Eschewing the term “Pageant Mom”

I decided to make my first real post here about something that has been rattling around in my brain for a while.

Recently a good friend of mine and I were taking a class together. This was a fitness class and the class had between 10 to 15 people in it. Of the people in the class ages ranged from around 11 years old to around 40 years old.

At the beginning of the first class, one girl entered a bit late with her mother. The girl looked to be a teenager; I would guess she was around 15 or 16. Her mother first apologized for their tardiness, explaining they had gotten lost on their way to the studio. This was the first class in the session, so we were at the time arranged in a circle on the ground and had just finished introducing ourselves.

The girl joined us on the ground and introduced herself and the class moved forward. During this time the mom found herself a spot along the wall and continued to watch for a while. These classes were each an hour and a half long, I don’t believe the mom stayed the entire time but she probably stayed for the first 30-45 minutes. My recollection isn’t perfect and I phased her out after a while, so it’s also possible she was there for the entire class period, I can’t be certain.

Anyway, during this at some point my friend who was taking this class with me turned to me and whispered, “She seems like a total pageant mom, don’t you think?”

I don’t remember what I responded at the time. I think I simply didn’t respond at all and instead tried to focus on our instructor or acted distracted. The question threw me off. This friend is someone whom I consider quite well-versed in social justice and feminism and yet I found the statement at odds with many of my core beliefs.

The question placed judgment on a mother, a mother whom we knew nothing about. It seemed inherently judgmental and it used a term, “pageant mom,” which I think is extremely gendered and sexist.

We had no idea what the situation was with this mother and daughter. The classes we were taking were unusual and something most people have never done (low-flying trapeze) so it seemed completely reasonable to me that this mother would choose to stick around and check it out.

Further, even if it hadn’t been something so unusual, it was still a new situation, a new studio, and the daughter clearly knew no one there. Perhaps the daughter had asked her mother to hang around for a while in case she found herself immediately uncomfortable and wanted to leave? We had no ability to judge their dynamic in that environment.

Then, there’s the fact that she chose the term “pageant mom” specifically. “Pageant mom” i s a gendered term, inherent with a devaluation of femininity and performing femininity. The term refers to a very specific style of parenting, one that I believe is not inherently relegated to mothers, even though the term itself ignores the fact that many fathers may also participate in this sort of behavior.

Now, this is not to say that I support pageantry and the performance of femininity in that manner. I don’t. I believe that pageantry, beauty pageants, child beauty pageants, cheerleading and many forms of dance teach young girls that their primary (and possibly only) value lies in performing femininity to acceptable standards. They teach girls and women that their values lies in looking and acting in certain ways, they sexualize and objectify women. I am against all of these things.

However, the term “pageant mom” specifically is still something I believe we must fight against. It supports the culture we have of judging and shaming mothers; no mother is ever good enough and they are always found wanting, they are constantly on trial by the public for their actions. The term ignores a fathers’ role in promoting this sort of culture and how a father may be just as involved.

While there may be a similar trend to “pageant moms” among fathers who push their sons (or daughters) to be extremely good at sports we do not see a similar label forced upon them. We do not call father’s who attend all of their sons practices “trophy dads” or “sports dads.”

We cannot ignore this gendered element of the term “pageant mom.” We cannot ignore how it devalues the feminine. It does not devalue this in a critical way, it does not force those using it to consider why these pageants may be bad. Instead it simply allows us another avenue to shame mothers and to devalue the feminine. We cannot ignore the way there is a lack of a male equivalent to this gendered term (my hope of course, would not be the creation of a male equivalent to this term but rather the eradication of this term altogether).

So, while I do think there is much wrong with the sexualization and objectification of our children, specifically young girls I still think the term “pageant mom” is one we should fight against. This term does not further our fight against these things, but instead is another way for us to find mother’s wanting. We should critique and fight against these norms, but not through the use of reductive language, which I believe does more harm than good.

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