The French parliament is seeking to ban beauty contests for girls under the age of 16. It follows a report from former sports minister Chantal Jouanno, entitled Against Hypersexualisation: A New Fight For Equality. In it, she also recommends outlawing “adult clothing in child sizes, for example padded bras and high-heeled shoes”. While I’m all for fights for equality, this makes me uneasy. Despite not having had a beauty queen past (unless winning a fancy dress contest dressed as Peggy from Hi-de-Hi counts) I know my childhood would have been far drabber without all those glorious afternoons during which I made myself look like a mini Bet Lynch.

I don’t wish to draw huge comparisons between France banning the veil and this move. There are different people and motivations underpinning it. Nonetheless, I think there are some shared cultural currents, not least a desire to protect those deemed “vulnerable”  by regulating what they can wear. The bodies of women and girls become meanings to be managed. When Jouanno expresses concern over “the sexualisation of […] expressions, postures or clothes that are too precocious,” the spotlight falls on little girls themselves and the need of adults to place them within our own deeply flawed categories. To my mind, this simply isn’t fair.

Complaints about the “hypersexualisation” of young girls shift attention away from sexual exploitation towards something much more vague.  I hear the word “hypersexualised” and what I really hear are phrases like jailbait, corrupted and damaged goods. An expression of concern for an individual becomes one of disappointment that said individual has been “spoiled for later”. Disapproval of parents, pageant organisers, clothing manufacturers, photographers and agents becomes focussed on the “objects” they’ve created, not on questioning our responses.

None of this is to defend  these pageants from hell. They just look so sad. For a young girl to be competitively plucked, fake-tanned, starved and made-up within an inch of her life before she’s reached double figures strikes me as profoundly miserable. She’s got plenty of time to feel judged on the basis of appearance alone – why start now? This, I think, is what is so wrong about a world in which adults encourage these events: the effect it can have on a girl’s relationship with her own body and herself (the “it’s not all about appearance” line rings hollow to me). But such a thing isn’t helped by using slut-shaming terminology such as “sexual candy” and complaining about offences to “the dignity of the human being”. It doesn’t matter whether we as adults, personally, don’t like seeing a small girl in a padded bra. We have a responsibility not to invade that space with our own objectifying values. Banning pageants until girls reach the age of consent — after which presumably it’s no holds barred —  doesn’t necessarily strike me as the way forward.

When it’s not all part of a grim, adult-run contest, trying to emulate the appearance of grown women can be brilliant fun when you’re a child. I remember idolising Madonna in her Like A Virgin phase and trying to copy her dress sense with the help of lace fingerless gloves and fuchsia pixie boots. I loved Crayon Girl and C&A Clockhouse and imagining myself thinner and sexier (and totally believing that once I got older, that’s what I would be. Ha). I know the pat response to this is “oh, but it was more innocent then” but I beg to differ. I wasn’t particularly interested in being innocent or otherwise. The bolshy, aggressive curiosity of an eleven-year-old let loose at the make-up counter isn’t for anyone else to fear or regulate. Adults need to save their distaste for “sexualisation” while girls are slowly learning to be, not objects, but sexual agents. The sexual hypocrisies and misogynies of the adult world might confuse girls while they’re forging their own path, but let’s then give them something more meaningful to grow into.