Toddlers Denied Tiaras: Behind the French Push to Ban Pageants

Benoit Tessier/Reuters

It appears the French finally are drawing a legal line against the sexualizing—or, as they call it, the hyper-sexualizing—of little girls. The French senate has voted to ban child beauty pageants. Organizers may face a jail term of up to two years and a fine of up to 30,000 euros.

At first glance this seems an arresting development, as it were. France is, after all, a country long famous for early-adolescent sex symbols. Brigitte Bardot was only 15 when director Roger Vadim discovered her. Brooke Shields was only 12 when French director Louis Malle cast her as the denizen of a New Orleans brothel in Pretty Baby and filmed her in the nude. Sophie Marceau and Vanessa Paradis were both sexy tweens when they first shot to stardom. And let’s not even start with the predilections of director Roman Polanski, who lives in France, and is honored there, despite his conviction for raping a 13-year-old in the United States.

But then, on closer examination, it becomes clear the French senate’s vote is a kind of cheap shot with, surprise, vaguely anti-American overtones.

The French debate over hyper-sexualizing little girls actually began several years ago with a much broader focus. The 2006 American film Little Miss Sunshine, a true-to-life comedy about the child pageants in the United States, was a hit with French audiences and piqued their curiosity. So did recollections of the lurid headlines that made it across the Atlantic at the time of 6-year-old beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey’s murder in 1996.

What touched off a wider sense of scandal, however, was a photo spread in French Vogue in 2010 showing then-10-year-old Thylane Léna-Rose Blondeau, the daughter of television personality and reality-TV contestant Véronika Loubry, dressed in spike heels, wearing vampy makeup, and posed in alluring postures. The depiction of this incipient seductress touched a button of outrage in many countries, including the United States, and eventually reverberated in France as well.

At the time, Vogue’s defenders argued this was just an illustration of the fantasy many little girls have about being grownups, which may be true. But it’s hard to look at those pictures, or others of the same little girl—her face modeled in the frozen pout of an adult mannequin—and not get the very unpleasant sense they also illustrate the fantasies of pedophiles.

Loubry’s explanations did little to calm the furor when she told a blogger she found a French children’s clothing advertisement much more shocking when it showed “a little girl of 11 whose nipples are pointing.” In Vogue, said Loubry, “my daughter is not nude; let’s not exaggerate!”


The debate over hyper-sexy kids heated up after reports that some retailers were considering selling padded bras for 8-year-olds, other little girls reportedly were going for depilation, and platforms and spike heels were being offered to 4-year-olds.

Finally, Chantal Jouanno, a member of parliament and former minister of sport in the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy, commissioned a report on the sexy-pre-pubescent phenomenon. Jouanno denounced what she called “hypersexualized society as a whole.” “From the youngest ages you see stereotypes appear that are very divided, boys/girls,” she told Agence France-Presse. “There is colossal marketing power to break down the barriers between ages and incite [children] to adopt adult behavior.”

The proposed law, which passed the French senate but has yet to pass the lower house, targets only beauty pageants for girls younger than 16, which is easy, since they are seen as a bit of tasteless theater imported from the United States.

How French.