Skin Deep: Never Too Young for That First Pedicure


Published: February 28, 2008

NY Times

ONE recent rainy afternoon, Eleanor LaFauci, 7, sat with her feet in open-toed foam slippers, admiring her toenails, freshly painted watermelon pink.

“Look, we’re reading an adult magazine,” Eleanor told her mother, gleefully waving a copy of People with a desultory-looking Britney Spears on its cover.

Eleanor was in the bubble-gum-colored pedicure lounge of Dashing Diva, the Upper West Side franchise of the international nail spa, with her 3 ½-year-old sister and a half-dozen or so friends. The girls were celebrating her birthday with mani’s, pedi’s and mini-makeovers with light makeup and body art — glitter-applied stars, lightning bolts and, of course, hearts.

Eleanor’s mother, Anne O’Brien, stood watching and shrugged. “What can I say?” said Ms. O’Brien, whose husband suggested the party. “She’s a girly girl. I’m not quite sure how it happened. I didn’t get my first manicure until I was 25.”

Traditionally, young girls have played with unattended M.A.C. eye shadow or Chanel foundation, hoping to capture a whiff of sophistication. In the recent past, young girls have also tagged along on beauty expeditions by their mothers and teenage sisters.

But today, cosmetic companies and retailers increasingly aim their sophisticated products and service packages squarely at 6- to 9-year-olds, who are being transformed into savvy beauty consumers before they’re out of elementary school.

“The starter market has definitely grown, I think, due to a number of cultural influences,” said Samantha Skey, the senior vice president for strategic marketing of Alloy Media and Marketing.

Reality programming like “America’s Next Top Model” often hinges on the segment devoted to a hair and beauty transformation for the contestants, Ms. Skey said. On social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, members’ intense self-focus and their attention to how they present themselves also affect 6- to 9-year-olds, even though technically, they aren’t allowed to set up profiles on the sites, she added. “We live in a culture of insta-celebrity,” Ms. Skey said. “Our little girls now grow up thinking they need to be ready for their close-up, lest the paparazzi arrive.”

Sweet & Sassy, a salon and party destination based in Texas for girls 5 to 11, includes pink limo service as a party add-on, which starts at $150 a ride. And Dashing Diva franchises often offer virgin Cosmos in martini glasses along with their extra-virgin nail polish, free of a group of chemicals called phthalates, for a round of services for a birthday girl and her friends.

At Club Libby Lu, a mall-based chain and the most mainstream of the primping party outlets, girls of any age can mix their own lip gloss and live out their pop idol fantasies. Last year, the chain did about a million makeovers in its 90 stores nationwide, said Ari Goldsmith, the director of advertising and marketing.

Many of those were Hannah Montana makeovers, which entail donning blond wigs, makeup and concert costumes like the ones the girls’ idol wears. Mom and dad capturing them on the camcorder belting tunes is optional.

Dozens of results can be seen on YouTube, including one zealous poster’s series of “Rebecca as Hannah Montana.”

Brides and bachelorettes have long thrived on beauty services done en masse. But now primping parties are even popular for first graders.

Tracy Bloom Schwartz, an event planner at Creative Parties in Bethesda, Md., said that she ordered beauty-theme stock invitations a couple of years ago. “I figured we’d sell them for bridal and bachelorette-type of events,” she said.

“But now the parents of little girls — easily 6 years old — use these cards as invitations for their daughters’ birthday primping parties. And, the slightly older girls, say, 8 and 9, use them for makeover slumber parties,” she said. “Sometimes I want to ask, ‘makeover what?’ ”

In a study last year, 55 percent of 6- to 9-year-old girls said they used lip gloss or lipstick, and nearly two-thirds said they used nail polish, according to Experian, a market research company based in New York. In 2003, 49 percent of 6- to 9-year-old girls said they used lip gloss or lipstick.

Youth market analysts say this is part of a trend called KGOY, “kids getting older younger,” and cultural observers describe a tandem phenomenon, more-indulgent parents.

**It’s a point that vexes Rosalind Wiseman, the author of “Queen Bees & Wannabes” (Three Rivers Press, 2003). “Mothers and fathers do really crazy things with the best of intentions,” she said. “I don’t care how it’s couched, if you’re permitting this with your daughter, you are hyper-sexualizing her. It’s one thing to have them play around with makeup at home within the bubble of the family. But once it shifts to another context, you are taking away the play and creating a consumer, and frankly, you run the risk of having one more person who feels she’s not good enough if she’s not buying the stuff.”

A generation ago, girls had fewer products to choose from. Now, they have nail art; fragrance roll-ons; and all manner of glitter for face, neck, shoulders and hair marketed to them. That’s in addition to staples like lip balms, lip glosses and nail lacquers.

These products are moderately priced so that grandparents and parents can treat. Or so the very young can afford them with nothing more than change from the sofa, or their meager weekly allowance.

“Packaging is key,” said Ricardo Cruz, the marketing and licensing manager of the youth division of Markwins International, a company that licenses and manufactures a Bratz line of cosmetic gift sets as well as ACT, the company’s own brand. Because it’s makeup for little girls, Mr. Cruz said: “We’re not going to put lip plumper in there. It’s just little things the girls can test out, try on with their friends.”

With more-pressing issues of online predators, fast-food consumption and homework that needs to be done, the 10 parents interviewed for the article all said that they had allowed their daughters to attend a primping party.

“Of course, it depends on your environment, but here, I’ve even heard of Girl Scout troops doing this kind of social beauty thing,” said Stacie Christopher, a mother of three from Chevy Chase, Md.

And yet, there is always potential for backlash.

Last summer, when Bonne Bell and Mattel announced a partnership to introduce a line of Barbie-inspired Bonne Bell beauty products for 6- to 9-year-olds at the end of this year, a modest firestorm was set off online. A debate followed on Jezebel, a celebrity and fashion blog, on how young was too young for girls to wear makeup. One commenter reduced it to a simple formula: “Lip gloss and mascara at age 12 = sure. Anything other than pink nail polish on anyone under 10 = no.”

But cosmetics for girls at any age worries Lucy Corrigan, a mother of two daughters, 8 and 11, in Hastings-on-the-Hudson, N.Y. Still, last year she allowed her younger daughter to go to two salon birthday parties for 7-year-olds. “Of course, it was alarming,” she said. “But I’d rather my girls try it and decide they don’t need all these products to be beautiful, and then do something more vital with their time and money and efforts, like write a poem or take a walk or save the world.”