In a post-JonBenet Ramsey world, the very concept of incredibly young girls strutting around a stage in swimsuits and gowns with synthetic hair extensions and fake eyelashes in the bid to be crowned the next "Miss" something is bound to cause controversy. The Television Learning Channel (TLC) doesn't seem to mind, as they took viewers a little deeper into that world on Wednesday night with the third season premiere of “Toddlers and Tiaras.”
The first episode demonstrated the intense, very adult preparations that these girls, some as young as four years old, go through in the pursuit of tiaras, titles and $12,000 in cash and prizes.
But these beauty princesses-turned-reality TV stars obviously don’t do it alone. Which begs the question, do their beauty pageant stage parents make Jon and Kate Gosselin look like Ward and June Cleaver? Plus its one thing to dress your children like adults and parade around them for money without cameras following you around 24/7, but does taking your tots on television for all the world to see take things to another level?
"As a treatment professional of sex offenders as well as victims of sexual abuse, I would like the parents of these little girls to assume responsibility for their choices. They are sexualizing their young children. Do not be surprised if your child is preyed upon as a result of this high degree of visibility,” said Dr. Nancy Irwin, a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist. “Men can pose as agents/managers and track you/your girl down through the show. Further, know that sthey will be pleasuring themselves while looking at your daughter’s YouTube clip."
Irwin added that she would not say "these are the 'worst parents' – the worst would be those who actually abuse. These parents run a close second, however, as they are selfish…spoiling their children, and training them that their value is based on their beauty."
And according to childhood behavioral health psychologist and executive director of Wellspring Camps Dr. Mike Bishop, participating in this realm from such a young age can trigger a raft of developmental problems.
"Toddler beauty pageants set a superficial expectation about what makes someone beautiful – that beauty is primarily about your pose, your smile, your hair, and the clothes you wear. Self-worth should not be tied to competitions," Bishop told us. "Toddlers are not old enough to make an informed decision as to whether they should compete. Nor are they able to separate the competition from reality, which can make participation even more damaging to their self-esteem."
However, Annette Hill, the founder of Universal Royalty Child and Baby Beauty Pageants, which is featured on the TLC program and allows anyone from babies to adults to participate, started competing very early in life herself, and believes that the experience actually has a positive impact on young ones and their parents.
"Pageants allow for quality family time, everyone is involved, and everyone gets to go out for dinner together and travel together, and it promotes positive self esteem. Children that compete are more assertive and vocal, they aren’t afraid to look you in the eye when they talk to you, and they communicate very well,” Hill told Pop Tarts. "Besides, what is wrong with showing off your beautiful, talented daughter to the world? It is up to the parents to keep their children grounded. And if the child is backstage and doesn’t want to on, they certainly aren’t forced too."
Rochelle Scott, the director of California’s Cover Miss and Cover Boy pageants, agreed.
"The pageants, like the ones I run, build self esteem and character and make the kids more outgoing, and it’s a good way to mother and daughter or family to spend time together doing something they enjoy," Scott said. "Kids feel special when they have something sparkly on their head, even if it’s not the winning tiara, it makes them feel good about themselves and the fact they accomplished something. With the right attitude, pageants can be like any other sport."
However Keith Lewis, the Director of the Miss California USA and Miss California Teen USA, is “terrified” by the mere idea of child beauty contests, and even more so the motives behind why any parent would want their precious young one to transform into a pageant "princesses" – especially on reality television.
"I question these parents’ ability to parent. It is one thing if your child wants to express themselves through dance or acting, but there are other ways to do it," Lewis said. "It is just unfortunate that we have to share the same 'pageant' name as these things."
Season two of “Toddlers and Tiaras” achieved an average of 1.3 million viewers each week, and the fact that TLC is going in for a third season further demonstrates that this topic obviously resonates well with some American viewers – so what’s the fascination?
"These shows are so popular because, unfortunately, it seems the damage done to beauty pageant toddlers' self-esteem often results in demanding and bratty behavior. As a viewer, you want to watch what happens and it's certainly entertaining,” said Bishop. "But as a parent, you’re mostly glad they aren't your kids."
Hollie McKay has been a FoxNews.com staff reporter since 2007. She has reported extensively from the Middle East on the rise and fall of terrorist groups such as ISIS in Iraq. Follow her on twitter at @holliesmckay