KAILIA Posey's tragic suicide death should raise "serious questions" about the child pageant circuit, an expert says – claiming the competitions "terrorize and sexualize" kids from very young ages.
Posey, 16, was found dead in a state park a short distance from her family's home in Lynden, Washington, on May 2.
The beauty queen, who rose to fame on the controversial TLC show Toddlers & Tiaras, died from asphyxia due to ligature strangulation in her car. Her death was ruled a suicide.
In the years preceding her passing, Posey was an active participant in the child pageant circuit, having first started competing at the age of three.
Dr. Henry A Giroux, a scholar and cultural critic, told The US Sun that while the circumstances surrounding the teen's death are unclear, competing in pageants from such a young age can carry a number of dangers, including mental health and body image issues.
"I think her death raises some serious questions about the pageant community," Giroux said. "If she was considered a success, for what these pageants set as standards – and very few make it – then her suicide becomes all the more troubling.
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"I don't know the circumstances, she could've been going through anything like suffering from low self-esteem or bullying … but it's difficult not to relate that to what she would've endured on the pageant circuit, I think.
"The research is very clear about the damage this can do to people."
Child beauty pageants have been a part of American culture since the 1960s. The competitions were initially launched for kids between 13 and 17, though in the decades since they've expanded to include children as young as just a few months old.
But the $5 billion per year industry has long been shrouded in controversy for the regressive notions of beauty it promotes, while simultaneously exploiting, "objectifying and commodifying" their child participants, according to Giroux.
"What does it mean to dress a six-year-old up as if she was 21 and then tell her her nose doesn't look perfect enough or that her body is not right?" Giroux asked.
"Many of these children are left with body issues at incredibly young ages and have in some cases basically been terrorized by their parents who are living out their lives through them."
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Giroux says he believes the child beauty pageant industry teaches children from a very young age that their identity and value is dependent upon their physical appearance and little else.
He also charges that the tradition foregrounds children as commodities, reducing them to "sexualized ornaments" wearing fake tan, over-the-top make-up, and capped teeth.
"I think that's a very regressive notion of what a young girl should be," said Giroux. "They're not they're not commodities that can be bought and sold or defined through some kind of aesthetic that is essentially a very regressive, watered-down notion of the Miss America Pageant.
"They're told they have to win, and they're told to engage in a performance that for a four-year-old or any other child is really hard to watch.
"And I think when you reify children like that, and turn them into commodities and sexualize them … it can cause these children to suffer terrible psychological problems."
SEXUALIZATION OF KIDS
Supporters of the pageant world often preach that competitions help their children develop self-confidence, but numerous research shows they also can have a profoundly harmful effect on their self-esteem.
In an article published in Psychology Today back in 2012, dietitian Martina M. Cartwright argued that beauty pageants cause young children to grow to hate their appearance and become obsessed with perfecting it – often to an unattainable degree.
She also observed the pressure parents put on their children to look "flawless" and win at all costs.
“Everything was based on what these kids look like and the way that these children were displayed or dressed,” Cartwright said after attending a taping of Toddlers & Tiaras.
"They were fully made up; they looked like adult women, pint-size. They were judged on personality, but none spoke a word.”
The emphasis on physical perfection may put young girls at risk of body dissatisfaction during adulthood, and potentially eating disorders, Cartwright noted.
She also wrote that she fears the competitions sexualize young girls by encouraging them to look like grown-ups.
She recalled one young contestant, in particular, wearing a Playboy bunny costume, who was carried onto the stage by her father who dressed as Hugh Hefner.
IMPACTS ON MENTAL HEALTH
Similar to Cartwright's observations, Giroux said there are three mental health issues that commonly develop in girls and women in the pageant circuit: eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression.
Giroux's remarks are backed up by a report released by the American Psychological Association in 2007, which found that the hypersexualization of girls can negatively impact their cognitive and emotional development.
"Several studies (on both teenage and adult women) have found associations between exposure to narrow representations of female beauty (e.g., the 'thin ideal') and disordered eating attitudes and symptoms," a synopsis of the report reads.
"Research also links exposure to sexualized female ideals with lower self-esteem, negative mood, and depressive symptoms among adolescent girls and women.
"In addition to mental health consequences of sexualization, research suggests that girls’ and women’s physical health may also be negatively affected, albeit indirectly."
Causing much concern, Giroux says, is the fact that a number of child pageant participants are inducted into the competition circuit before they can even talk or communicate effectively, meaning they cannot give their consent to taking part.
"Some parents often respond to criticisms of child abuse by claiming that their kids are doing exactly what they want to do and that they enjoy being in the pageants," he wrote in a 2009 article.
"This argument appears strained when parents enter into pageants children who are as young as eight months old, or when parents decide that their four-year-old child needs a talent agent in order to ensure that she made the right connections outside of the beauty pageants."
Speaking to The US Sun more than a decade later, Giroux called forcing children into pageantry a form of "parental terrorism."
"It strikes me as a form of parental terrorism," he reiterated, "to subject your kids, kids that young, to a projection of your own fantasies with absolutely no consideration of what the long-term – if not immediate – effects are for the kids.
"In terms of imposing really regressive sexual standards and a kind of aesthetic perfection that’s modeled after a pageant that nobody even believes in anymore.
"It’s beyond narcissism," added Giroux. "They’re simply extending their own personalities onto their kids and imposing a set of constraints and regressive notions of them as if these kids are malleable and don't suffer any of the consequences."
Giroux's remarks aligned with a theory put forward by Cartwright back in 2012.
According to the dietician, some pageant parents exhibit what she calls “princess by proxy,” a form of “achievement by proxy distortion” in which adults are driven primarily by the social or financial gains earned by their child’s accomplishments, regardless of risk involved for the child.
Taking that theory further, Giroux described a parent's want to enter their children into beauty pageants, considering all the dangers, as a "prescription for mental illness."
"All these parents talk about is how doing these pageants is good for their self-esteem," Giroux said. "Can you imagine that? Without any irony intended.
"They really think sexualizing their kids at five, six, seven, and eight is good for their self-esteem? Telling them their value is in their looks, and bodies while putting them in competition with others in the same predicament?
"That sounds like a prescription for mental illness to me."
TLC, the network behind Toddlers & Tiaras. did not return a request for comment sent by The US Sun for this story.
The network has also not yet spoken out in the wake of Posey's death.
In a statement released earlier this month, Posey's family called her an "accomplished teenager" with a bright future ahead who "in one impetuous moment … made the rash decision to end her earthly life."
Posey was a regular cast member of Toddler's & Tiaras, appearing on the show alongside her mom numerous times across all seven seasons, which ran between 2009 and 2013.
She started participating in pageants at age three and kept the pastime up throughout her adolescence, most recently competing for the Miss Washington Teen USA title in February.
Posey was a freshman at Lynden High School and recently earned a spot on the school's cheerleading team for the upcoming season, according to family posts on Facebook.
Lynden's cheerleading team shared a series of tributes to its Instagram when news of her death was made public, with one image showing Posey with wings superimposed across her shoulders and a halo above her head.
The team also shared two quotes, with the first reading: "Please stay. The world is better with you in it."
A second read: "Speaking a few kind words might be the most important thing you will do today."
MENTAL HEALTH 'STRUGGLES'
One of Posey's friends revealed that the child star had recently shared she was struggling with her mental health, though said they were unaware of how bad the situation had become.
"We knew she was struggling with a few things, and we all did everything we could to encourage her and help," the friend anonymously told Page Six. "We didn’t know what was going on."
The girl's family has set up the Kailia Posey Teen Crisis Intervention Fund with the aim of getting "much-needed resources to students in crisis."
They will also be holding a celebration of life ceremony for her in Lynden, Washington on Saturday.
"Kailia touched the hearts of many during her short life. She is remembered for her sweet and outgoing personality, and how she cared about everyone she met," her family wrote in an obituary shared online.
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"Kailia was passionate about performing and entertained audiences across the globe with her exuberant showmanship. She is best known by many for her years of competition in the pageant circuit, and for her stunning talent as a contortionist.
"A life as amazing as Kailia's is deserving of a special celebration," her family added.
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