BEIJING (AFP) - Manicured children strut down the catwalk at a Beijing fashion show, one of thousands of events driving huge demand for child models in China that insiders warn leaves minors vulnerable to physical abuse, 12-hour days and unrelenting pressure from pushy parents.
The children's apparel market is growing faster than any other clothing sector in the country and was worth more than US$40.5 billion (S$55.9 billion) in 2018 according to Euromonitor.
This, combined with the rise of "kidfluencers" sponsored by brands to promote products on social media, is spurring greater demand for young models - but experts warn of the heavy cost of pursuing such deals.
"If children don't listen to the parents then I think hitting them is quite standard," Mr Lee Ku, founder of Le Show Stars modelling school, told AFP.
A video of a mother kicking her three-year-old daughter in fury at her failure to comply during a modelling job went viral earlier this year, causing outrage online.
And footage emerged online in early August of a young boy modelling thick winter clothes outside as temperatures soared to 37 deg C, also drawing heavy online criticism.
But in an industry where minors can earn 10,000 yuan (S$1,960) a session, Mr Lee says the clip is the tip of the of the iceberg and that from his experience, such violent behaviour from parents was not unusual on shoots.
Child models sometimes go through more than 100 outfit changes in a session, often working from morning to night.
But mental health experts warn it is not just physical exhaustion they have to contend with - there may be long-term emotional implications.
"Children from the age of zero to six are mentally developing, they need a lot of exploration and freedom," explained child psychologist Gong Xueping.
"At work, the child model will deliberately show a lot of different expressions... but this is contrary to the child's own feelings of the moment. This limits the development of both emotional abilities and more complex psychological abilities for children, so I think it's a very bad choice," Mr Gong added.
HUNDREDS OF COMPETITIONS
But there remains no shortage of parents interested in pushing their children into the profession.
Founded three years ago, Le Show Stars was one of the first modelling schools in Beijing, where customers pay up to 800 yuan for a private one-on-one lesson.
Four-year-old twins Yumi and Yuki Xiao are not yet professional models, but for nearly two years, the brother-and-sister pair have been taking classes where they are taught how to pose and pace the catwalk in the hopes that they can break into the industry.
"For some catwalking competitions, they have to be in the make-up room by 6am," their father Xiao Liang said.
"The real competition starts at 2pm, and they finish around 3pm or 4. So the whole thing, takes a whole day. From 6am to 6pm - 12 hours is pretty standard."
Their parents invest in taking them around the country to compete in hundreds of national child modelling competitions.
"It's a lot of fun, I like being on stage," insisted Yumi.
Like many other parents, Mr Xiao says he initially enrolled the two in child modelling to build their self confidence, but after Yumi and Yuki showed interest, they started to invest more time and money into building a possible child modelling career path for them.
Occasionally, the twins are paid to model seasonal fashion lines for big brands.
"I think they are one of a kind, firstly, they're twins, and they're also boy-girl twins," Mr Xiao says proudly.
"They also like it, which is why we are giving them this opportunity. I think they have a natural advantage over other kids," he added.
'LOSS OF CHILDHOODS'
China's laws around child labour are complicated and parents of underage models are sometimes paid in secret to sidestep the red tape required to employ them.
Responding to the kicking video, Hangzhou authorities introduced regulations to limit the hours children work and ban children under 10 from being brand spokesmen.
But many feel the authorities are doing too little to protect children from exploitation.
More than 110 child retailers on e-commerce giant Taobao said they would scale back use of young models, and also demanded more regulations.
Thousands have debated the topic online, calling for rules to be tightened to prevent abuse.
"To me, child models are nothing different from child labour. They have to finish their work no matter how tired they are when other children are playing, and their short childhoods are lost making money for their parents. I suggest that we step up legislation... to protect their rights and interests," one Weibo user said.
Another commented that some parents see their offspring only as a "money-making tool", adding: "The only way is to strengthen regulation, supervision and protection."
Mr Xiao and his wife Bai Yu said they were aware of the potential pitfalls of the profession, and any decision to pursue the profession would be up to their son and daughter.
He said: "If they study well and they are interested in the prospect (of being a model), then I am sure to be 100 per cent supportive, as long as they are willing to spend their energy in this area."