Is the talent worth the toxicity?

Child beauty shows and competitions are detrimental to the kids’ emotional and mental health

“Think you can hurt my feelings? I was on Dance Moms,” reads a TikTok posted by the renowned child star, Jojo Siwa, in August of last year. “I was the meme of the month of October, 2018. I got made fun of 24/7 for my hairline. I had strangers shout awful things to me in public all the time.”

Ironically, this childhood trauma would not become a lesson learned. Siwa herself began airing a reality show in November of this year, pitting young girls against each other in an uncanny parallel to that of the infamous show of her youth. This new spectacle, named “Jojo’s Dance Pop Revolution,” centers around a competition run by Siwa and her mother, involving 11 girls fighting to become members of a new pop group called XOMG Pop (to be managed by Jessalyn Siwa and perform as an opening act for Jojo). Similarities between the two shows are already being spotted; Jojo explained in an interview with E! News that the moms involved were getting “really intense” and “crazy” with their desire to see their daughters reach stardom. The pressure and abuse of perfectionism in this new show will, like most child beauty pageants and shows, result in psychological problems bred from unhealthy values pitted against these very young girls. And Siwa’s childhood show was the perfect blueprint. 

Dance Moms, one could argue, was just child abuse on screen. The show, originally pitched as a documentary called Just Dance featuring the daily lives of competitive dancers, morphed into seven seasons of child manipulation and exploitation. Lifetime, a production studio, saw the mix of Abby Lee’s militaristic coaching style with the petty relationships between the moms as a perfectly toxic cesspool for reality TV–all at the expense of a few young girls’ self-esteem. Every week, the girls on Dance Moms would be ranked pyramid style: the worst of the week at the bottom and the best at the top. This, unsurprisingly, created a non-stop competition to take down the temporary star, and became a nightmare for the mental states of those at the bottom. Moreover, the show overall had little to do with dance and all to do with drama. 

And the problems didn’t stop there. From dressing nine-year-old girls in hyper-sexualized clothing (one episode even featuring a “Topless Showgirls” number that was pulled from the show’s rotation after heavy criticism), to forcing the only African-American girl on the team, Nia, into solely performing numbers perpetuating Black stereotypes, the show is a nightmare brewed from Hollywood’s twisted nature. As the mind behind this madness, Lee embraced the controversy and defended herself as someone toughening up the girls to handle an industry where “everyone is replaceable.” Chloe Lukasiak, who left Dance Moms after four seasons, called her experience “traumatizing,” and Camryn Bridges now goes to therapy for the abuse she received as a 14-year-old on the show. 

Most of these girls were only eight years old when Dance Moms started in 2011. These were eight-year-olds being pressured to look and act perfect before a camera for years of their childhoods. These were eight-year-olds being told that their worth rested on appearance and that they were objects for entertainment. These were eight-year-olds being taught to turn on each other and win at all costs. This kind of treatment, more often than not, leads to significant body-image distortions, eating disorders and long-lasting depression, not to mention that the girls were also being sexualized by the adults surrounding them. This is the horrifying and dangerous result of shows and pageants centered on children. These young girls grow up in an environment that stunts their development and leaves them emotionally damaged before they can even grow up, prioritizing exploitation and manipulation at the cost of mental health.