests are bothersome to me because while beauty if a fact of life, that’s not all there is to a woman. These contests remind me of dog shows or cat shows, prancing women around like they’re animals or something. I just find it distasteful. If there were other skills the women had to compete, that could be more interesting. I like the idea of cooking, designing a dress, rubics cube, pac man (yea, I grew up in the 80s) or something like that.

    A good alternative to these contests is the Miss Fitness USA. It’s strength, fitness and beauty and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Lastly babies in beauty contests being tarted up in make-up to look like miniature women is just plain disturbing. It’s sexualizing small girls, and that’s pedophile territory. Who do you think got JonBenet Ramsey? You’re serving your kids up on a platter!

    Lastly, modesty not overrated at all. Teens are dressing like hookers these days. If you’re already young and pretty do you need to advertise? A woman’s silhouette advertises enough. When I wear a shirt my 38C breasts are pretty obvious and cleavage is not necessary, guys get the picture. It’s possible to dress in ways that leave no doubt as to your femininity while not giving away the store, so to speak.

  12. Mike M. says:

    I agree with GumbyMan. There’s Fashion…and then there’s Style. A woman who’s smart doesn’t follow the trends – she knows it’s the clothing industry trying to sell clothes by convincing you that whatever you have in the closet is unfashionable and must be replaced. Instead, a smart woman knows what flatters HER figure, and sticks with that. Plays up her strengths, covers up her weak points.

  13. holdingallthecards says:

    I’m not a fan of beauty contests, but I don’t see the harm if it’s done for fun. Way more important is gearing up you teens for college or vocational school, because those take brains and skills. If your children have no other options than getting married for their looks, you’re inviting desperation and marriage at 18 instead of 28. Any girl can be made up pretty and get a decent body at the gym, but I’d hope Ms. Reader would want her kids to wait for a guy with similar brains/talent/skills, and you’ve simply not seen enough of what’s out there to make that decision at 18.

    Rather than focusing on how short their skirts are, I think Christian parents should face the facts: most kids lose their virginity in high school and long before marriage. Teach your kids about responsible sex (condoms). Pretending that if you don’t talk about sex with them, they’ll never know about it or consider trying it is how all these “good” girls end up teen moms. Express your opinions about what your religion demands, but don’t assume that they will keep your religion, either. Opening up dialogue about sex, what boys want, hormones, showing skin, birth control, and consequences of everything will earn you respect, especially if you don’t ASSUME that your kids are carbon copies of you. Sex is like red wine: one day it’s not allowed, the next day it’s perfectly fine and legal and even healthy, provided it’s used in moderation and precautions are taken.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I may be in the extreme here, and I know “Toddlers in Tiaras” is an extreme example, but I think some moms take it to such a level as to be tantamount to child abuse. I really feel sorry for the kids involved, and for the girls who don’t take it as seriously who feel like failures because they lost out to the daughter of a complete nutjob.

  15. The two most poised young women I know (friends of my 18-year-old son) are beautiful, but have never entered a beauty pageant. I doubt their parents would have allowed it. Instead, their parents helped them to develop their talents (music, dance), emphasized the importance of education, and encouraged them to both take on leadership roles and to serve others (through missions projects and community service). They were involved with their families in activities that included people of all ages and abilities, and consequently are able to talk with perfect ease to anyone – a very young child, a friend’s great grandmother, a person with a disability. They are other-centered, rather than self-centered, and perfectly poised one-on-one, in small groups, and speaking to large groups. I don’t think that the “Toddlers and Tiaras”-type pageants, or any similar activity that focuses solely on beauty and a “me” orientation, are going to develop any of those qualities in girls.

  16. @Sis
    As a fellow beauty pageant colleague I agree with you.
    Most of the ones in Latin America are pretty fun for the girls and teach them manners and culture. They also don’t have the “toddlers and tiaras” policy of looking like miniature adults, au contraire they are forbidden to wear anything fake, some lip gloss and powder at best, they learn to walk and sit and poise, dancing, interview and they make friends that last a lifetime.
    Never seen one were the mother’s forces the daughter they will quickly would get asked to not participate because this is meant to be fun not some sort of validation. I think the difference is also the prize there is not cash but scholarships. I personally would let my kid participate on one of those in a heartbeat, toddlers and tiaras? OH HELL NO!

  17. I don’t think poise comes from beauty pageants, but from an inner confidence and an awareness of how one presents themself. It may just happen that girls with that inner confidence sometimes participate in beauty pageants.
    Poise is about conducting yourself with decorum and classy dress style (vanity in the good sense). A knowledge of appropriate ettiquet and speaking well. In other words ‘refinement’.
    It would be my guess that the majority of girls in pageants lack a great many of those attributes…they look fine on the catwalk, but behind the scenes…watch out. Girls who have those attributes, or atleast are of the mind to learn them, develop the inspiration for it from their mothers. If their mother acts like a lady and conducts herself with poise, her daughers will mimic it and endevour to improve on it further as a young adult. This may be where they particpate in pageants, modelling/deportment/ettiquet courses. They are looking to improve upon and practice their poise – instilled in them by their mothers example and their fathers expectations.

  18. “I don’t think poise comes from beauty pageants, but from an inner confidence and an awareness of how one presents themself. It may just happen that girls with that inner confidence sometimes participate in beauty pageants.”

    I find this highly specious. Any – any – behavioral trait can be learned and practiced, and the OP is right that beauty pageant pressure cookers develop those traits in (very) young women. Saying it’s all a correlation accident just doesn’t pass the smell test.

    The problem with this “poise” is that a lot of it is faked – they’re just imitating the behaviors they need to succeed, and behind closed doors they pay the piper in emotional bloodletting (for women) or drugs/destruction (for men).

  19. I agree with you Badger. I made the mistake of thinking ‘piose’ also included a refined character that was evident all the time.

  20. Perhaps another word for “poise” is “Game”…

  21. Pageant TV shows are only fit fodder
    for pedophiles.

    Now, Disney’s Bella Thorn and Selena Gomez are for the more discriminating man.

  22. Psst… Athol… hate to be this guy… blame it on my English major background… but I just noticed… it’s “poison”… and in the headline… you spelled it “posion.” Might wanna fix that. Won’t be offended if you delete this comment once it’s fixed. Hate to be this guy. Keep up the good work. ‘Bye.

  23. Maybe Yankee feminists are a distinct category, but where I come from feminists don’t ‘force’ their daughters to wear glasses, or ‘not allow’ them to participate in things that other girls do. They inform them about the power structures and empower them to make their own decisions. Obviously the interpretation of the power structures varies, as does feminism.
    I do think beauty pageants for pre-pubescent girls are weird though. Actually I think beauty pageants are weird full-stop.
    And Athol is right (as so often) – poise, charm, charisma, all things that some have naturally but which can be learned as/through game.

  24. “how to be safe around men”

    I’m not a personal safety expert, but I do know that the #1 way to be safe is to avoid trouble in the first place. Recognizing a simmering situation and egressing before it blows up is a very good sense to have. Violence and/or mace is really a LAST resort.

    In particular, as they age it’s important they understand that there are certain places not to go, and certain times of night to not be out and about (nothing good happens after 2AM, and nothing good happens that involves taking money out of an ATM after 2AM). Certain places on campus, parties, etc are where bad stuff happens because people can no longer control their surroundings.

    Being too drunk to look out for yourself is a major risk factor. As is dressing like a target (fit in with your surroundings so as to not look like a rube). And for God’s sake don’t pick fights – the manosphere has written a lot on mouthy, cutting, snarky women, and for the most part they are annoying, but it’s all just talk on the Internet. In person, with the wrong crowd, a snarky/bitchy comment could get a woman injured or killed. Be aware of your surroundings.

  25. The art of classy dressing for a women is in finding that point at which men are not so distracted by her display that they cannot focus on anything else but at the same time, if they choose to focus on her, can see that she’s an attractive woman capable of eliciting the appropriate physical reactions in the appropriate setting i.e. neither hiding her light under a bushel nor displaying it on a sixty foot high neon sign in Times Square. Not an easy balance to find. It’s a kind of discipline which these days seems like a four letter word. That’s why classy woman are few and far between (but fortunately I found one).

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