For nearly three years, the hit TLC show Toddlers & Tiaras has captured the drama behind the scenes in the world of child beauty pageants. The tantrums were extreme, and the pre-show prep of spray tanning and eyebrow waxing seemed perhaps premature for little kids.
But in the last few weeks, as footage of 3- and 4-year-olds dressed in overly adult costumes (like Dolly Parton, complete with padded breasts, or Julia Roberts's streetwalker from Pretty Woman hit the airwaves, viewers and pageant skeptics have been expressing horror at an industry that is now accused of "sexualizing" young girls.
"Little girls are supposed to play with dolls, not be dolls," New York-based licensed clinical social worker Mark Sichel tells PEOPLE in its new issue, on newsstands now.
He adds that the extremes parents go to in order to prepare their children for competition – using padding, fake hair, flippers (faux teeth) and spray tans – "causes the children tremendous confusion, wondering why they are not okay without those things."
Now devoted pageant moms are speaking out in their own defense. Wendy Dickey, who dressed her daughter Paisley, 3, as Julia Roberts, tells PEOPLE the look was "tasteful and funny." Still, "If I knew there would be a reaction like this, I never would have used it," Dickey says. "Next time, she'll be dressed as an angel."
And Juana Myers, whose daughter MaKenzie has been featured on Tiaras, says unfair scrutiny has been placed on the pageant industry. "If this were a sport, no one would question it," she says. "This is her sport."
For more on the child pageant controversy, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday