Susan Anderson’s photobook High Glitz, The Extravagant World of Child Beauty Pageants is a series of formal portraits of young girls who participate in beauty pageants that have been exclusively tailored for them. These pageants are unique to the United States. Anderson chooses to focus her lens on the resulting “confectionary” effects rather than a broader investigation of this mini-industry. She has also chosen to exclude the young boys who also compete, but have a minor presence in these pageants.
In the introduction, Anderson describes her photographic process; “I have set up some parameters for myself when shooting portraits at these pageants. Rule number one is never to direct the girls other than making minor adjustments of their chosen pose. Frequently I ask to see the back of a dress, or a hairstyle in profile. I make sure they catch the key light just right, or may ask them to adjust a hand, or tit a chin, but never give a type of creative direction that could be constructed as manipulative. My job is to record what I see. The subjects have a self-awareness beyond their years, and have been coached and trained for moments like this one, in front of the camera.”
Anderson’s portraits have a broader selection of poses than Martin Schoeller’s Female Bodybuilders, but they have a shared commonality of formally documenting an American sub-culture. These pageants have involved into an economic mini-industry of consultants, coaches, couture designers, hair dressers and stylists. Of course at the very heart of this are the young girls, the pageant contestants, and unseen but with their indirect presence felt, the parents and grandparents of the girls. Similar to Schoeller’s bodybuilders, Anderson is documenting a controversial subject without introducing any judgments.
At the risk of being flamed for not being PC, I think that this is a Chick-photobook. There are some underlying feminist issues subtly at play that may be better understood by women than men. Why is it acceptable that young boys can act out some very aggressive behavior while there seems to be a controversial issue for young girls playing out their young feminine fantasies? The questions regarding the pros and cons of child pageants are succinctly discussed in Robert Greene’s introduction Artifice and Transformation: The Imaginary Lives of Little Girls. I recommend reading Green’s essay before jumping to any conclusions regarding the relevance of these child pageants.
The book is segmented into formal portraits by the pageant even categories; Beauty/Formal Wear, Modeling, Western Wear/Pro-Am and Crowning. The book concludes with a delightful High Glitz Style Guide, providing essential pointers for those who do not have a clue to the pageant requirements. Provides some of those important rules, such as when “bling” is permitted or not, and the correct time to use the “oohs and aahs” or incorporate a “rip off”. There are pointers on the use of flippers (teeth), hairstyles that include the Barbie, Up-do, Falls, Ringlets, Swept Up, and Add-ons which include wiglets, wigs, falls & braids. The girls need to be aware of when they might want to incorporate a “full southern” as apposed to a basic “cupcake”. It is apparent that like any subculture, the pageants have their own internal jargon, but that jargon is not directly communicated by Anderson’s photographs.
One excerpt from Anderson;
“Sunday’s main event is Beauty/Formal Wear, my favorite aspect of these pageants, and what I feel epitomizes the visual aesthetic of High Glitz. For this part of the pageant, the girls, primarily between the ages of two and ten, don their most elaborated couture costumes, hair and makeup. The custom outfits are encrusted with rhinestones, pearls, ribbons and bows. From their white-satin Mary Jane shoes and lace-trimmed anklets to their spectacular costumes and towering bejeweled hairstyles, the effect is confectionary.”
Simon Doonan’s introduction “In Defense of Child Beauty Pageants” written by a man who wishes he had these same pageant opportunities is really funny, with the following except to provide a hint, because you have to read it in the entirely: “If only somebody in our house were to have figured out that all I ever wanted was to parade about – like Madame Alexander doll come to life- in front of a cheering crowd, bathed in adoration and soft pink light.”
Regretfully for me, what is also present in these photographs, beyond the shiny and frilly surfaces, are the manufactured and coached smiles on these precious young girls, which hints at an honest attempt to please, but I wonder at what cost?
by Douglas Stockdale