Can Wearing Makeup Change a Kid’s Life?

According to a recent Mintel study, 80 percent of all tweens in the U.S. — that is, children between the ages of nine and 11 — use beauty and personal care products of some kind. (Photo: Getty Images)
According to a recent Mintel study, 80 percent of all tweens in the United States — that is, children between the ages of 9 and 11 — use beauty and personal care products of some kind. (Photo: Getty Images)

At the tender age of 12, Apple Martin told her mother, Gwyneth Paltrow, the creative director for makeup at Juice Beauty, that she was “very concerned” about the absence of contouring kits in the line’s product lineup. Paltrow has also noted that her daughter, who is not even a teenager yet, has also asked for a Kardashian-esque lip kit.

Martin isn’t the only prepubescent celeb child keenly attuned to the latest beauty trends, with a well-documented beauty habit. Tori Spelling’s 7-year-old daughter, Stella, dyed her hair earlier this summer. Gwen Stefani’s 5-year-old son, Kingston, has sported hair colors in different hues for most of his living days. At the age of 6, Suri Cruise, the daughter of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, was already wearing lipstick. Heidi Klum’s daughters were photographed with lips painted red at the ages of 2 and 8, respectively. And Coco Arquette, the daughter of Courtney Cox and David Arquette, has been a regular lipstick-wearer since she was 7.

Of course, it’s not only the progeny of the rich and famous who are as likely to carry around a makeup bag as a book bag. Spas — like the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills — offer treatments and cosmetic services, from manicures to massages to makeup application, for their (increasingly) younger guests. Even the American Girl doll stores offer salons where girls and their dolls can receive matching hairstyles. Clearly, girls and boys are getting the message that they should be engaging with the beauty industry before they’ve even hit puberty.

Indeed, the market and consumer intelligence agency Mintel recently published a report noting that 80 percent of all tweens in the United States — that is, children between the ages of 9 and 11 — use beauty and personal care products of some kind. Furthermore, the group found that 54 percent of all 12- to 14-year-olds use mascara, and another 54 percent use eye shadow, eyeliner, and eyebrow pencils. Forty-five percent of children this age use foundation or concealer, 30 percent use blush or bronzer, and 10 percent use hair-coloring products.

Furthermore, the agency reports, 42 percent of U.S. teens ages 12 to 14 say that they use beauty products because it makes them feel confident; 56 percent of teens ages 15 to 17 say the same thing.

Related: People Are Torn About This 6-Year-Old Makeup Pro

So we asked experts what to make of these staggering statistics and how to help children learn to understand beauty as a source of exploration and play, and not as the only benchmark for self-worth.

Juliet A. Williams, a professor of Gender Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, tells Yahoo Beauty that in her opinion, the single greatest contributing factor in the growing use of beauty products among young children is the way technology and social media have made it possible for marketers to reach them.

“Kids are now regularly exposed to advertisements, whether of the traditional form, like an ad on TV, or through product placement, which is an increasingly common practice in TV shows. Kids are virtually all the time being bombarded with messages of how to look, act, and what to buy to achieve that look,” she says.

Related: 5-Year-Old Goes Viral in Her First Beauty Tutorial — by Chopping Off Her Hair

Williams cites the theory Naomi Wolf lays out in her book The Beauty Myth that as certain kinds of gender stereotypes relax, pressure to “be” beautiful intensifies — a notion that is clearly trickling down to children.

The focus on personal beauty, which Williams describes as a “form of regulation” that women experience “not as oppression but as fun and a choice, is all the more pernicious,” she says.

Meanwhile, she notes, “I think that it’s certainly a good thing for kids to participate in self-expression and to feel a sense of pride in their bodies — and this has always been a part of the beauty industry. It can lend to expressive and creative choices any individual gets to make about their identity.”

The trick, Williams says, is to make sure that children engage productively with the beauty industry — encouraging an exploration of their identity, not forcing them to base their self-worth on certain standards of beauty. One way to negotiate this is to reframe beauty for younger children as a form of play.

Related: Farrah Abraham Fights for 7-Year-Old Daughter’s Rights — to Wear Makeup

“The key word really is play,” Williams says. “You have to ask yourself — for so many of these girls that are increasingly spending their free time in front of a mirror, taking selfies, comparing themselves to others on Instagram — is this coming out of a spirit of play or coming out of a need to establish some sense of self-worth? The concern comes from the fact that too often what we’re seeing is young girls trying to look like someone else. And that isn’t about self-expression — that’s about trying to fit in, to be loved, and to live up to some ultimately impossible norm.”

Andrea Press, the William R. Kenan Jr. professor of Media Studies and Sociology at the University of Virginia, agrees on what is driving younger children to use cosmetics.

“One of the big factors influencing this, obviously, is social media, enabling advertisers to reach this age group much more efficiently than they have been before. Hearing these kinds of statistics about young children is proof of that,” Press says. “I know! I use Facebook — I get targeted ads! These children are spending a vast majority of their time on social media sites, and thus with advertisers.”

Press says she is concerned about what increased screen time — and thus increased exposure to advertising — might mean for children in the long term.

Related: Here’s More Evidence That Disney Princess Culture Harms Girls

“There are certain issues in terms of self-image that are inherent with increased media exposure — and this whole generation is at risk through new channels of exposure through social media. We have research showing that those who are exposed to higher levels of advertising have more body image anxiety, general anxiety about their appearance and body,” says Press.

She says she is pleased to see that the Mintel study reports that 36 percent of all beauty product users between the ages of 12 and 17 (41 percent of all girls in this demographic, and 21 percent of boys) say they prefer personal care advertisements with models whose images have not been Photoshopped or airbrushed. It also says that 51 percent of teens say they seek out product ads with models who look “like them.” But Press is nevertheless concerned about the accuracy of research that shows that people still buy products even when they report that they are able to “see through” advertising strategies.

“This leaves us a little at sea when it comes to people being harmed and what the real impact is,” she says. “Are they really critical of [Photoshopped] images if they still buy the product? Or does it not affect them — but they still want to buy the product?”

“It’s true that people should be free to dress and adorn themselves as they choose,” Press says. “But it’s alarming that 11-year-olds are buying mascara. When you choose to adorn yourself in ways that are demonstratively linked to the commercial system we live in, it says, ‘Without mascara, I am not beautiful.’ There is nothing inherent in that judgment — we’re just schooled into it because of a multi-billion dollar industry.”

Related: ‘Dear Black Girl: You Are Beautiful’ Is a Short Film You Need to Watch Right Now

And yet, Press says, the way society evaluates and judges women, including young girls, based on the cosmetic choices they make is evolving.

“What has been an advance is that we don’t have a one-to-one correlation anymore, like, ‘She’s wearing eye shadow this way, so she must be this kind of girl.’ Things have opened up. Girls now feel free to experiment with a much broader variety of looks, and not get typed by the kind of makeup and clothes they wear — and that’s nothing like what it was for girls 50 years ago. We’re much more free now, and I think that’s a good thing.”

Williams adds that it’s not easy, particularly for parents, to walk the fine line between shaming children — girls or boys — for engaging with beauty products (because they are conventionally thought of as feminine) and, at the other end of the spectrum, implying by default that wearing makeup is necessarily a good thing.

Related: How Not Being Allowed to Wear Makeup Growing Up Shaped My Beauty Philosophy

“It shouldn’t be a question of good and bad,” she says. “Sometimes, it’s complicated. I’m a feminist, and I’m trying to teach my daughter to be liberated and empowered — and I’m wearing red nail polish. So do I say to her, ‘This is my secret vice?’ Or, ‘This is an emblem of my power?’ Maybe it’s a little bit of both. Maybe we don’t have to be so black-and-white about these things. I wear nail polish because it makes me feel attractive, and sometimes that gives me a little boost — and that isn’t something I deserve a prize for, but it also isn’t a crime.”

Williams also says she’s excited to see that the power dynamics shaping cultural influences have been shifting.

Social media and advertising play significant roles in self-esteem among young girls and boys. (Photo: Getty Images)
Social media and advertising play a big part in shaping self-esteem among young girls and boys. (Photo: Getty Images)

“We’re seeing the democratization of media,” Williams says. “There are so many kids on YouTube, they’re making music, they’re vlogging — there are all these kinds of homespun voices that are coming out now, and to me, that is a much more heartening form of [celebrity] than these passed-down forms of modeling.”

This also helps to encourage the idea of beauty as a form of play and not as a form of identity.

Related: Is It OK for Little Girls to Dabble in Makeup?

Play is one thing, Williams notes, but pegging your sense of self-worth to beauty is another. “We need to make sure,” she says, “that teens are coming from a strong enough self-foundation to be playful with beauty.” She suggests an old-fashioned solution as the best way to build that foundation.

“Lead by example. This generation of moms, we have to not be so horrified by the sense of getting older. Girls learn to be this way, and I don’t think it’s natural. And the other thing is that kids right now, with increased time on screens, there is an increased exposure to these ideas. But the more time spent with families and friends just playing instead of creating an image in front of a mirror or a selfie stick, the better balanced our kids will be.”

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