A popular shopping mall in downtown Managua has agreed to cancel its annual kiddie swimsuit competition this weekend following an uproar on Facebook and in traditional media outlets.
Plaza Inter, Nicaragua’s oldest modern shopping mall, said it decided to cancel Saturday’s show to quell controversy following this week’s pushback on Facebook. Mall administrators insist the annual event, which pit bikini-clad 6-10 year old girls against one another on the catwalk, was never intended to be exploitative or sexually suggestive.
“This is not prostitution, it’s just family entertainment,” Plaza Inter’s Miriam Garcia told Fusion. Garcia said the mall has held the same competition every year for “many years,” but this is the first time there’s been any controversy — something she attributes to recent sexual-abuse scandals and Nicaraguans’ growing level of online activism.
“We made an administrative decision to cancel the event to avoid any more polemic,” she said.
Garcia defended Plaza Inter as a “responsibly and family-friendly” shopping center. The little girl swimsuit competition, she said, is a harmless event that belongs in the same category as other talent contests organized by the mall, including drawing competitions, singing contests, and the annual Halloween costume show.
Children’s rights advocates disagree.
“This is a competition that would have exposed and sexualized the bodies of young girls,” said Daisy Ramirez, a spokeswoman for CODENI, a coalition of 38 Nicaraguan non-governmental organizations that work to defend children’s rights.
Another local organization, known as the Quincho Barrilete Association, took its protest a step further by organizing a social media campaign that excoriated the event as a violation of young girls’ “psychological and emotional integrity.” The group called on corresponding government organizations to step up and do their jobs to protect children’s rights, rather than “accept this type of contest as normal behavior.”
The government—spurred to action by the collective cry of social media —emitted a few audible harrumphs of its own, affecting a sudden level of concern that it never expressed during the previous eight years of children's swimsuit competitions. The congressional commission on children’s rights denounced the swimsuit show as a violation of Nicaraguan law and international conventions safeguarding children’s rights. The ministry of the interior sent a stern letter to Plaza Inter with an ominous list of laws that they could be violating by holding the competition. Garcia said Plaza Inter's lawyers didn't think the event was outside of the law, but decided to call it off anyway.
The fact that the government acted and mall administrators capitulated shows the persuasive power of social media — even in a country like Nicaragua, which has the lowest Internet connectivity rate in Latin America.
The scandal also suggests a slowly evolving sensibility in a part of the world with a demonstrated tolerance — and, indeed, appetite — for bikini competitions featuring pre-pubescent girls.
On the other hand, the swimsuit scandal doesn't appear to have led to a greater enlightenment so far. Plaza Inter says it still plans to hold next month's annual baby diaper crawl.
Oh well, baby steps.