It is among the vilest things on television.
If you haven't seen "Toddlers & Tiaras" on TLC - a reality show about small kids vying for pageant crowns and cash - consider yourself lucky.
The show is loaded with images of little girls dolled up to look like tiny prostitutes, all while their mothers encourage them to parade across the stage doing suggestive moves in competition with other tots. It's a pedophile's dream.
The cable channel kicked off a set of new episodes last week as part of its second season. Unfortunately for me, I happened to stumble upon the show late Wednesday night and sat there, mouth agape.
It's almost like a train wreck. You know you shouldn't look, but you just can't take your eyes away.
On the program, and in video clips on TLC's Web site, there are images of tots sprayed so they look tan, given false teeth to improve their smiles, hair pieces to add oomph to their locks, false eyelashes and butt glue. Yes, you read that right, butt glue. Thanks to Google, I now know that this is an adhesive that keeps their swimsuits from riding up during competition.
Children cry often for a number of reasons - they're cold, uncomfortable, hungry, bored or fed up. Some were so exhausted from a full day of primping, preening and performing that they fell asleep in the middle of the judging. Their mothers jostled them awake to don a crown and sash; it was evident the pageant was more for mommy than it was for the kids.
One woman says she entered her sons into pageants to try to turn her boys into little girls, adding "these are the girls I never had." Another says: "My motto is if they're not talking about you, you're nobody."
Wow. If alarm bells don't go off with those statements, I'm not sure what would signal the bad parent police.
Mommy needs a time out.
The behavior chronicled on "Toddlers & Tiaras" is just plain sad. The message these poor kids are getting is that they're only worthwhile if they're pretty, and that the only way to be pretty is to cake on makeup and wear false teeth and revealing clothes. When children lose and go home crying, they also leave with the message that they aren't pretty enough, and therefore are no good at all.
TLC says it isn't trying to glorify pageant life or offer any kind of commentary on families who enter their children in these contests. Rather, it's all about capturing a moment of life - almost as a documentary would - for a segment of the population for whom pageants are real.
"Annually, over 100,000 young children participate in beauty pageants all across the country," TLC officials said in a written statement sent to me on Friday. "Their motivation for participating is as wide and varied as the pageants themselves. TLC is merely chronicling the prep work that goes into these events and tracing the competition of three families participating in each episode. These stories are told from an objective and unfiltered perspective, and highlight the diversity in child pageantry."
Unfortunately, "Toddlers & Tiaras" is probably going to be around for a while. TLC says the shows draw an average of 1.2 million viewers per episode, very respectable for a cable show.
Hopefully it's the train-wreck factor.