May 17, 2012 -- She's only eight, but Lacey-Mae Mason is already a beauty pageant veteran. She competed in her first one when she was 14 months old.
But despite seven years of experience, the little girl from Brooklyn, Conn. faces perhaps her biggest pageant challenge yet in a nationwide competition chronicled on the upcoming season of TLC's show "Toddlers & Tiaras."
What sets Lacey-Mae apart from the other little girls on the show is that she has achondroplasia, the most common type of dwarfism. Although she's about twice as old, she is about as big as a three-and-a-half-year-old, said her mother, Kerry Ann Mason.
But judging from the mantle full of awards and trophies she's already won, her condition hasn't stopped her from wowing judges.
"Her size hasn't been an issue," said her mother. "People notice there's something different about her, but I'm not sure it plays much of a role."
"Toddlers & Tiaras" has generated a lot of controversy, with critics accusing mothers of sexualizing their young children and pushing them to pint-sized perfection at any cost. But Mason said she got Lacey-Mae involved in pageants to teach her daughter that she is beautiful no matter what her physical limitations may be.
"She entered her first pageant because they were handing out trophies just for participating," Mason said. "I thought it would be great for her self-esteem to tell her one day that the trophy on her mantle was from a beauty pageant."
Child psychologists say the chance for children with disabilities to participate in the same activities as non-disabled children can be beneficial, as long as they are not exploited and actually want to participate.
"Any time you can give a kid a more normal experience, it's a good thing for kids and people in general," said Alan Hilfer, chief psychologist at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
While not endorsing the idea of child beauty pageants, Hilfer said including people whose appearance may not be considered normal can be a powerful teaching moment.
"People can see that kids can be happy and have normal lives and not be damaged by their condition," he said.
"This is a chance for this little girl to feel special with the spotlight of positive attention on her," said Fran Walfish, a child and family psychologist in Beverly Hills, Calif. and author of "The Self-Aware Parent." "This could really be helpful to her self-esteem."
But psychologists also said it's important for Lacey-Mae to be the one who really wants to compete.
"If she is feeling pressured to do it and other kids give her a hard time and tease her, it's not going to be good for her mental health," said Nadine Kaslow, professor and vice chair of Emory University's Department of Psychiatry.
It's critical for all children to be willing participants, Kaslow added, since it's often difficult for children to stand up for themselves.
"One of the issues is that you get the sense that parents are living vicariously through their children," she said.
Lacey-Mae's mother, however, said her daughter relishes the pageant spotlight and that competition has helped turn her into the happy, vivacious child she is today.
"If she told me tomorrow that she doesn't want to do it anymore, that's fine with me," Mason said. "The main reason we do pageants is to help her self-esteem. Seeing the acceptance of people cheering her on and appreciating and loving her for who she is -- that has helped her so much."