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Rethinking 'Toddlers and Tiaras'

Tiara I’ll admit it: I have a morbid fascination with Toddlers and Tiaras. The hair, the makeup, the epic temper tantrums…it’s a guilty pleasure that I love to hate.

I even know the characters by name: there’s Little Lady Gaga, Laci; Paisley the “prosti-tot”; and who could forget Alana, a.k.a. Honey Boo Boo child?

Not me.

Let’s be clear: I’m totally opposed to exploiting kids in this way, and the parenting that’s depicted is deplorable. Horrendous. Atrocious.

(Did I state that clearly enough?)

Yet still I watch. I sit on the throne of parental superiority, judgmental and smug from the sofa in my family room. While you won’t hear me talking smack about my fellow PTA moms I’ll readily pass judgment on the pageant mom in the bedazzled velour track suit.

I’ve considered the ugly side of watching the show and others like it (Dance Moms, anyone?). The sexualization of young girls. The stage moms and spray tans and sugar-fueled baby booty dancing.

Don’t think it hasn’t occurred to me that even on a bad day, I can watch Toddlers and Tiaras and feel like Mother of the Year. But yesterday, Emily Shire of Slate stopped me in my tracks when she suggested that my smugness toward the pageant moms comes from a much more uncomfortable place: elitism.

I’m well aware that my judging the pageant moms is hypocritical. After all, I watch the show. But is it classist?

To me, a former social worker, classism is a particularly sensitive subject. To my core, I understand that every life has a context, a set of circumstances encircling it. Members of what some crassly call “the lower class” have less access to fewer resources and, as a result, sometimes make choices that others find objectionable. My personal belief is that the overwhelming majority of us are doing the best for our families with what we have.

My social work training has shaped the way I see the world, but it’s also personal. I live in West Virginia, one of the most impoverished states in the country. I’ve defended my neighbors who make “bad” choices. I’ve gone to bat for clients who were living with the results of the “bad choices” they made.

According to Shire, Toddlers and Tiaras provides “a classist subtext to the media’s judgment of parenting” through its depiction of the pageant moms as “white trash.”

The depressed, often southern areas that serve as the backdrop for many episodes.

The thick accents and often overweight mothers.

The subtle clues that paint a picture of the pageant world as being set apart from the cozy family room couches where the smug viewers sit with their jaws dropped.

Viewers like me.

What’s my take? I can certainly see Shire’s point. I have to admit that I watched last night’s season premiere. I have to admit that I gasped audibly when I watched as a beautiful child described having to wear a girdle. Little Paisley made a repeat appearance (this time, thankfully, leaving the Pretty Woman costume at home), as did, of course, Paisley’s mom.

But last night, instead of sitting in judgement, I put on my social worker hat. These moms, I’ve decided, want the best for their children but have a warped way of loving them. Their daughters are themselves made “perfect”: perfectly coiffed, talented, poised. It’s just sad to me that they don’t seem to understand that their daughters have been perfect all along.

They’re taking the real risk of sending their daughters the message that they need make up and costumes and crowns and Grand Supreme titles to be “perfect.”

And those of us watching? We’re risking that too.

Top photo credit: Robynlou8/Flickr

Mary Lauren Weimer is a social worker turned mother turned writer. Her blog, My 3 Little Birds, encourages moms to put down the baby books for a moment and tell their own stories. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

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