From 2006 to this day, the American basic cable and satellite television network TLC (The Learning Channel) seems to have forgotten what the “L” in its title stands for, as it has become focused less on the “learning” aspect their shows provide viewers and more focused on reality series, family life, medical dramas, law enforcement and general human interest rather than. We can’t blame a network for changing with the times—a network survives by giving viewers what they want. But there are issues with some of the programs featured on TLC today. Okay, so TLC has pretty much turned into a channel jam-packed with guilty pleasure reality dramas. That’s fine, but at least give the network a new name that that is more appropriately has to do with the types of shows it has been airing within the last decade. Maybe replace the “L” in TLC with an “E”? Now we have the perfect new name for the network: TLE—also known as The Exploiting Channel. And unfortunately, children do not escape the exploitation.
TLC is not solely to blame. It’s a harsh truth, but like any network, TLC has a job to do and that job is to give the people what they want and do anything to keep them watching. We as viewers need to take the blame as well. After all, we’re the ones who can’t help but watch Here Comes Honey Boo Boo or Toddlers and Tiaras, not because the shows are well written and have meaningful content, but because we are addicted to the ridiculousness of the nature of these shows and the unnecessary drama that only complicates the story just for the sake of complicating the story.
Mental Health Specialists largely agree that child beauty pageants, especially televised series based around these events like in the 2009-2013 TLC series Toddlers and Tiaras reinforce negative female body image issues that result in eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. As evidence of this notion, mental health experts “point out the trend towards the onset of eating disorders at much younger ages than ever before.” These young girls are—at least on Toddlers—forced by the pushy stage mothers who live vicariously through their daughters to strive for that “Barbie Doll” image of what a beauty queen should look like. The trouble is that there is no way for a human being to look that way, but after years of competing in pageants, many girls forget this and they strive for that impossible look until the pressure eats them alive. The Week gives us a list of five reasons (although there are many more) why child pageants are bad for kids—emotionally, cognitively and even physically:
1. The girls are too young to say no
If you’ve seen any behind-the-scene televised pageant or have even been backstage at one yourself, try and count the times you’ve seen one of these very young girls fully cooperate with their mothers as their fake eyelashes are applied. Chances are…you had a tough time thinking of any moments of cooperation between mother and daughter. And how many children are more than willingly to have a flapper inserted into her mouth because her teeth are “too yellow” or “too crooked” or simply because she empty spaces where baby teeth have fallen out.
2. Pageants sexualize young girls
Shows like Toddlers and Tiaras normalize the sexualization of young girls. French Lawmakers even want an all out ban on child pageants, says Henry Samuel in Britain’s Telegraph, who accuses the media and reality TV of “promoting stereotypes that transform young girls into ‘sexual morsels.’ Just look at the growing number of schoolgirls as young as 8 [who] wear padded bras, high heels, or makeup, and strike suggestive poses.” Seriously…what is this telling our children about how they present themselves to society?
3. Pageants greatly increase the likelihood of developing cognitive and emotional problems.
A 2007 report by the American Psychological Association found that the hypersexualization of young girls is strongly associated with eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression, says Melissa Henson at CNN. It can also even lead to fewer girls pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
4. Too much hairspray can stunt growth
One of the most widely used products in child pageants is hair spray, which contains phthalates, or plasticizers, that can act as hormone disruptors says Travis Stork of CBS’s The Doctors. This may be no problem for an adult beauty queen, but for a growing girl, the effects could prove detrimental, as excessive exposure to phthalates has been linked to stunted growth and even lung cancer.
5. High heels aren’t made for small feet
When little pageant contestants wear heels, Stork says, it unnecessarily pushes their weight forward, causing lower back pain and hindering proper development of the feet. In some cases, these girls are forced to continue wearing heels outside of pageants because their feet have grown in a way that makes wearing other kinds of shoes very uncomfortable.
When Toddlers debuted, it quickly grabbed TV-watchers’ attention, pulling in an average of 1.3 million viewers each week. The show’s success spawned a number of similar shows like Lifetime’s Dance Moms, TLC’s Cheer Perfection and of course, the Toddlers and Tiaras spinoff that we’re all familiar with, TLC’s Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
The damage done by Toddlers didn’t end when the show did in 2013; one of the show’s most well-known, outspoken, cute-but-annoying contestants, Alana Thompson, better known as “Honey Boo Boo Child” became the break out star of the 2012 Toddlers-inspired show, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo after being pageant-whored-out by her mother “Mama” June Thompson. Honey Boo Boo had less to do with pageants and more with capturing the everyday life of Alana and her dysfunctional family—Mama June of course, Alana’s father Sugar Bear and her three older sisters Pumpkin, Chickadee and Chubbs. Each episode lacks an important or even interesting story, but the characters are so ridiculous and so…redneck, for lack of a better term, that we just have to keep watching because it’s so ridiculous that it’s hilarious. We often got to witness typical Thompson family fun throughout the series, like when the family visited the local Redneck Games, where they enjoyed some of their favorite pastimes, like bobbing for pigs’ feet and mud belly-flopping.
What does the pageant show spinoff, Honey Boo Boo actually have to do with pageants? Virtually, nothing. Rather, TLC realized that following the lives of the wisecracking, sassy little girl who stood out among the other Toddlers contestants and her family would make an entertaining show. So, Alana, who was once being exploited on Toddlers, became exploited on her own show. Simply put, Alana, who was way too young to consider the risks of show business, was fooled by the network and her selfish, money-hungry, attention-craving mother.
The show was cancelled after only two years. Perhaps the show’s short time span would have allowed the still-young Alana to leave the television scene unscathed and continue to have a real childhood. Unfortunately, the reason for Honey Boo Boo’s cancelation was because of molestation accusations made by Mama June’s now 20-year-old daughter Anna Cardwell (“Chickadee”). June’s ex-boyfriend Mark McDaniel had sexually abused Anna when she was only eight-years-old—and if that’s not bad enough—June’s daughter Lauryn Thompson (“Pumpkin”) revealed that when she was three she was forced to watch to watch McDaniel molest her older sister, as she was also in the bed with the two at the time. But, the worst part of the whole situation was that June knew what McDaniel was capable of. Years ago, June and McDaniel were dating when he was incarcerated for forcing a girl to perform sexual acts on him. After being released after serving 10 years, June began dating the man again. She denied this of course…despite some incriminating photo evidence.
It’s so easy these days for anybody on a reality show to be exploited, but the difference between exploiting an adult and exploiting a child is that a child doesn’t have the ability to foresee possible future issues that can arise in the TV industry. The biggest and saddest difference between adult exploitation and child exploitation is that the child often has no control of what is going on, regardless whether or not it’s the child’s “own show”. But remember, although multiple networks like TLC and Lifetime (just sticking to the two networks mentioned earlier) are what make these shows happen…but it’s us, and our love of mindless, this-is-funny-at-someone-else’s-expense television.