Traditions at the County Fair: Judging Little Girls

children's beauty pageantI went to the county fair last week, around the corner from my house. I run my dogs on the fairgrounds, and the space is usually a quiet oasis in a busy city. The Morgan County Fair fills that space with exactly what generations of people have sought at a county fair. You can get food on a stick. You can pet the hogs. You can hear good music.

There were kids everywhere: babies in strollers and teenagers checking each other out and everyone in between. Behind the scenes, too, children displayed their creativity and skills. In the Junior Progress Fair at the 4-H building, children from 8 to 18 showed off their hard work in 20 categories of fresh vegetables, 11 kinds of cakes, plus breads, sweatshirts, photography and floriculture.

The organizers created lots of awards for young entrants — best daylily and coleus, best angel food cake and best in show for preserves, best mounted still life photograph. Kids had followed recipes, tended gardens, and composed photographs, and now they were being recognized and congratulated.

Illinois 4-H says its purpose is “To help youth learn skills for living.” That education “empowers people to voluntarily help themselves and others.” The collective efforts behind the Morgan County Fair youth exhibits are exactly what our youth need to learn to live well.

They will need other ideas and skills that they learn in school, in jobs, and at home, but the traditional 4-H skills are central to American life, in rural Illinois and everywhere else.

Kids learn from everything we do, so we should keep thinking about everything we encourage them to do. Not all traditional children’s activities at county fairs teach our youth empowering skills or useful ideas. That’s how I feel about the Princess Pageant.

Here are the rules: “Contestants must be 5 years old by July 5, 2011, and not be 7 by the same date. Contestants will be judged on beauty, personality and charm. Each contestant will be judged in swimwear and a party dress and interviewed at the judges’ meeting prior to the pageant.”

These girls are not old enough to enter the 4-H contests, where seriousness of purpose and planning are required. But they are old enough to show their little bodies in swimwear to meet some judge’s standard of beauty. I guess they need to learn that they cannot be charming or display their personality in jeans and T-shirts. For this contest personality means dressing up, and charm is how you display your body.

The Princess Pageant brings up questions for me. Is this what we want to teach 5-year-olds about how they will be judged in the world? Are these the only useful qualities that the fair organizers think 5- to 7-year-olds have? Why should 5-year-olds be sexy?

And why just girls? Little boys are not judged on their beauty, they are not encouraged to be charming, they don’t get to parade in swimwear. That is definitely girly stuff.

I know I’m out of sync here with society around me. My bank and the YMCA, the pizza chains and fast food joints all sponsor the Princess Pageant.

I suppose the Princess Pageant prepares little girls for their lives in the modern world. In our society, men are supposed to look at women as sex objects, even when they are working. In preparation for the 2012 London Olympics, the officials who run women’s badminton have decreed that women must wear skirts or dresses, very short, of course. Because so many of these elite athletes wear shorts, or worse, pants, the officials said, they needed a new dress code to appeal to fans and corporate sponsors. At least that’s the idea of the men who run this women’s sport: 23 of the 25 members of the Badminton World Federation’s council and executive board are men.

Steve HochstadtDo these efforts to teach little girls to show their bodies and to force female athletes to be sex objects teach skills for living or empower anyone? I would like to get rid of the tradition of educating girls at a very young age to think of themselves as people to be looked at, rather than people who do things.

What could we say to a 5-year-old who asks “why am I being judged in a bathing suit?”

Steve Hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt of Jacksonville is a professor of history at Illinois College. His column appears every Tuesday in the Journal-Courier and is available and on his blog at stevehochstadt.blogspot.com.

Published by the LA Progressive on July 19, 2011
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About Steve Hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (2004) and Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich (2012), both from Palgrave Macmillan. He writes a weekly column for the Jacksonville (IL) Journal-Courier and blogs for the History News Network. "His latest work is presented at www.stevehochstadt.com."