ainted like dolls, and paraded like poodles, young Miss Americas are toddling in their party pumps down cash-carpeted catwalks from Miami to Memphis. Eight-going-on-eighteen, red-lipped and pouting, they swing their pre-pubescent hips, shedding layers of clothes in a way that to adult eyes can spell provocation with a capital "P". Not parading or on parade, but being paraded. And the booty is big: the owners of these miniature painted ladies can pocket anything up to $50,000.
After a lull in the adverse publicity that followed the murder in 1996 of the six-year-old beauty queen, Jon Benet Ramsey, junior pageants such as this one in Florida are booming again across the southern states of the USA.
How many parents can honestly say they never exploit their kids? Child expert Dr Benjamin Spock thought that children who are fussed over can get a feeling of destiny, believing they have been brought into the world for an important reason, and so gain confidence and drive. The dilemma for parents is how far to shield their children from the adult world, to allow them a formative age of innocence.
For millions of children in developing countries, who begin work as soon as they can walk and who become family bread-winners before they reach puberty, there is no age of innocence. For millions of other under-privileged children, it is lost in the battle for survival.
Having it stolen by your parents, however, is something else. Critics of the child beauty contests fear these prized young Americans will grow up psychologically damaged.
This picture appears in "The Millennium Generation: photographs by Robin Laurance", Thames amp; Hudson pound;12.95.
Words and picture by Robin Laurance
TURN TO PAGE 26 FOR Ted Wragg'S TEACHING TIPS ON THE BIG PICTURE