Category Archives: Psychology

The Lure of Becoming a Bride of ISIS

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PIC SHOWS:  Interpol is searching for two Austrian teenaged girls who they believe have been tricked into going to Syria to fight for ISIS.

Samra Kesinovic, 17, and her friend Sabina Selimovic–two beautiful, young Bosnian immigrant girls who left their families in Vienna, Austria in 2014 are reported again today to have been beaten to death after being caught trying to flee the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa

Indeed the fates of those who join ISIS with wide and shining eyes, only to later get disillusioned, is not pretty and often ends in death, beatings, beheadings and more. What makes Westerners, particularly young girls, want to join ISIS?

The allure for Western girls, particularly from Europe, to join ISIS as brides emanates from a number of things. First, if they perceive discrimination and marginalization as standing in their way to finding success in Europe, ISIS is offering a new world order in which race, ethnicity and particularly being Muslim are no longer obstacles. They also offer for Western women a traditional life style, marriage, adventure, a home (taken from others of course) and even a car to be part of the bargain. Likewise when young Western women first express interest in joining they are typically swarmed and/or groomed for hours with painstaking attention paid to helping them buy into the ISIS worldview. Sadly when they get there the facts on the ground don’t match the reality and then they have to risk their lives to escape and may not be able to–facing the prospect of beatings and beheadings as a result.

ISIS in its call to the Caliphate is also offering a new world order in which the current geo-political conflicts will, according to ISIS, be resolved with everyone ultimately living as Muslim in a utopian life governed by Islamic ideals–heady stuff for the young who are disheartened by real injustices in the world and still believe in the possibility of utopias. The violence necessary to get there is dismissed by recruiters as necessary for revolutions to succeed and who point out the current level of violence that many innocent Muslims are enduring living under despotic regimes. Who will save the Muslim world from suffering they ask, if not Muslims themselves? Certainly the West is failing to do so they point out.

To counter the narrative that groups like al Qaeda and ISIS are currently selling, we need to address the conflict zones, particularly in Syria and Iraq with speedy and well-thought out political solutions, and back home we need a civil rights movement–at least in Europe–to encourage the integration of now sidelined second generation immigrant Muslim kids, to help them succeed and be able to see their futures in the West, instead of with a horrific and violent organization–whether or not it claims to be the true Islam. Then their passions to change the world and their desire to be self actualized can happen without the involvement of groups like ISIS or al Qaeda coming into the mix.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and author of Talking to TerroristsBride of ISIS: One Young Girl’s Path into Homegrown Terrorism, and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. She was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to twenty thousand detainees and eight hundred juveniles. She also has interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe.To see more on this topic, and to read an account based on an American girl who tried to join ISIS as a bride, see Bride of ISIS.

Why Ethical Psychologists Play an Important Role in Interrogations

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On Aug. 7, the American Psychological Association overwhelmingly approved a sweeping ban on any involvement by psychologists in national security interrogationsconducted by the U.S. government. This ban includes even non-coercive interrogations.

The vote was a knee-jerk reaction that some members felt was sorely needed to restore the organization’s reputation after an independent investigation led by David H. Hoffman, a Chicago-based lawyer. The probe found that some association officers and other prominent psychologists shielded APA members who participated in the CIA and Pentagon’s harsh interrogation programs during the George W. Bush administration. These programs involved “soft” torture and “enhanced” interrogation techniques and allowed the government to shield itself from claims of torture by saying health providers were overseeing what was being done.

The new APA ban forbids psychologists from conducting, supervising, being in the presence of or otherwise assisting in national security interrogations for military or intelligence entities, including private contractors working on their behalf. Psychologists also may not advise on conditions of confinement insofar as these might facilitate such interrogations. Psychologists are permitted to consult with the government on broad interrogation policy but may not become involved in interrogations or consult on the specific detention conditions for detainees.

In 2006 and 2007, I worked in Iraq with Task Force 134 on a program to challenge ideologically committed Islamic extremists. The Defense Department’s Detainee Rehabilitation Program was to be applied to 20,000 detainees and 800 additional juveniles. The idea was to try to engage detainees who had been exposed to, or adhered to, militant jihadi ideology in order to redirect them to other, nonviolent solutions. The initiative challenged the militant jihadi ideological attempts to justify violence against innocents and that addressed the psychological vulnerabilities in individuals for whom these hateful terrorist ideas resonated.

Far from violating human rights, APA standards or other ethics pertaining to the treatment of prisoners and minors, I was well aware of the abuses in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay and took extraordinary care to write the highest level of ethical care into my program. I also instilled in all the psychologists and imams I trained that our prisoners be treated with respect, care and dignity and not tricked or mistreated.

For me the APA ban is simply sidestepping responsibility for what the organization failed to do, and still has not done, in regard to the psychologists who took part in harsh interrogations or witnessed and abetted “soft” torture or so-called enhanced interrogation techniques for the U.S. military, other countries’ militaries and police, the CIA and so forth. Those psychologists should have been, and should still be, called up on ethics charges and have their APA memberships revoked. That the APA blindly allowed such ethics and human rights violations by its members is shameful, and that it continues not to address what was done is also shameful. It is also pure foolishness to tell all of us who risked our lives doing the right thing that we can no longer guide the military, the intelligence community and others who will certainly continue to use harsh techniques if not guided otherwise.

Those of us who abided by ethical guidelines and made sure that our government was provided with programs that were based in sound research and grounded in the humane treatment of other human beings, including detained prisoners, should be lauded and encouraged to continue doing so. Our military is full of ethical and well-educated psychologists, and it hires people like myself who maintain the highest principles — even when the APA is sticking its head in the sand. Sticking one’s head in the sand doesn’t undo past wrongs, nor does it prevent new ones from occurring.

Banning involvement in what the government is doing is simply refusing to take a stand for what is right. Enhanced interrogation and “soft” torture are, in my opinion, ethically wrong and not useful in obtaining reliable information. Some may find times and circumstances to justify their use — others like myself won’t. The interrogation of prisoners is not wrong and is a necessary part of our continued fight against terrorism. Psychologists can, and must, continue to play an important and ethical role in guiding our governments to do the right thing.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and of Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service. She is author of Talking to Terrorists and Bride of ISIS and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi and Warrior Princess: A U.S. Navy SEAL’s Journey to Coming out Transgender. She has interviewed in the field and in prisons over four hundred terrorists, their close associates, family members and hostages and in 2006-2007 designed and wrote the psychological and Islamic challenge portions of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq for the U.S. Department of Defense. Website:www.AnneSpeckhard.com (This post was first published in the Washington Post, August 16th, 2015.)

ISIS, the Euphoria of Jihad and Protecting Muslim Youth

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In recent days we’ve witnessed six Canadian youth disappearing into thin air—likely heading for ISIS and three UK girls also recently slipped into Turkey, presumably ISIS bound. Western youth heading out to join the Caliphate is an increasing concern for all Western nations. It started in drips but the stream is increasing as disenchanted Muslim youth begin to believe the ideology that al Qaeda spent years erecting and that ISIS is now building upon.

Utopian fantasies and adventures are always appealing to youth. The euphoria of declaring a Caliphate, invoking end-times beliefs and claiming to build a society built upon Islamic ideals is of course contagious. What can we do to protect those who might answer the ISIS call? Can schools and parents make a difference?

Some might say once you’re indoctrinated, anything your parents tell you won’t help. Kids are strong-willed, stubborn—how many kids listen to their parents? Why is jihad any different than drugs or sex?

But I don’t agree.

The fight against ISIS begins with good parenting and begins at home as much as it does with resolving the political crises plaguing the Middle East, bringing justice to Muslim hotspots and delegitimizing a “jihadi” ideology that is poisonous and destructive to those who swallow it.

While governments are telling parents to warn their kids off of ISIS, it’s not a simple warning parents need to give their teenagers. It’s a whole outlook on life and training to be full human beings that will work.  If parents raise their kids from early on—well before they become teens—to believe that force solves problems then they will automatically respond to calls to use force. If discipline is carried out by striking our children—in anger for instance—rather than thoughtfully and lovingly disciplining them the final outcome will be very different.

A child that is nurtured from an early age to become empathetic, verbal and sensitive will learn to use skills that will make him more prone to peaceful resolutions of problems.  Gentle, kind, loving and sensitive parenting produces a thoughtful child who considers many responses—not just the knee-jerk response of jihad. Mosques and preschools might want to consider lessons in parenting that can pay off as children age..

Likewise giving a child the skills for critical thinking also helps her to avoid becoming easily indoctrinated by an ideology full of holes. And just like drugs and sex, parents need to talk to and be up to date with their young. If you don’t acknowledge the dangers that exist in the outside world—including the false call to “jihad”—it doesn’t make them go away. And Muslim children need to understand their faith—so some stranger doesn’t come and wrongly interpret it for them. In Chechnya for instance we found that those who went for suicide terrorism were much more likely to have not been raised with an in-depth understanding of their faith and were thus more prone to becoming indoctrinated by Wahhabi violent beliefs popular with terrorists at that time.

Schools have also influence and teachers as well as parents need to inculcate early on the understanding that terrorism is always wrong. There is NO cause, anywhere in the world that justifies intentionally targeting civilians and killing innocents in order to advance a political gain. None.

Al-Qaeda skillfully changed a whole generation of Muslim thinkers to believe first that suicide terrorism was justified in certain cases, i.e. for the Palestinians under occupation facing a much better armed enemy, or for Iraqis or Afghanis whose countries were invaded by foreign forces. But we need to teach our children that there is never any place for terrorist acts any place in the world. And when our own government engages in actions where collateral damage outweighs the targeted goal we need to cry out against that as well.

The idea that ISIS can build an ideal Islamic State imposing its violent will upon Iraqis and Syrians is of course ludicrous. Examples of failures in utopia building abound—for instance the Soviet experiment of trying to impose communism at the expense of the blood of millions of its murdered citizens. Utopias never pan out. Whether the terror of a government imposing its will upon its people or the terror of a group enacting political violence, it is always wrong. There are many skilled ways to discuss these issues in school curriculums in ways that can powerfully demonstrate the ideology of ISIS is illegitimate, as too is its use of terror and force. We need to invest serious resources into doing so if we want to save our youth.

That said, once intoxicated with the ISIS seductive call to jihad, adventure, sex and the utopian dream of living under Islamic ideals, no matter what the short term costs turn out to be—watch out.  Adventure beckons and hormones are strong.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine, and of Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service. She is author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. She was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to twenty thousand detainees and eight hundred juveniles.  She also has interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe.

Waterboarding, Sarah Palin and Our Image Abroad as the “Great Satan”

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“Waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists,” Sarah Palin told an audience at the National Rifle Association’s Stand and Fight rally last weekend. She would reinstitute the practice, she told listeners, calling it a valuable technique.

What Sarah Palin perhaps doesn’t know is that when al Qaeda was being formed, the middle eastern extremists who were using terrorism to fight their own corrupt governments had finally given up fighting inside their own governments in the face of overwhelming force. Realizing that they couldn’t stop their own governments they began to look for who was on the outside—funding and propping up torturous and unjust regimes. And that led them to begin to question foreign policies carried out by the U.S. and the EU.   Ideologically it led to the budding AQ terrorists labeling the west as the “Great Satan” and to their new initiatives of attacking us. They called that an attack on the “the head of the snake.”

Sarah Palin, like all of us wants that to stop. But is she right about how to go about it?

Waterboarding, a technique in which water is poured over the angled face of a prisoner—so as to fill his nose, mouth and lungs—terrifyingly creates the feeling of drowning. “When performed on an unsuspecting prisoner, waterboarding is a torture technique—without a doubt,” Malcolm Nance, former master instructor and chief of training at the U.S. Navy Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School (SERE) in San Diego states. “There is no way to sugarcoat it,” he writes, referring to that he personally witnessed and supervised the waterboarding of hundreds of U.S. military trainees who were drilling to resist torture.

“It does not simulate drowing,” Nance states, “as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way to simulate that. The victim is drowning … “Unless you have been strapped down to the board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of the word.”

“Waterboarding is slow-motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of blackout and expiration” Nance continues. “Usually the person goes into hysterics on the board. For the uninitiated, it is horrifying to watch. If it goes wrong, it can lead straight to terminal hypoxia – meaning, the loss of all oxygen to the cells.”

And horrifyingly, the lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threatened with its use again and again.

Waterboarding was on the CIA’s list of approved “enhanced interrogation technique’s” for use against high-value terror suspects in 2005, and was included in a 2009 U.S. Department of Justice memo released in April 2009 as an approved torture technique. Waterboarding was carried out under the Bush administration but has now been condemned by President Obama as “torture”.

According to journalist Julia Layton, when waterboarding was used in counter-interrogation training for CIA operatives and Navy SEALs, the trainees could not survive it without breaking. According to her sources, CIA members have lasted an average of fourteen seconds before begging to be released.

Being subjected to drowning and feeling that one is imminently about to die is a powerful psychological torture method and it breaks down both our guys, as well as our enemies. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11 was water boarded and reportedly managed to last an impressive two minutes. Perhaps his faith kept him steady in the face of overwhelming terror. Yet he too broke and began confessing.

No doubt water boarding works to create terror and an overwhelming sensation of imminent death by drowning. Yet while Palin believes that water boarding is a useful interrogation technique, those who have had it in their arsenal of “torture” tools disagree. CIA officials according to Layton, stated that it is a poor interrogation tool because it scares the prisoner so much you can’t trust anything they tell you as a result.

When Jesse Ventura, the colorful, former Minnesota governor recalls how he was waterboarded as part of his Navy SEAL training to resist torture techniques he states, “It’s drowning. It’s torture,” and that it can kill you. Trying to make the point of how serious waterboarding is and that one will say anything to make it stop, he declared to Larry King, “You give me a waterboard, Dick Cheney and one hour and I’ll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders!”

In September 2006, Senator John McCain, who had been tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam stood up to his party and tried to outlaw torture techniques against all U.S. held prisoners. In 2006, the U.S. military also made it illegal for the any members of the military to use this technique. Shamefully, it took longer for the CIA to catch up.

“The lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threatened with its use again and again,” Nance writes adding that whoever carries out waterboarding has to move from humanity to hatred and overcome basic human decency to endure causing its torturous effects.

And our use of such methods has now opened Pandora’s box for what may be considered by terrorists as acceptable to be used against our soldiers. Just as now dead, Chechen terrorist leader Shamil Basaev stated that he justified the terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction, because poisons had been used by the Russian government to kill his cadres—terrorists often attempt to justify their acts on the basis of our own.

Nance writes, “Our own missteps have already created a cadre of highly experienced lecturers for Al Qaeda’s own virtual school for terrorists” Indeed, even when we try to keep torture methods classified, convicted AQ members and released captives broadcast widely over the Internet what they were subjected to and how they endured.

While Sarah Palin may believe “soft” torture that leaves no physical marks of harm done is useful, waterboarding is nevertheless psychologically devastating. And that it is a useful tool for interrogating is also not a strongly supported position among those in the know. Just as I learned when I was helping build what became the Detainee Rehabilitation Program for our 20,000 detainees in Iraq, the best approaches to interrogation are to find common ground, rapport and build a relationship where the detainee begins to trust and open up. Terror and pain may make a person “talk” but what they say in order to escape from torture often doesn’t add up.

And the anger in that person over being mistreated and in others—including family members and friends—who learn of it often creates more of a threat than elicits any useful information.

Indeed when the pictures from Abu Ghraib circled the world via the Internet, and now, when burned up corpses of children killed in drone attacks are sent around via YouTube—these powerful images of what the West is all about to those who haven’t yet decided if what the militant jihadi terrorists claim in their anti-Western ideology is correct. And it only takes one or two of these—like the Tsarnaev brothers for example, to jump into the terrorist camp and wreak havoc for all of us.

Images and stories about torture and acts that cross the bounds of human decency can easily be used to push fence sitters into the enemy’s camp ideologically and also to then move them along the terrorist trajectory into finally enacting terrorism.

While Sarah Palin may consider herself a patriot, all we need are more Americans publicly espousing waterboarding, and other unacceptable terror methods, to push even more potential enemies into believing that indeed the West is serving, or is itself, the Great Satan. 

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the Medical School and author of Talking to Terrorists. She conducted psychological autopsies of over half of the one hundred and twelve Chechen suicide terrorists, interviewed hostages from Beslan and Nord Ost and has interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world. 

Childhood Cancer and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

“Your child has cancer.” These are words no parent ever wants to hear.

“You have cancer,” is often a meaningless sentence to a child, but the fear and horror the child sees in his parents’ faces and hears in their voices is unmistakable.

For parent and child, a cancer diagnosis is a mental shock. And the physical shocks that follow that diagnosis—invasive treatments, surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy are also difficult to bear, also potentially traumatizing.

Cancer is a life threatening disease. And the threat to life—including the treatments to save life—can be traumatizing to those who witness their child or sibling going through cancer treatment. Death of course makes it even harder. Treatment is also potentially traumatizing to the child with cancer, potentially leaving psychic scars lasting well after a hopeful recovery.

Facing a series of repeated life threatening events puts each of this group (parents, siblings, and the childhood cancer patient as well) at risk for developing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a disorder that is commonly associated with exposure to combat, natural disasters, or bodily assault.

PTSD in those who experience cancer, usually presents in response to feeling one’s life or one’s child/or sibling’s life is under serious and/or repeated threat.

The symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Reexperiencing the cancer treatment in nightmares, intrusive thoughts or flashbacks—scenes that are often reported to be much like full sensory movies playing unbidden in one’s mind.
  • Avoiding places, people and reminders of the cancer experience including shutting down sharing with others what one has been through.
  • Negative changes in beliefs and feelings including feelings of guilt, fear, shame or losing interest in previously enjoyed activities and feeling alienated from others.
  • Bodily hyper-arousal experienced as agitation, inability to fall or stay asleep, being easily startled, irritable, having difficulty concentrating and so on.

To qualify for a diagnosis of PTSD these symptoms must last for longer than a month and must significantly interfere with life functioning in relationships, work, education or other important areas of life.

In some cases delayed responses occur and in others only some of the features of PTSD occur. Or other related disorders arise such as anxiety disorder or panic, phobias or depression. Those who are suffer from PTSD are also at increased risk for substance abuse—as alcohol or drug abuse arises out of attempts to self medicate flashbacks and nightmares away.

Children who have PTSD often manifest their symptoms in ways that are unique to their developmental stage. For instance traumatized children may revert to wanting to sleep with their parents or go backwards on skills they previously mastered. They also often display a need to play and replay the cancer experience in attempts to master it. Or hyper-arousal may come across as aggression or misbehavior, especially in boys. Girls often go dissociative following a traumatic event—meaning their minds compartmentalize the event. They may say “everything is fine” and show no emotion but if someone where to measure their pulse when cancer is being discussed, they would see that their bodies are showing agitation. More loving touch, sleeping near to parents, and loving interactions with pets can help both adults and children to self soothe in the face of hyperarousal and posttraumatic re-experiencing.

When it comes to trauma children also often take their cues from their protectors. Parents who stay calm and who modulate their emotions well model to their children about how to cry over sad news, stay strong in the face of fear and self comfort, as well as seek comfort for overwhelming emotions. Parents who get hysterical or who shut down emotionally provide little support for children who have to navigate their own emotions and need help doing so.

The risk factors for developing PTSD in response to cancer include longer hospital stays, recurring cancers, invasive procedures such as bone marrow transplants, greater experiences of pain, previous traumas, previous psychological problems or high levels of stress in general. The protective factors against developing PTSD include a strong support network; help regulating emotions, and a good relationship with the medical staff.

PTSD following cancer should be treated sensitively. A child who is for instance triggered into fear states by the smell of a hospital or medical setting, or white lab coats needs help working through their present day anxiety while separating it from the pain or distress that went before. Children and parents may need help reframing present day thoughts that lead to anxieties and slow exposure to triggers to understand they are different (and safe) now, and help learning to calm.

The child patient as well as his or her siblings may develop more behavior problems than before the cancer treatment, become clingy or need help expressing anger versus acting it out. They may also want to avoid reminders of anything to do with cancer and even the medical system. In some case avoidance works to a certain point, but too much avoidance creates a cycle of trying to shut down only to have the painful re-experiencing start up again with another exposure to triggering reminders.

Families are strained when cancer is part of the picture. And each family member has their own way of responding to traumas—withdrawing, acting out, etc. adding an even heavier stress load on the marriage and family system. It can be hard for parents to meet the needs of everyone equally. Often the sick child gets all the attention and the siblings suffer and learn to withdraw or meet their needs outside the family creating complications later on.

Marriages are also at risk when one partner develops PTSD. For instance Stacey, a mother deeply traumatized by her young son’s cancer diagnosis and treatment found that after a hopeful resolution of his cancer she could no longer sleep well and was plagued with nightmares, flashbacks of hospital procedures and flash-forwards of imagining a dire future—including the return of cancer and death of her son.

To cope with her psychological agitation Stacey started avoiding activities she previously enjoyed. She stopped going to her son’s school or sports activities, didn’t want to have sex with her husband or go out to dinner with their friends—responses that Jim, her husband found inexplicably painful. And when Jim became angry over not understanding that posttraumatic triggers were causing Stacey to “shut down” they would have painful arguments that resolved nothing.

Children and adults with PTSD do best to work slowly with help if needed, through their traumas by facing it in small steps and creating a narrative of sorts that works for them. One of the most painful parts of PTSD is dealing with a trauma that makes no sense and for which one has no cognitive frame—“You have cancer,” is often too horrific a statement to accept. Or the suffering of a child in treatment is also too horrific to accept—at first. But over time, cognitive frames must be created in which one finds peace and accepts into one’s life story that indeed this trauma occurred and now needs to be accepted as real.

Running away from it and living with the painfulness of cycling through flashbacks, avoidance and hyperarousal is no way to live. Medications in serious cases may be useful, and relaxation training is also helpful. Simply understanding what one has been through and that posttraumatic responses—even to cancer—are normal can help to work through it.

Most PTSD sufferers feel a sense of foreshortened future—that their lives will not be as long as previously expected or as fully lived. In some case that is the sad reality, but in others it is simply fear that needs, like the cancer, to be excised from the mind.

In the end, both the trauma and the cancer need to be accommodated and the sufferer must find peace in mind and soul with both—no matter the outcome.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School and author of several books. Her latest children’s book is Timothy Tottle’s Terrific Dream.

Psychological Health for All—Throwing off the Beauty Queen Routine

Beauty pageants have dominated the news this past week. The French Senate banned them for girls under 16, threatening a two-year prison sentence and stiff fines of thirty thousand Euros for organizers–or parents–who enter their children into illegally organized contests. The French bill referenced the spate of advertising already occurring in France with hypersexualized images of prepubescent girls showing up in advertising and the potential negative mental health effects to girls of sexualizing them at a young age by requiring them to wear heavy makeup and provocative attire.

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In the same week many in the U.S. were surprised to learn that we still hold the Miss America contest and that it was won by an American of Indian heritage. Derogatory comments on Twitter erupted about why an Arab and Muslim had won the American contest despite the fact the new Indian descent Miss America was neither Arab nor Muslim and we already had an Arab Miss America two years ago (Rima Fakih). It seems some forget the beauty of the American dream– in myth at least–is its ability to assimilate and offer opportunity to all. Even our beauty contests allow American contestants of any ethnicity or religion to potentially win–despite prejudices held by these few on Twitter.

Next, a Marina High School in Huntington, CA elected sixteen-year-old Cassidy Campbell, a male to female transgender who is still in the process of transition, to be its homecoming queen.

Cassidy Campbell

It turns out that Campbell is not the first transgender girl to win the homecoming queen title. Jessee Vasold, a male to female transgender became homecoming queen in 2009 at William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA and a nineteen-year-old named Devon, also a male to female transgender student still undergoing transition was voted her school’s Junior Homecoming Princess. In the last case Devon was elected to the queen’s role without letting on about her status and prior to having sex reassignment surgery.

So what does all this news amount to? Are women of any background now able to break the sexist stereotypes of beauty pageants these days? Or, are the stereotypes still breaking the women and girls they crown? Is crowning any girl—a still transitioning or fully transitioned transgender woman, an Arab, a Muslim, or none of these categories—to become a high school or college homecoming queen, or beauty pageant winner a good thing? Is it healthy for any group of females to be submitting themselves to the organized judgment of others—to determine who is most worthy according to external standards?

The French are perhaps the first to officially recognize that it is not healthy for young girls organized by adults–to try to fit stereotyped gender roles and compete in popularity contest in large or whole part based on sexualized ideals of beauty that have nothing to do with innocence or childhood–and that these pageants are detrimental to the psychological health of all young girls.

Transgender individuals now entering into homecoming contests may perhaps begin to cause some of us to ask ourselves what is both gender and beauty anyway–and how much of it is culturally defined versus intrinsically known? And why would we want any developing young person under the age of eighteen–male or female, transgender or not, to submit themselves to the scrutiny of others to decide if they measure up? For a country that got rid of royalty on its road to independence it seems Americans could also now grasp the wisdom of doing away with the hierarchal idea of beauty queens. Can’t we recognize and bring out the beauty in everyone and celebrate real beauty without any king or queen being crowned among us?