Beauty pageant girls are being used as show ponies
Babies are not Barbies. And toddlers don't need tiaras, either. But that won't stop hundreds of Ulster mothers entering their infant daughters in a beauty contest coming to Belfast next month, run by the Texas-based Universal Royalty company.
The organisation seems to specialise in these twisted competitions, along with various other methods of turning your lovely little girl into something freakish that resembles a cross between a dead-eyed doll, a Halloween fright-mask and a wannabe whore.
"We can add Teeth, Eyelashes, Change Backgrounds, Remove Blemishes, Change Colors and lots more," chirps an ad on Universal Royalty's website. No, it's not an offer for the junior competitors themselves – though you might be forgiven for thinking so, given the amount of fake tan, fake hair, fake everything that's larded on to the girls, so that they may be judged as truly beautiful. This is an advert for photo retouching.
What you do is send them a photograph of your child, along with $45, and they'll transform the image into a perfected, confected version of her natural self. The really heart-breaking part is the rider: "We offer a low price for our retouching services, regardless of how much retouching your photo needs."
So, no worries then: no matter how ugly, toothless, blemish-ridden and generally repulsive your baby is, you can at least console yourself with a treasured picture of how you wish she could look. In your dreams.
It turns out that Belfast will be the only place on the island to welcome Universal Royalty and their creepy baby beauty queens in September. There were to have been pageants in Dublin and Cork, as well, but public distaste for the nature of the events appears to have led to the bookings being cancelled.
It won't be like that here, of course. Knowing the desperate gratitude that both politicians and PR men cringingly display when any rich, successful organisation deigns to visit our abject little statelet, there will probably be a champagne reception at Titanic Belfast, with fireworks afterwards.
Maybe they'll even offer Universal Royalty some cash for bringing their business here: that's the usual form, isn't it? And then the judges can get down to the delightful task of deciding which, out of all the make-up-clabbered young girls lined up for their delectation, is the most pleasing to the eye.
Sure, there have been one or two dissenting voices. Patricia Lewsley-Mooney, the Children's Commissioner, is "concerned that putting young children in this sort of position may not be in their best interests". But such advice can be safely ignored, as usual, since the office of the Children's Commissioner – while costing the taxpayer well over £1m a year – appears to exist for little other purpose than stating the bleeding obvious, in tones of earnest, preachy caution.
That aside, I've long been revolted by the compulsion to trick little girls out like fake princesses and porn stars and call it a treat. The child beauty pageant is simply the logical conclusion of all those make-over parties and padded bras and Rihanna videos that litter modern girlhood.
The message they're getting is simple: no matter how kind, or creative, or clever, you are, the one thing you will be certain to be judged on is how you look. Hot or not, that's what it comes down to, sooner or later.
And it seems a strange irony that all this junior primping and polishing is going on in tandem with massive paranoia about the threat from predatory paedophiles. We're terrified at the thought of the bogeyman who likes little girls and, at the same time, we're dressing them up like bait. How does that make sense?
Of course, these child beauty contests are not really about the girls themselves at all. The whole screwed-up shebang is run by the mothers.
They are the ones who are driving it: going out and buying the false nails and the fake tan and the cutesy cut-off tops, spending hundreds of pounds so that their six-year-old can look like a cheap hostess in a Magaluf nightclub.
You do wonder what thwarted impulses, disappointments or frustrations in their own lives would make them want to seek out a vicarious thrill through sexing up their children in this way. Who knows?
But let's hope they're saving for the therapy bills when the girls grow up and realise they've been used as performing show-ponies throughout their childhood. They'll need it.