Say all the bad things you want to about reality TV: it’s stupid, it’s vapid, it’s mindless, it’s contrived, it’s pandering to the lowest common denominator of viewers, it’s not reality at all, it’s showcasing people who don’t deserve our attention…I don’t care. I love reality TV—all of it. It’s true! I love being a voyeur, and I have absolutely no taste. If a reality TV show is on, I will watch it. But I especially love the lineup of exquisite shows on TLC—which stands for “The Learning Channel,” not “Tender Loving Care,” btw. How apropos. I learn so much from TLC!

Of all the quality shows in the TLC lineup—which includes such educational gems as My Strange Addiction, Breaking Amish, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, and Sister Wives—there is really no question about which is my favorite. It’s Toddlers & Tiaras, and it is literally, without any uncertainty, the best thing ever. If you’re not watching it, you’re missing out.

Toddlers & Tiaras is a deeply controversial show about the deeply weird world of child beauty pageants, the children who perform in them, and the sometimes frightening parents who enter their children (usually little girls, but there are some boys) into them. Each show follows the same plot: we meet three different little girls and their mothers, and check out all the awards and stunningly glittery tiaras and trophies the child has already amassed. These trophies and crowns usually have titles like “Miss Sunshine Dazzling Diamond Ultimate Supreme” and “Universal Royalty National Pageant Third Runner-Up,” and they are usually bigger than the winner herself.

Then we follow each girl as she practices (or tries to get out of practicing) her routines for the pageant. Finally, we watch the family travel to whatever Hilton or Marriott hotel the “Show Me Smiles Fantasy Pageant” is being held at, watch the respective children get ready and perform, and then watch the crowning ceremony.

Sounds relatively benign and harmless, eh? WHAT IF I TOLD YOU THAT ONE OF THE PAGEANT PARTICIPANTS WAS THREE DAYS OLD? What if you were shaken out of your reality TV stupor and suddenly became aware that you were watching a four-year-old shriek in agony as her mother tries to attach fake eyelashes to her daughter’s eyelids?

This is absolutely the worst part of the show. I hate it when a child looks at her parent, the person she trusts most, and says plainly, “I DON’T WANT TO DO THIS” (which happens in almost every episode), and the mother brushes it off with an eyeroll and a swat of the hand. “You’re just being a brat,” the moms say. “She really loves pageants,” they tell the camera.

On Toddlers & Tiaras, bored-looking six-year-olds get spray tans. You know why they’re bored? Because they’ve had more than 30 spray tans already in their young lives. In these pageants, a tan is de rigueur—you can’t expect to seriously compete without one.

It is absolutely startling to meet a cheerful, confident, usually spoiled little girl in the beginning of the show and then suddenly be confronted later, when she’s ready for the pageant, with someone who has the face of a 20-year-old and the body of a five-year-old.

Big hair is the rule—almost everyone uses hair pieces, and then it’s teased to the gods. Everything is big. Dresses for “Glitz” pageants—beauty pageants with a focus on extremely glittery costumes and facial beauty instead of talent—can start at $650. $650, y’all. For a seven-year-old’s fluffy tulle dress. Fake acrylic nails (always French-tipped) are applied to the girls’ tiny fingers and toes. Some girls’ parents even order a “flipper” for them—a full set of fake teeth that can be fitted around a child’s regular baby teeth, giving them a freaky, perfect, adult set of choppers. As the box with her child’s flipper arrived, one mother explained that she had ordered it to cover up her daughter’s “bad teeth.” Her six-year-old daughter was missing her two front teeth.

The girls participating in these pageants, for the most part, seem to be into it. Or at least they’re pretty good at pretending to be into it. Lots of them say they love pageants, that doing pageants makes them feel special. They strut like mini prizefighters, declaring that they’re going to win money and crowns ’cause they’re the most beautiful girl in the world. They practice smiling and blowing kisses to the judges. They shout with glee when their costumes arrive in the mail, diving into the boxes and pulling out bedazzled tube tops and rhinestone-studded dresses. They seem happy enough, these girls.

Until something goes wrong, or starts to hurt. Have you ever had acrylic nails put on? It kills. Acrylic nails hurt when they’re applied because you have to file off the top layer of each nail to get the acrylic to bond properly with the nail. Spray tans are icy cold, and then you have to stand in front of a fan for 10 minutes to dry. Hairpins scraping against the head hurt, fake eyelashes make eyes tear up, flippers cut into gums, costumes itch, and participants have to wake up at 4 AM to start getting their makeup done on the day of the pageant. At these moments, the little girls turn from eerily poised beauty queens back into themselves, snarling and wailing and flinging themselves on the bed in the hotel room, yelling at their mothers.

Toddlers & Tiaras is not at all shy about portraying those mothers in the worst possible light, and America loves to hate these mothers, these women who put their little girls in bikinis and glue weaves into their hair and feed them caffeinated drinks and Pixy Stix to make them perky. There is an episode where we watch young Alana suck down great gulps of her “Go Go Juice,” a totally unjuicelike concoction her mom makes by combining Red Bull and Mountain Dew. The mothers always seem to justify what they’re doing, saying things like “She wants to do it” and “I put her in pageants to help with her self-esteem,” but the justification usually seems half-assed, and it nearly always comes across as a sad woman trying to live vicariously through her child. You haven’t seen drama until you’ve watched a mother try to wrestle her prize-winning five-year-old daughter into a shiny, tight fake-leather shirt while the girl screams and sobs that she can’t move. Which brings up the question: why do we love to accuse women of being bad mothers, when the dads of these kids get a pass?

Please do not get me wrong, here. I don’t enjoy watching kids being miserable, or watching them being forced to feed their parents’ egos. Who would do this to their child? Who would spray-tan a four-year-old, or glue extensions to their eight-year-old daughter’s head? As it turns out, lots of people would. But think of the messages these kids are getting from their parents: The only thing that matters is winning. Being beautiful is the most important thing. It’s awful. It’s also awful that as a feminist woman, I should find this show so diverting. But I doooooo. It’s a window into a world I cannot even imagine, and I am fascinated by it.

There are hysterically funny moments. The aforementioned Alana is nicknamed Honey Boo Boo Chile, and she is so full of personality that she got herself her very own TLC spinoff show. The first time we meet Alana, she lifts her shirt, grabs her cute baby-chubby belly, smooshes it towards the camera, and announces, “Those judges don’t know a good thing when they see it.” And that is my new mantra! Thanks, Alana! Five-year-old McKenzie looks critically at the mirror in her new costume, squints, and then declares, “If it’s McKenzie, everything goes together!” The best moments, though, are when the pageant moms get a horrified look on their faces as their daughters say something particularly bratty to them—a look that says, “What have I done?”

If Toddlers & Tiaras isn’t high-class drama, I don’t know what is. Big hair. Family feuds (Dad thinks the new dance outfit looks “a little too bondage-y” and Mom huffs, “It just shows her belly!” when the outfit in question is made of little strips of fake leather that make a bikini top with fringe). Thousand-dollar dresses. Enormous rhinestone tiaras. Girls who’ve been told over and over again that they are the most special, the most beautiful girls on earth sobbing when they don’t win the Universal Diamond Gemz Ultimate National pageant. Backstage catfights; beauty queens who still suck on pacifiers. Bad, extremely bad, parenting.

It’s a real-life microcosm, a tiny little world with celebrities who can’t sign their names yet. It’s awful. It’s wonderful. It’s reality television programming at its finest. ♦