In Defense of *Honey Boo Boo*

TLC’s new show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, staring 6-year-old Alana Thompson and family has elicited a lot of response, mostly negative. Certainly much of the criticism is valid, especially the argument that beauty pageants for children are detrimental because they sexualize little girls, promote poor body image, and lead girls to seek approval from external “judges” to confirm their self-worth (based largely on appearance).

Yet the question of how women are portrayed in the media is always connected to larger questions of power, and who is in control of representation—especially female representation. The show presents Mama June as an unhealthy, overweight, neglectful, yet wholly happy and content mother, who chooses to subject her daughter to the beauty pageant circuit for the sake of fun and fame. The show focuses on the very worst aspects of June’s life so that we will objectify and judge her. Moreover, the show makes light of any issues June has with herself. For example, although we know June is “dieting,” the diet becomes a joke when June and her teen daughters “weigh in” and find they have lost little to no weight.

Such one-sided “images” of June mask the real reason why she and other parents enter their children in pageants—a reason that is important because it reveals exactly how insidious our culture’s fixation on appearance and an impossible aesthetic of beauty has become. These parents are, at heart, unhappy and discontent with their own looks, and so must relive the dream of youth and beauty through their children. The standard of beauty in modern American society has become SO extreme, that most women (like Mama June) can only imitate it when they are pre-pubescent or adolescent; that is, before they develop womanly curves (hips, thighs, and breasts), when they are still cute and childish and sassy.

Once women’s bodies mature, the ways that they can imitate the beauty ideal become limited. The typical path requires that women resort to dangerous eating disorders, plastic surgery, and/or botox injections to approximate their once youthful faces and figures. But the reality for most women is that puberty permanently withholds the ability to attain the Hollywood/cultural/media ideal of female perfection—wrinkle-free, jiggle-free, and near-to impossible proportions. Sadly, the only way that most women can relive “the dream” of bodily perfection is through their children, who still have youth and metabolism on their side. More importantly, the body of a girl is infinitely flexible in the sense that it can be easily manipulated through make-up, sexy outfits, and padding in the right places. Ironically, when a young girl like Boo Boo cannot fully meet the beauty ideal (because of her weight, ALREADY an issue), she can turn it into comic relief (making her belly talk, resorting to sassy phrases, for example). This clowning allows her audience comic relief, as if Mama June and her daughter were not “really” trying to be beautiful, but just poking fun. This truth, that the clowning is a sham and that the rejection indeed hurts (in so many ways), is sad and sick, but is without question the insidious outcome of a society that creates body hatred and distress in women (and now children) who are unable to meet the beauty ideal.

Let’s face it, healthier ( read “thinner”) women, women other than June Thompson (like those starring on The Real Housewives, for example), do just as much damage to children’s psyches when they choose plastic surgery and botox and a myriad of other costly and invasive body-altering procedures in pursuit of the unattainable ideal. The message being sent to their daughters and to young women watching their programs is that women must go to profound extremes to “fix” what (they believe) is wrong with their bodies. Changing one’s appearance to any extent implies that something is wrong with one’s natural looks, whether the change involves fake eyelashes, tanning, a wig, or a more extreme approach (plastic surgery, extreme weight loss, botox). Such images surely have a terrible psychological impact on young girls.

How can we criticize June Thompson’s decision to enter her daughter in pageants when this is the model of female beauty that we as a culture promote and reward? Yes, pageant parents are certainly at fault for buying in to a beauty ideal that requires children to don excessive makeup, fake hair, and spray tans; but the wider culture should also be held accountable for presenting the Barbie image as the social ideal in the first place. And because we belong to this society, watch the programs, purchase these magazines (and the beauty products they promote), each of us is culpable.

Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is a metaphor of our times. This child becomes, for a short time during her beauty pageants, what the culture asks of her. She is hyper-aware of every detail of her appearance, because how she appears to others, and especially how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as success. Her own sense of self is either confirmed or rejected by these outsiders. This is the danger. That she will begin believing them. When puberty hits and the dream dies, perhaps Mama June will convince Alana that we love “allllll of this” (said by Alana as she runs her hand seductively down her side), and perhaps Alana will decline plastic surgery and avoid an eating disorder. But although June cannot see it for herself, she too, the mama who proudly declares “I tell my girls all the time that I would still love them if they were 1,000 lbs” (Tauber 59) has also bought into the beauty ideal. Otherwise, the public would never even have met Honey Boo Boo Child.

Work Cited
Tauber, Michelle. “Much Ado About BOO BOO.” People. Vol. 78(11).
Sept 10, 2012. 58-61.

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