Graduating From Lip Smackers
New York Times
April 28, 2010
It began for Alyssa Pometta, as these habits so often do, with the soft stuff. We are talking, of course, about lip gloss.
She began wearing it in fourth grade — Bonne Bell’s Lip Smackers, a girl’s rite of passage — after years of wearing ChapStick and pretending it was Revlon. But the thrill of flavored lip gloss was fleeting, and in January, 11-year-old Alyssa asked her mother, Phyllis Pometta, if she could graduate to the hard stuff: lipstick, eyeliner and mascara.
Mrs. Pometta’s first instinct was to send her daughter to her room, but she reconsidered. Instead, she took her for a makeover.
“I’m using the choose-your-battles kind of parenting,” Mrs. Pometta, an independent publicist from Plainfield, Ill., reasoned in a telephone interview. “I figured, better that she’s informed and has the right tools than she goes into it blindly with her friends in the bathroom and comes out looking like a clown.”
The choice between prohibition and harm-reduction has long divided parents on prickly issues: forbid alcohol or supervise the inevitable kegger? Preach abstinence or buy condoms? Now, the struggle shows signs of coming to a new front: the cosmetics counter.
Regular use of certain cosmetics is rising sharply among tween girls, according to a new report from the NPD Group, a consumer research company. From 2007 to 2009, the percentage of girls ages 8 to 12 who regularly use mascara and eyeliner nearly doubled — to 18 percent from 10 percent for mascara, and to 15 percent from 9 percent for eyeliner. The percentage of them using lipstick also rose, to 15 percent from 10 percent.
Meanwhile, women of all other age groups, including teenagers, report using less makeup, according to NPD. The economy seems to be playing a role, said Karen Grant, the senior beauty industry analyst with NPD, with women cutting back on beauty products to save money and unemployed women feeling less compelled to do their face every morning.
So how is the elementary-school set getting away with it? Easy: Mom is the one buying it. When asked to name their primary influence for acquiring and applying makeup, 66 percent of the 365 tween girls polled by NPD pointed to a family member or adult family friend.
“They’re not sneaking any of this stuff,” Ms. Grant said. “They’re doing the shopping with their moms, they’re getting the money from their moms and families. It’s becoming almost part of the family exercise.”
Poor adult judgment or progressive parenting? As with most such issues, it depends on whom you ask. Stacy Malkan, author of “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry,” said that parents have been fighting a losing battle with the beauty industry, which now markets to children so aggressively that it invites a comparison to Big Tobacco’s efforts, like Joe Camel.
“There’s relentless marketing pressure on young girls to look older,” Ms. Malkan said. “Not just from magazines and TV ads, but from shows like ‘90210.’ Those kids are supposed to be in 10th and 11th grade, but they look 25.”
Indeed, the aisles of Sephora and CVS are lined with cosmetics aimed at Miley Cyrus fans. Fashion runways teem with heavily made-up girls of 14. Neutrogena offers a line of acne-clearing makeup featured on the “Neutrogena Teen” section of its Web site. Even Dylan’s Candy Bar, the upscale candy store whose Upper East Side flagship has become a tourist attraction, has a “beauty” line that includes cupcake body lotion and strawberry licorice “lip saver.” (“Lips should always be candy-luscious and sweet to kiss!” reads the Web site.)
For some parents, such come-ons barely register on the list of real-world dangers. To others, these products and the messages they send are barbarians at the gate of their child’s innocence. Kris Grande, a speech pathologist in Apex, N.C., was horrified when her 13-year-old daughter, Kaileigh, first tried to leave the house wearing mascara in the fifth grade.
“She’s beautiful,” Ms. Grande said, and makeup “makes her look too old. It immediately ages her.”
Fears of a childhood cut short by cosmetics may not be totally metaphorical. In a study released this month, the Mount Sinai School of Medicine looked at girls younger than 10 with early onset puberty and discovered a high incidence of endocrine disruptors that are found in some nail polishes and other cosmetics. This is to say nothing of the skin damage that might be caused by the chemicals in makeup, or the possible allergic reactions.
But cosmetics companies say they are only responding to what consumers are looking to buy. “At least three out of four consumers age 14 to 17 are using a foundation product, and usage is actually a bit higher for mascara and lip gloss,” said Cara Robinson, Neutrogena’s cosmetics group brand director. She also said that Neutrogena doesn’t intentionally market to consumers younger than 13.
As for the health factor, Ms. Robinson said that the formulations for Neutrogena’s teenager-oriented products were different from those used in their adult-oriented makeup. (Exactly how she wouldn’t say, citing her company’s “proprietary technology.”)
Parents may dismiss as a cop-out the excuse that cosmetics companies are only selling what girls are asking for. But mothers who take their 11-year-olds for makeovers are operating under a similar principle: that many tween girls today are sophisticated enough to make at least some of their own beauty decisions. And who knows? They just might know what they are talking about.
Asked if there was a particular celebrity or fashion icon she tried to emulate when putting on makeup, Alyssa Pometta said: “I don’t take a picture of a celebrity and try to make myself look like them. I try to make myself look like me.”