Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

How does this look?

WHEN I was young, I had thick NHS glasses that made me look like Deidre Barlow.

They made the skin on my nose itch, which I would scratch, and then it would weep and then there would be scabs. Mum put some felt on the bridge of the glasses to stop the itching, but all that happened was the felt got tangled in the scabs and when I took the glasses off half my face would come with it.

I had railway track braces on my teeth, and an extra head brace I had to wear at home held on with a huge elastic strap around the back of my head.

And I had a mullet, 10 years after they were fashionable.

You will probably be able to guess that I did not have a lot of boyfriends, and did have quite a lot of arguments with my mum, particularly when she took me to the hairdresser's.

That was my adolescence. It was shit.

But throughout the whole thing - when the pretty girls with long blonde hair bullied me, when the boys I was in love with laughed at me, when acne arrived and made me feel even worse - I never once thought I was a failure.

There were moments I felt ugly, but I knew I was loved even if it was just my mum. I was told throughout the important thing was to do well at school, rise above things, and that I could do whatever I wanted with my life so long as I applied myself to it.

I never wanted a spray tan. I didn't want the world to hear me sing. I wanted to be a fighter pilot, I wanted the boy who smoked Marlboro Reds to fall in love with me, and I wanted my hair to grow quicker.

All kind of normal, really, for a child. No-one treated me as a way of making money, which is just as well as the only way would have involved me joining the circus.

Today we're told about a very different way of doing things, in the distressing shape of Savanna Jackson, who has plucked eyebrows, lacquered hair, fake tan once a month and wears swimming costumes to parade around in front of strangers. She has a catwalk coach. She's three.

She's been doing beauty pageants since she was 10 months old. Her first spray tan was at age two. Her mother Lauren said: "To me the pageants are about having fun, building up her self-esteem, and giving my girl the best possible opportunity in life."


There is a bit of me that can't wait for Savanna to be an adolescent; for her to get zits and self-doubt, hide behind her hair and baggy jumpers and scream at her mum that she will never wear pink again. But maybe that won't happen, because she's been trained from birth that appearance is the most important thing about her.

So what will she do when the appearance isn't so great? Will she read lots of books, will she build a firm network of good friends who don't care about appearance, will she be proud of her stretchmarks, will she ever entertain the thought of being a fighter pilot? I'm going to guess no.

Her mum is destroying Savanna's self-esteem by teaching her as a child that the only way to gain parental approval is to win an obscene kind of beauty contest and make money which is spent on making her even more of a monster.

But they're American. We can dismiss the Americans, can't we?

Do you remember Malakai Paul, the nine-year-old who cried with nerves in his Britain's Got Talent audition? Judge Alesha Dixon rushed on stage to comfort him, as did his watching mum Toni-Ann. He tried again and was voted through, but lost out in the semi-finals.


The viewing public were aghast, especially as the programme makers cynically screened his breakdown either side of an ad break to maximise their viewing figures. There were complaints, but lots of us watched and in fact as a result of Malakai's trauma we probably watched and voted more.

Six months on he's still being stopped in the street for photographs and his mum's upset he didn't get invited on the BGT national tour. And she sounds a lot like Savanna's mum when she explains why she encouraged her son into a talent contest to try and win a £500,000 prize.

She said: "Malakai wasn't exploited, the show gave him opportunities he would never have had anywhere else. If ministers want to offer an alternative, fine. But for people like us these shows offer a real chance to lift ourselves out of our environment."

So does the lottery, love, and the upside is that it doesn't involve your son having a blub on prime-time telly which he is never going to be allowed to forget.

Malakai was exploited, because BGT made more money out of it than he did. The show gave him no opportunities at all but it gave all of us the chance to judge his mother's parenting. It's not up to Government ministers to offer £500,000 cash prizes for him to do something else, and if you're in a poor environment sudden wealth won't help you much.

Malakai's mum took her son to his first BGT audition at the age of seven. This year she got him out of bed at 3am to take three buses to the auditions, and by the time his turn rolled around at 5pm he was tired and fraught. Tears were just a matter of time.

But she still insists: "Not once did I think 'what have I done?' Even though it was a bit daunting for Malakai, it was a good experience. Character building."

Well, so's being hit around the head with a frying pan once a day, but that would seem unreasonable wouldn't it?

Both mums obviously love their children, and the children love their mums; but they are undeniably being encouraged to do something unnatural in return for financial gain and as a bonus are being taught that debasing themselves is the path to happiness. When they don't manage it, they're a failure.

"When I was voted off in the semi-finals I felt my career was over. I felt low," said Malakai. "I thought everyone was disappointed in me."

There are plenty of youngsters who were born for the stage, who love to sing and dance or make people laugh, and a few of them turn it into a career when they're older. There are lots of families which struggle financially or live in grubby areas and wish they could be somewhere else, but most of them don't expect their children to perform like a dancing poodle in order to achieve it.

We seem to have arrived at a point where it is socially acceptable to exploit your children for financial gain and call it 'an opportunity', even though the only opportunity they're being given is the chance of being screwed up in new and interesting ways.

It's what parents do, I suppose. I'm allergic to hairdressers, but at least my teeth are straight. And I am able to forget the bits that made me miserable, because every time someone got a camera out I ran away. More importantly still, my parents thought I was a child rather than a money making machine.

The one opportunity Malakai and Savanna have been given is never being proper children at all.

And I don't care how pretty you are - that never looks good.

Imagine it with a death-scowl and zits.