My friend gasped as we stopped at a pelican crossing in Belfast city centre yesterday: “Oh, my God, will you look at that”. There, strutting across the road with the haughty, confident walk of a miniature beauty queen, was a girl who couldn't have been more than eight years old.
She was wearing a tiny pair of pink shorts, an enormous wig of blonde ringlets, a glittering tiara and a faceful of heavy orange make-up.
“She looks exactly like that American girl, you know, the one who was killed,” said my friend, as we watched the girl and her mum walk away up the street.
I knew immediately who she meant. JonBenét Ramsey — the six-year-old American child beauty pageant contestant who was murdered in 1996.
This girl had the same teased blonde curls, the same self-consciously winsome expression, the same exaggerated lips and eyes. The case was never solved, but the killing of JonBenét did draw attention to the invidious, ultra-competitive world of child beauty pageants, which turns little girls into artificial, oddly-sexualised mannequin versions of themselves.
The little girl I spotted in Belfast wasn't a beauty pageant contestant. But in some ways she may as well have been.
She was evidently part of the ongoing World Irish Dancing Championships at the Waterfront Hall, where young female performers are expected to kit themselves out in fake tan, fake hair and the kind of lurid make-up that makes May McFettridge look subtle.
I've heard some of these girls compared to transvestites, but most of the transvestites I know apply make-up with more restraint, elegance and style.
Seeing these lovely young faces with their enviably fresh skin clabbered with thick make-up seems wrong.
It's a travesty to turn healthy, naturally beautiful girls into this grotesque parody of femininity — and frankly bizarre that it's all done in the name of our rich Irish heritage.
The lovely old ballad, The Star of the County Down, celebrates the natural barefoot beauty of a real “sweet cailín”, and “the sheen of her nut brown hair”. These hammed-up latter-day colleens have more in common with drag queens.
The saddest thing is that these kids — both girls and boys, but of course there's no compulsory makeover for the boys — are fantastically talented.
They are there to dance, and boy can they dance. The energy, stamina and skill is extraordinary, and the intricate footwork is evidently the result of weeks, months and years of intense practice.
Clearly there's much to admire in the global culture of Irish dancing. In our superficial, celebrity-obsessed world, it teaches children the importance of working hard to achieve your goals; it instils them with drive and discipline; it keeps them trim, nimble and super-fit. So why go and spoil it all with the tacky glamarama?
You can't blame the kids themselves. But I believe that the adults involved — the teachers, the judges, the parents — have a few questions to answer. After all, who's sticking on the false eyelashes?
The Irish writer Bernice Harrison, whose daughter is a dancer, has expressed concern about “how the spirit and style of Irish dancing could have gone so awry”.
She describes getting a note from her daughter’s teacher, ahead of a big competition, listing the requirements for each age category. It contained the directive that “under-16s must wear fake tan”.
Now why should that be? If they wanted true authenticity, they would never go near the brown gloopy stuff.
Genuine Irish legs are ghostly white, from being swathed most of the year in thick tights to keep out the cold.
In fairness to participants and their parents, it's very hard to change a culture like this once it's taken hold.
The girls' appearance becomes part of the intensely competitive ethos: wigs get bigger and curlier, lipstick gets brighter, and the original beautifully embroidered dresses of times gone by get replaced by neon efforts with stick-on sequins.
And the further you continue in competitions, the more pressure there is to conform to this exaggerated look. If everyone else is doing it, it becomes almost impossible to resist. Who is going to enter their daughter in a major Irish dancing competition with a clean face, naturally-coloured legs and her own hair on show?
It's not going to happen — but I wish it would. It would be a victory for talent over tackiness, for natural beauty over gaudy artifice, for a rich tradition over post-modern tat.