Last week, I was taken aback to hear a friend, recently unemployed, tell me sheepishly that she was thinking of making her son a baby model. "All the parents say he's the cutest one on the playground," she said defensively.

Apparently, this isn't uncommon. As the recession deepens, child modeling agencies are reporting that applications have more than doubled. Perhaps parents' increased availability as chauffeurs and minders helps, too - although the Times of London reports that some families are so cash-strapped that they're only able to take modeling jobs that don't require travel costs. Of course, like all forms of modeling, it's a world rife with scams and "registration fees" for the naive. Websites like Childmodel.blogspot instruct the parent who would capitalize on a baby's angelic looks and (more importantly) angelic disposition. Says Baby Modeling Secrets,

... and you know what? It isn't mumbo-jumbo rocket science either. In fact, it really isn't all that difficult to get your baby into the baby modeling industry - and for them to become a baby model superstar. Obviously, knowing the exact steps to take, and what pitfalls to avoid, does help, of course.

Baby model superstardom, however, doesn't sound that glam. Damon Syson, a journalist, explains the quotidian workings he observed while supervising his daughter, Ava's, brief career.

Most of the shoots that we attended took place in chilly studios around London. On arrival, you sign a form and are given a set of clothes to put on your baby. Then you go to the waiting area. You will inevitably have to wait for an hour, making awkward chit-chat with four or five mums, each of whom has her eye on one particularly cute outfit. At every shoot there is one adorable party dress/bonnet combo that every parent wants his or her child to wear. In the catwalk world, this translates to modelling the bridal gown and being chosen to give flowers to the designer...[the photographer] lies on the floor and points to a brightly lit spot on a white backdrop. Two women, whose role is to keep the models smiling, stand one on each side of him. They spend the entire day playing peek-a-boo and lobbing a toy chipmunk back and forth between them. Sometimes they use sound props, such as a "moo" noise - anything to make the infant look up: hence that quizzical expression worn by babies in adverts. What they are emoting is not "my, what a comfy sleep-suit" but "what the hell is that noise?"

And if your baby's feeling cranky or unphotogenic, there's always a second model at the ready; baby models are, apparently, fairly interchangeable, which adds to parents' anxiety. So why do it? Well, as most parents will tell you (somewhat defensively, in my experience) it's to get a little nest-egg going for the child, money parents legally can't use - and all from an experience that he or she probably won't even remember. There's a distinction, as my friend pointed out, between "baby modeling" and child modeling, which can carry a taint of unsavory pageant-style exploitation. So why does it still raise eyebrows? Well, maybe Syson's explanation gets at it.

Why did we decide to put Ava forward for modeling? Well, primarily for driving lessons, mind-broadening foreign travel or some other worthy future expenditure. But now, looking back, I have to admit that the other major reason was vanity. Yes, we wanted to show off our gorgeous baby (and, it follows, our exceptional genes). Of course, everyone considers their new baby gorgeous. But when John Lewis is paying for them to be photographed, it is proof that they are.

Perhaps there's a sense that, however wholesome a parent's motivations, the industry can be corrupting. As Syson says, "In the world of baby modeling, the normal rules of parenting don't apply: you fret not just about your child's health, happiness and development but about their employability." There are also the rare cases that even the most vigilant parent can't prevent, like the incident he relates in which a photographer actually glued the babies' diapers to the floor to keep them in place, while their parents were out of the room. In the age of the internet, nothing's as simple as it used to be; one hopes the little girl whose mother posted the "is my child cute enough to model" poll I came across on a parenting forum won't come across any of the "nos" in later life. Even if a child doesn't remember the experience, modeling is still money based on appearance, and a parent has to decide whether he's okay with that basic truth. The critic of the industry is always mindful of the specter of "stage parents": maybe you're okay, we think, but what about the rest of them? Are they really willing to end the modeling when the baby grows into a more impressionable child, or when it "stops being fun?" I'm guessing this is something even the most casual reader has no problem rendering an opinion on, for whatever reason. Modeling is one of the industries we feel most comfortable judging period, and when this meets the judgment-fueled, naturally competitive world of parenting? Look out. The industry may be on the rise, but so will be the opinions.

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Britain's Tot Models [TimesUK]
ChildModel [Official Site]
Baby Modeling Secrets [Official Site]