Your 8-year-old’s winged eyeliner freaks me out.
When I was 8 years old, nothing delighted me more than globbing half a tube of frosty, cupcake-scented gloss from Claire’s Accessories on my lips. It made me feel like a woman and smell like a dessert. I applied gobs of glitter to my eyelids and placed stickers in the corners of my eyes to complete the supernova look.
But I’ve noticed a shift in the way kids use makeup lately. The images I see in the media, both social and otherwise, depict girls as young as six using the cosmetics tools and tricks of grown women far more mature than they. Frankly, I’m disturbed by Facebook photos of old high school friends’ daughters in fake lashes. My Instagram feed has seen innocent faces with caked and contoured foundation. I’ve noticed 6-year-olds with winged eyeliner and bright lipstick.
However uncomfortable I feel seeing babies looking like beauty queens, what really concerns me are the long-term effects of wearing big-girl makeup on a developing child. When I imagine the fragile mind of a kid absorbing unspoken lessons about identity and self-worth, I wonder if drawing on winged eyeliner could have effects that last long after the makeup’s washed off.
I’m a very hip, Gen Y girl. I advocate for going commando and watch Game of Thrones. What I’m saying is, I’m not some granny clutching my pearls—but I still feel like a kid’s first experience with cosmetics shouldn’t look like this:
It should look like this:
This is what I look like when I try to contour too, Piper.
I’m certainly not the first to notice this trend. Last year, Kim Kardashian’s makeup artist, Mario Dedivanovic, stirred up controversy when he posted this photo to his feed:
People were deeply disturbed by her winged liner and pouty lips, commenting, “I’m feeling sick” and “THIS IS AWFUL PLEASE LEAVE CHILDREN ALONE.”
A similar outcry followed model Katie Price’s posting to Instagram the following image of her daughter, Princess, dolled up with spider-like lashes and pink pouting lips.
Commenters lamented, “Her future has been made up for her” and “This girl doesn’t stand a chance.” Another commenter wasn’t bothered by the makeup, but picked up on the sexualized presentation: “Fabulous makeup but not keen on a seductive pose (my opinion).”
Research supports my suspicion that wearing too much makeup too early on is bad for a developing child’s psyche. A recent survey conducted by The Renfrew Center Foundation, dedicated to advancing the education, prevention, research, advocacy and treatment of eating disorders, found that one in five girls who have worn makeup between the ages of 8 and 18 years old feel negatively about their looks when bare-faced. Those questioned reported feeling self-conscious, unattractive or generally feeling like something was missing. And they were right to feel like a part of themselves was missing, because it was—the artificial part.
But what about kid’s activities that require makeup for participation? Having been involved in performance art since I was a young child, I’ve worn my fair share of stage makeup. The argument that the makeup is intended to combat the washed-out effects of stage lighting is, in my opinion, a weak one. If I’m enjoying a dance performance, my focus is not on the dancer’s face, but on the artistry of her movements. Furthermore, the dark and unnatural makeup is extremely unflattering from the audience’s perspective.
When it comes to beauty pageants, I’m of the opinion that the activity encourages the idea that women exist to perform and to be put on display. Unless cosmetics are employed as costume for a dramatic role, I fail to see the necessity of them in the performance world. That said, I acknowledged their presence in the industry and understand that a child’s passion for artistic expression is something we should encourage and support.
I spoke to Dr. Jeri Dyson, MD, a DC-based adolescent physician and author, about how we can make sure that children are able to engage in these activities but still receive a body-positive message.
“It’s important that the child’s parents explain that they’re beautiful without the makeup,” she said. “The messaging should be clear that wearing the makeup is temporary, and they should understand the practical reasons why they’re wearing it (e.g. lighting),” she added.
When done in a particular manner, the messaging can be read, ‘The only way you can look pretty is when you have makeup on your skin.
But what about the kids with contoured cheekbones who aren’t involved in some kind of makeup-required hobby? It seems like the kids I’ve seen on my Facebook and Instagram feeds received their makeovers from their mothers. How are kids to interpret their parent allowing or even administering these full-face makeovers?
Dr. Dyson expressed caution for this practice, saying, “When done in a particular manner, the messaging can be read, ‘The only way you can look pretty is when you have makeup on your skin.’”
Her comment brought a childhood memory to the fore. I recalled sitting on the toilet seat in my mother’s bathroom as she colored in my eyebrows with a brow pencil. I was such a blonde eight-year-old, in the summertime my eyebrows were nearly nonexistent. It was fun at the time and we had a good laugh about how ridiculous I looked, but until that moment, I had no idea there was anything wrong with my eyebrows. The brow insecurity has stuck with me into adulthood.
The message, “You’re only pretty when you have makeup on ” was broadcast far beyond my mom’s bathroom. It seemed like all the women I looked up to treated cosmetics as something essential to a woman’s beauty. To this day I’ll hear my mom say things like, “Ugh, I hope I don’t run into anyone I know—I don’t have any makeup on.” Parents pass their insecurities on to their children, so they should be careful to lead by example if they hope for their kids to feel strong and confident.
The Renfew data affirms Dr. Jeri’s comment, noting that, of the girls who wore makeup, 65 percent started wearing it between the ages of 8 and 13, and 27 percent rarely leave the house without wearing any. Places girls felt most comfortable going without makeup included home, the pool or beach and the gym. The least acceptable places to be without makeup are friends’ homes and school.
According to Adrienne Ressler, National Training Director for The Renfrew Center Foundation and renowned body image expert, wearing makeup too early can set the stage for lasting body image issues. She explained, “Experimenting with wearing makeup is often a rite of passage for young girls in our society. However, the concern is: How young is too young? Girls who start too early may be hiding more than an acne breakout—they may be demonstrating early signs of self-esteem issues and a negative self-image or setting up a ritual that is difficult to break. Unfortunately, these behaviors and feelings can set the stage for addictions or disordered eating patterns to develop.”
Children are susceptible to body image messaging at a very young age. They pick up on what we, as a society, deem acceptable and “normal” as they piece together their own identities. The sad, true fact is that children as young as five are beginning to express dissatisfaction with their bodies, and disorders linked to poor body image can result in serious mental and physical health issues, according to a study by Common Sense Media.
Ressler parrots this finding, saying that, “In this age of toddler beauty pageants, digital retouching, peer pressure, celebrity worship, and other unrealistic cultural messages about beauty, there are definite challenges to developing a positive body image; challenges that put young girls at risk for eating disorders and other self-destructive behaviors.”
There’s nothing wrong with children learning and playing with makeup. Toying with our own appearance can be an exercise in creativity and imagination. Parents can foster this by ensuring that kids’ earliest experiences with cosmetics are about fun and play rather than enhancing features. Such a playful attitude carries with it a body-positive message.
I’m not saying there’s anything at all wrong with makeup. I myself own a blending sponge and a vast collection of lipsticks. My point is that, perhaps, instead of teaching our kids the 12-step process to contouring, we should be teaching them that confidence makes a girl beautiful. I can’t help but wonder if I might feel differently about myself today if that’s the message I had received.