It was January and the year was almost certainly 2006. We were having a summer holiday at a small beach community on the Coromandel Peninsula and I was keen for my two-and-three-quarter-year-old daughter to enter the "Little Missy" competition.

It made no sense at all. I'm totally against the whole beauty pageant industry that requires women to parade in swimwear and hope to save the world, yet there I was wanting to send my firstborn up on stage to be appraised by judges and members of the audience alike.

What was I thinking?

In my defence, the whole thing seemed less sinister that the televised formal competitions. Music was playing, it was outdoors, the sun was shining, the children were still preschoolers and the overall vibe was wholesome. Could it really hurt?


My husband was against the idea and deep down I knew that my maternal ambitions were not really appropriate. So I resisted the urge to become a "pageant mom" and decided to wait until she was old enough to choose for herself.

A few years later when she was 6 or 7 I asked my daughter if she wanted to participate in the "Miss Mini" section of the competition at the same beach. Her answer was an emphatic "no". And I was relieved because at that age the event had taken a turn for the worse and I wouldn't have let her participate even if she'd been keen.

Through their poses and their costumes, these children were now imitating adults which, frankly, was more than a little creepy. What were their parents thinking?

I'm guessing they were thinking like I had been, that it was cute and harmless. But the difference was the age of the children and how they were expected to behave and dress.

At 2, 3 or 4 years old, it's nothing more than a cuteness parade but by 6 or 7 the expectation is of bikini-clad girls with tanned limbs and long, flowing locks. It's sad that the indoctrination of the beauty ideal is being peddled to girls so young in such a seemingly benign setting.

A few months ago I attended a performance held by an Auckland dance school. While some of the costumes worn by the girl dancers were modest, many of them were so revealing they looked like outfits strippers might wear. Factor in raunchy music, suggestive movements and the occasional come-hither facial expression, and it all added up to the sexualisation of prepubescent girls.

Not being familiar with the world of dancing, I'd not witnessed this before and I was shocked. My now 13-year-old daughter's main activity is showjumping, an equestrian discipline in which it can be difficult to distinguish girls from boys. All the riders are dressed similarly in helmets, jackets, gloves, breeches and boots. Performance is what counts. Sex appeal is not a factor.

Yet female athletes in many codes have long been required to display their flesh and curves while men get to cover up. As previously discussed in a column about "crotch shots" and underdressed female dancers, tennis is a sport "where women wear bottom-skimming skirts and the men wear baggy shorts down to their knees". What's that about? Could it be to meet demand for female crotch shots?

Just the other week there was an uproar over Nike's "lingerie" dress at Wimbledon. Described as "skimpy", "bouncy" and "revealing", this dress was responsible for more than a few "Marilyn Monroe moments" and made women athletes feel uncomfortable. But never fear, it still complied with the All England Club's dress code. Of course it did.

The needless sexualisation of women and girls is entrenched in our culture. They get them early with beach beauty pageants and sexy dance outfits. Sometimes mothers behave questionably. There was outrage recently when a "reality TV star and adult movie actress" posted photos of her 7-year-old daughter posing in a bikini and full makeup. This woman faced accusations of sexualising her own daughter. She has form in this regard, having earlier joked about the girl pole-dancing.

So how can we alleviate this pervasive pressure on our daughters? We can boycott beauty pageants and resist dance teachers who specify skimpy outfits for girls too young to understand they're being objectified. But, most importantly, we can talk about it.

We can discuss the different expectations society has for girls and boys. We can speculate about the reasons behind these damaging norms. And we can articulate the unpalatable truth that running through our culture is an acceptance that fulfilling the appetite for crotch shots is clearly more important than preserving the dignity of women and girls.

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