In September, a proposal was passed through the French Senate which proposed banning beauty pageants for children (although the bill is predominantly aimed at young girls) under the age of sixteen. The proposed legislation has yet to make its way through the lower house, securing it as law and moving the articles into place.
This new legislation is part of a larger bill on Gender Equality and aims to tackle the negative self-image that can be thrust upon girls and young women in these competitions, either in the form of what some legislators see as the hypersexualisation of children or in the manifestation of mental health issues, such as body dysmorphia or eating disorders. As Jennifer Mandelblatt comments, these competitions—and the parents entering their children into the competitions—”teach their daughters that their aspirations need not extend further than conforming to a standard of physical attractiveness determined by Hollywood and a panel of judges.” According to Nauret, the industry is worth $5 billion in the US. While it is evident that the industry is not that large in France, the trend to emulate is what concerns lawmakers. The proposal was passed in the Senate 196 votes to 146.
Infractions will not be treated lightly, with those found organising or entering minors into competitions liable to pay a fine of up to €30,000, or facing up to two years imprisonment.
The Gender Equality legislation was drafted by France’s Minister for Women’s Rights (a post revived under the Hollande administration), Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. The ban was proposed by Senator Chantal Jouanno, who feels that the issue of the early sexualisation of young girls is one of importance. This issue has been rampant across the First World media of late. It is an issue that feels too big to discuss within the scope of this overview, encompassing issues of sexual agency, varying ages of consent (and mental capacity to consent), victim blaming (and, for lack of a better word, slut-shaming) at a systematic and national level, and general issues of commodification of the female body. Jouanno has also stated that she believes that pageants put too great an emphasis on appearance, and that the message France should be sending to its young girls is to grow their minds.
The French government have previously attempted to battle the proliferation of eating disorders among the young population in the country—they sought to include a sort of health warning on heavily edited pictures in the media in an attempt to illustrate that they were not accurate representations of real women. As Reuters reports, in September 2009, former UMP Parliamentarian Valerie Boyer (who still sits in the Assembly, the lower House), along with some fifty other politicians proposed the law. Modified photos would include the following (presumably) fine print:
Photograph retouched to modify the physical appearance of a person.
In July, the Telegraph took a broad look at Vallaud-Belkacem’s Gender Equality bill as a whole, and spoke of its aim to establish “a special broadcast sexism watchdog” that would seek to erase “degrading stereotypes” of women and ensure they were more wholly represented in the media. This begs the question of whether this ban is an attempt to abate the effect of negative stereotypes which lawmakers feel have made their way into the fabric of French society from places such as the UK and the US.
Every year, the World Economic Forum conducts a Global Gender Gap report, basing its rankings off a number of indicators including education and literacy levels, rates of pay and amount of women in ministerial positions, for example. In 2012, France ranked 57th. However, under Hollande’s government, gender equality has come to the fore. This, of course, is what the fatal few who believe in campaign promises—or the idealistic few who believed a socialist in power could bring about change—would have expected. Quickly following his election as president, as mentioned previously, he had revived the Ministry for Women’s Affairs, a department that had been disbanded in the 1980s. Under Hollande, France also had its first parity government in history: that is, a cabinet with the same amount of men as women. In the year since his move to office, France have moved from 57th place in the 2012 Gender Gap report to 45th in the 2013 report. (These are ranked out of 135 countries.)
In contrast to this, Ireland ranked 5th in the 2012 and dropped one place to 6th place in 2013.
On September 25th, The Irish Times reported that there was a call made by Independent Senator Jillian Van Turnhout to the Seanad for the French proposal to be supported by the Houses of the Oireachtas.
This article comes just days after Ireland hosted a University Royal competition, an American-style beauty pageant à la Toddlers and Tiaras. This caused some controversy. The hotel which was supposed to be the original venue backed out of the commitment, and it was subsequently moved to a hotel in Castleblayney, Co. Monaghan. The company state that despite the frosty reception from some, the turn-out for the pageant was such that they intend to return.
While, statistically, we do not rank as low as France in terms of the Gender gap, enforcing negative self-images in young girls is not something we as a nation can afford to do.
Maher and Nwachukwu’s 2012 report estimates that year on year, four hundred new cases of Anorexia Nervosa arise, with some eighty deaths per year. Note that this is only Anorexia Nervosa, and does not include any other diseases associated with body dysmorphia, Bulimia Nervosa, or EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified).
In 2006, the Department of Health and Children drew up a report entitled A Vision for Change. Within it, there was a plan formulated for treatment of those with eating disorders. Patients whose case was deemed serious and could not be treated by their GP could be seen by a local Community Mental Health Team. Those who needed it could be referred for specialist treatment to one of four six-bed wards which would be part of the mental health units of the general hospitals in each of the four HSE regions. That would mean twenty-four beds dedicated to specialised care for those with eating disorders.
However, budgetary restraints and lack of focus on Mental Health initiatives in several consecutive budgets have meant that these plans have remained mostly unrealised. Currently, many of the beds that do exist exist within private institutions. Some of these operate like rehab facilities as well as rehabilitation centres, such as the Rutland Centre (which tactlessly refers to their treatment for patients with eating disorders as a treatment for “food addiction“).
There are some beds in hospitals which accept insurance cover. Both St Patrick’s and John of God’s in Dublin have beds, but the costs can run into the thousands for the average stay. The only public beds dedicated to the treatment of those with eating disorders are in St Vincent’s public hospital, which has three beds available for specialised care.
Halloween is nearly here, and now more than at any other time of year, young girls of a certain age are pressured to look a certain way, and then chastised in the same breath for looking that way. We tell our young girls to concentrate on their minds and we risk telling them that being feminine is wrong, vapid and unworthy of their time. We don’t and we risk generations of women who will not know they deserve gender equality. By turning a blind cheek to beauty pageants that focus solely on the physical, and refusing money to a mental health system that is cracking under the weight of the growing number of children whose self-image is distorted by the media and societal castigation, we are further pushing girls away.
In light of that, I urge you to watch this spoken word piece by these four young women, entered into the Brave New Voices Finals this year. These are the women we should strive to turn our young girls into.