Horsemeat, Child-Soldiers, and Tiaras: Breaking Down Social Constructs

Several months ago, there was a huge outcry that the Swedish furniture store IKEA was found using horsemeat in their meatballs and sausages. [1] Apparently they had been doing this for years, but only now did they get found out and shamed for it. Critics called this revelation, “disgusting”, “an outrage”, and even “immoral.”[2] Apparently people don’t like horses mixed in with their cows.

The last thirty years has shown a huge increase in the amount of children being used as soldiers in many conflicts around the world, but most notably in the Sudanese, Burmese, and Somalian conflicts. This unfortunate aspect of wartime culture has been brought to the forefront by many human rights groups and concerned individuals in the West, largely due to such movies as “Blood Diamond,” “Invisible Children,” and more recently “War Witch.” It is estimated that over 300,000 children between the ages of seven and fifteen are currently engaged in military conflicts around the world, with more being “recruited” every day.[3]

There are currently over fifty child-beauty pageants in the United States, and over two-hundred worldwide. An average of one million children each year, aged six-months to sixteen-years-old, are heavily caked in makeup, dressed in absurd outfits, taught some simple dance moves or modeling poses, and paraded off in front of a lineup of judges, with prizes growing as big as $10,000. Promising child pageanteers can go on to earn huge modeling and acting contracts, securing their spot in upper-class American lifestyle for as long as they can keep up the image. [4]

What do these three stories have in common?

Let’s start with the horsemeat. Apparently, the good people of Europe were horrified that they were unknowingly consuming horsemeat, when they thought they were eating cow meat. In other words, the thought of eating a horse was disgusting to them. But why? What is fundamentally different about horsemeat and cow meat? They are both large four-legged mammals that consume a very similar diet and, according to some critics, taste remarkably similar. [5] Why, then, is it considered distasteful, except for the fact that we don’t think of them as “edible” animals? Why is it ok to eat a chicken but not a parrot? Why is it normal to eat a pig but not a dog? A turkey but not a cat? Salmon but not penguin?

The simple answer is that we have been socialized to see certain animals as edible and others as not-edible. One has to look no farther than your nearest ethnic market or recent traveling experience to verify this claim. I clearly remember my first experience of eating cat, dog, and canary in downtown Guangzhou, China. I was at first horrified and disgusted, but as I spent time assimilating to the culture and saw them being eaten casually and without alarm, I quickly adapted to my surroundings and was enjoying puppy stir-fry like a champ. In the last several years, I have become a vegetarian, and it has greatly affected how I view the world and my relationship with animals. When I heard the story about IKEA, I found it to be quite odd, as I view cows to be just as sacred as horses, and just as sacred as any other animal that is killed for our enjoyment and/or consumption.

I found myself asking the question: “Is eating a horse really any more disgusting than eating a cow, or even a dog for that matter?” Really, though, beyond your initial disgust, is there anything fundamentally different about it? Maybe the situation at IKEA is only disgusting in that it highlights the gruesomeness and brutality of eating other creatures’ flesh in the first place. Whether or not we want to believe it, cows, pigs, chickens, fish, and turkeys feel pain and suffer just as much as our beloved house-pets would if they were to be slaughtered for food. Maybe this situation displays our cultural double-standard and exposes our hypocritical social constructs in regards to animals and food.

Maybe we just shouldn’t kill other creatures for our pleasure.


I was watching a movie with my partner the other day and there was a scene where the lead character was attempting to defend a group of young children from an evil warlord who wanted to capture the children and train them to be child-soldiers. The lead actor was heroically shooting, stabbing, and blowing up all of the “bad guys” to save the children from a lifetime of enslavement and unspeakable horror. The unintentional irony about the whole scene, however, is that the “bad guys” were all child-soldiers themselves – yet there was no moral dilemma or conflict in the “action hero” killing them, because they were carrying guns and were the aggressors. So apparently, a child is worth protection up until the moment they pick up a gun and start shooting at you. Then they are easily dispensed of with no special regard or status.

As I was watching this movie, I was struck with the brutality and inhumanity of the existence of child-soldiers, and wondered how humans could do this to each other. How someone could kidnap a child, kill their family, get them addicted to heroin, and then brainwash them into becoming a killing machine, blows my mind. Then I wondered, “How is this really any more tragic than grown-up children killing each other?”

I tread on thin water here because it is impossible to deny an increased level of psychological and physical damage that occurs in children as opposed to older men and women, and I very much want to validate the important differences between child-soldiers and adult soldiers.

With that being said, I think it is a fair question to ask: what really is the difference between the existence of child-soldiers and war in general? What is fundamentally more “evil” about an eleven-year-old child-soldier versus a nineteen-year-old child soldier?

I think back many years ago to a warm August day at my parents’ home in Colorado. I woke up early to take a shower, put on my nice shirt, and cracked open a new stick of Old Spice because the US Marine recruiter was coming over. I had always been fascinated with the idea of joining the military and, as a naïve seventeen-year-old, was finally old enough (with parental consent) to make my dreams a reality. The recruiter was very polite and respectful as he laid out his brightly-colored brochures of young men and women proudly “serving their country” in a variety of jobs and environments. He mesmerized me with tales of adventure and heroism, and assured me that my life would be well-spent for a “noble cause” by joining “the finest military force the earth has ever seen.” I would have signed up that day if there hadn’t been a bigger story being woven at the time.

Looking back at that day and that period in my life, I had no idea who I was or what I was getting myself into. I was nothing more than a child with some facial hair and a big ego. I firmly believe that if I had joined the military, it would have completely destroyed me. I would have been ordered to commit various atrocities and acts of violence on my brothers and sisters around the world with absolutely no awareness of what I was doing or any ability to handle or properly process the trauma that I was experiencing and inflicting on the world. I believe that I either would have become a calloused, bitter, jaded soul or been imprisoned for not being able to follow through on orders that defied my conscience.

I consider myself very lucky that I didn’t join the military, and yet many, many others are not that lucky. The median age for entering the US military is 19, [6] and many other countries have an equally low median age, if not lower. There are very good reasons that twenty-two veterans kill themselves every day, and tens of thousands more experience PTSD and depression from their experiences. [7]My grandfather drunk himself to death after leaving the Air Force, and I have many friends who are unable to deal with reality without the help of alcohol or other mind-altering substances, thus leaving them jobless and homeless.

Again, why is the idea of child-soldiers so appalling and horrible, yet war in general is acceptable? Is there really anything less sad about an eleven-year-old killing someone or being killed than a seventeen-year-old, a twenty-two-year old, or even a thirty-year-old? How have we become so desensitized to violence and war that we see war as an acceptable past-time for our country, so much so that for the 237 years of our existence, we have only spent 21 of those not at war?[8] Why isn’t the idea of violence in whatever form it comes in horrifying, sickening, and offensive?

Maybe the existence of child-soldiers is only appalling in that it highlights the sadness and brutality of war and violence in the first place. Maybe it simply highlights our culture’s grossly hypocritical social constructs and exposes our callousness and desensitization towards violence.

Maybe humans simply shouldn’t kill each other.


Let’s lighten up the conversation now. Who could say something bad about child beauty pageants?

What’s not to love about adorable, pudgy little kids smiling, cheesing, and waving at cameras as they prance around a stage in bikini’s and ball gowns? It’s just… so…cute! Child beauty pageants are a patently American tradition, although they have since spread to Australia, Europe, and Asia in the past century.[9] You can now watch them in the comfort of your home with television shows such as “Toddlers and Tiaras” and “Little Miss Perfect.” It has become a normal part of American culture – to dress children up like adults and parade them around to be judged on their appearance and performance. The kids have fun, the parents have fun, the judges have fun, and everybody’s happy, right?

Not according to many child psychologists, social researchers, and people with common sense. Psychologist Martina M. Cartwright has reported that forty percent of children who participate in beauty pageants have long-going psychological problems from the experience, and sixty percent report being unhappy during the competition.[10] Women who have participated in pageants as children are significantly more likely to be unhappy or insecure about their physical appearance, leading to eating disorders and other destructive habits. These women are also at a much higher risk for sexual abuse and assault, as their views on sexuality and societal-worth are greatly influenced and distorted by their participation in the pageants.[11]

Then why would these girls participate if they didn’t enjoy it? Maybe it has much more to do with their parents’ own insecurities and our society’s overall objectification and sexualization of women than we would ever want to admit to or discuss.[12]

It is highly likely that these young girls have absolutely no idea what is going on, and they are simply too young and naïve to realize what is being done to them. From a very early age, they are being held to a standard of beauty that they will never be able to meet without the aid of destructive eating disorders, diets, and/or drugs. Their identities are being forcibly shaped by the world around them, their future is being planned for them by society, and they have little-to-no say in the matter.

How many of those little girls do you think made a conscious decision to become a child-star? How many four-year-olds come home from pre-school and tell their parents, “I have weighed my career options and, given the current economic state of our country and my current interests, I have decided it would be wise for me to go into media and entertainment. As this is such a competitive field, I believe it would be fortuitous of me to start early and, therefore, I would like you to sign me up for a local beauty pageant as soon as possible.” I can see the parents nodding thoughtfully and agreeing to help make their daughter’s dreams come true.


The simple fact that child beauty pageants not only exist, but are widely viewed and celebrated, is an alarming sign of our cultural desensitization to the rights and welfare of children and sexualization and objectification of women, regardless of age. If we can turn on an electronic screen and enjoy watching 5-year-old children being objectified and judged on their physical appearance, we need to seriously reevaluate our social constructs and standards.

Why aren’t we just as horrified at the objectification and sexualization of women in our culture[13] as we are at the thought of child soldiers? Why is one normal and not the other? To bring it home, how is forcing a child to be a model any different than forcing them to become a soldier? Again, I want to be very clear that there are many significant problems with child-soldiering, and I am in no way minimizing the horror or evil of such a problem, yet I believe there is an important question to be asked here. When a child is forced to put something on, whether it is a tiara or an AK-47, there is a problem. When we regularly slaughter and eat the flesh of one animal, yet treat another animal like a member of our family, there is a problem. When all of these things are “normal,” there is a problem.

Like it or not, we live in a world that is composed of endless social constructs and cultural values. It is extremely important to start questioning our “norms” and examining our social values and standards. Whether it’s the animals we eat, the age of the children we allow to shoot one another, or the objectification and hyper-sexualization of women, the hypocrisy is everywhere – if we will allow ourselves to see it. For those of us who have trouble seeing it, I leave you with quote from a book that inspired me greatly:

“These people walk by a widow deformed by leprosy… walk by children dressed in rags living in the street, and they think “Business as usual.” But if they perceive a slight against God, it is a different story. Their faces go red, their chests heave mightily, they sputter angry words. The degree of their indignation is astonishing. Their resolve is frightening.” – Yann Martel – Life of Pi


[4] Giroux, Henry A. Stealing Innocence: Youth, Corporate Power, and the Politics of Culture. New York: St. Martins Press, 2001.