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Little Ladies

As Walmart launches a line of cosmetics for pre-teen girls, parents ponder whether their 6-year-old daughters should be wearing makeup—even if Queen Esther did

Marjorie Ingall
February 22, 2011
Manicures at Josie’s 7th birthday party.(Jonathan Steuer)
Manicures at Josie’s 7th birthday party.(Jonathan Steuer)

Walmart has launched a line of makeup for 8- to 12-year-old girls called geoGirl. When the Wall Street Journal got word of this, it prompted a tempest in a lipgloss pot. Journalists and bloggers reacted as if a horrifying Maginot line had been crossed, a new low in the sluttification of our tweens.

But guess what? That line was crossed long ago. Target sells Hello Kitty eyeshadow. Barbie offers a slew of branded cosmetics, including the Fab Fashion 32-piece Makeup Set, which comes in a hot-pink case adorned with black spike heels, and the Lighted Vanity Case, a big mirror surrounded by pink hearts and drawers to hold eyeshadow brushes and spackling tools. If a child requires a Bieber-y soundtrack while putting on her face and prefers a Bratzier color palette, there’s the black and purple Totally Me! Deluxe Cosmetic Case with Light-Up Mirror and MP3 Speakers. “Everything you need to get glammed up while listening to your favorite tunes!” the promo copy gushes. “Nail polishes, lip glosses, body glitter, body glitter gels, lipsticks, eyeshadow powders, cream blushers, blush powders—Totally Me! lets you be totally YOU!” (That is, if “you” are a painted whore of Babylon with an iPod.) Even Crayola, a brand associated with preschoolers, sells fingernail decals.

And this is hardly Walmart’s first time at the tween makeup rodeo. geoGirl takes over the shelf space vacated by mary-kateandashley, a cosmetics line branded by the Olsen twins, who are now focused on designing high-end adult fashions. In addition to geoGirl, Walmart sells beauty products by Disney Princesses, Lip Smackers, Lotta Luv, and FAB. Unlike those lines, though, geoGirl is promoted as full of antioxidants, which fight wrinkles. Which is awesome. Because what 9-year-old isn’t troubled by those troublesome fine lines from smoking? Now we moms can put off our daughters’ Botox for another few months.

In these tough economic times, the only age group that’s increased its beauty spending has been tweens. Their average monthly beauty expenditure rose to $9.20 from $8.50, and marketers say tweens now spend $24 million a year on cosmetics. A study conducted in 2009 found that 55 percent of 6- to 9-year-old girls use lipgloss or lipstick, up from 49 percent in 2003.

At this point, I figure half my readers are raging about little girls turned into Lohans lite by spineless parents with bad values, while the other half are rolling their eyes and saying “Cut the Debbie Downer doominess—makeup can be fun.”

And to both sides I say, you’re right. I see nuance and ambiguity here. My daughter Maxine, 6, has Disney Princess lip balm; my daughter Josie, 9, wore purple lipstick and black eyeliner on Halloween. For us, visiting the corner nail salon is a delicious splurge; both girls go with me for occasional mani-pedis. (Or, as Maxie calls them, “meggie-peggies.”) Adornment and sparkle can be fun.

But when we tell girls that all they are is adornment and sparkle, we have a problem. In her new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, Peggy Orenstein details the relentlessness with which princess culture is pimped to America’s youngest consumers. The problem is in the onslaught, and in the tacit messages in toys and media that push prettiness (and makeup) above all else. “Imposing any developmental task on children before they are ready can cause irreparable, long-term harm,” Orenstein writes, summarizing the psychologist Stephen Hinshaw.

So, Orenstein argues that putting kids in sparkly blush and Suri Cruise heels is as problematic as putting them in a high-pressure academic kindergarten. “That inappropriately early pressure seems to destroy the interest and joy in learning that would naturally develop a few years later,” Orenstein writes of those super-accelerated early childhood programs. “And girls pushed to be sexy too soon can’t really understand what they’re doing. They do not—and may never—learn to connect their performance to erotic feelings or intimacy. They learn how to act desirable but not how to desire, undermining rather than promoting healthy sexuality.”

Even if we say no to makeup, we can’t escape the gendered messages of the culture we live in. Orenstein was shocked to see a banner depicting a little girl in a tiara and glittery earrings hanging above the door to her daughter’s synagogue preschool. Everywhere she went, she saw the rigidly gendered nature of most children’s toys. And her daughter Daisy, despite being raised in crunchiest Berkeley, Calif., clamored for princess everything. “When I was growing up,” Orenstein reflects, “the last thing you wanted to be called was a ‘princess’: it conjured up images of a spoiled, self-centered brat with a freshly bobbed nose who runs to ‘Daddy’ at the least provocation. The Jewish American Princess was the repository for my community’s self-hatred, its ambivalence over assimilation—it was Jews turning against their girls as a way to turn against themselves.”

But that was then; this is now. I’ve previously mentioned a 2007 American Psychological Association report on the increasing sexualization of girls. Sexualization, said the APA, is viewing a girl as “a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making.” It’s linked to depression, eating disorders, and low self-esteem. But we feminist parents also don’t want our daughters feeling shame about their curves or their burgeoning sexual desires. We don’t want the kind of tznius, or modesty, that views girls’ bodies only as temptations for men.

The drumbeat emphasis on looks, looks, looks reminds me that we’re approaching Purim, when we tell the story of Queen Esther. Parents may try to shift the narrative’s emphasis to Esther’s bravery, but the takeaway for little girls is always that she won a beauty pageant. (A pageant run by Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who surely would have received his own Bravo TV show if cable had existed in the time of Xerxes I.) Esther wouldn’t have even had the opportunity to be brave if she hadn’t been a babe. Little girls get that. And seeing a shul full of tots painted and styled to emulate Esther can be disturbing, a synagogue full of JonBenéts.

We may tell our girls to be strong, faithful, brave, and smart, but the overarching message they get is that beauty trumps all else. There’s a midrash about Pharaoh’s decree that Hebrew boy babies be thrown into the Nile: Men stopped sleeping with their wives so as not to risk procreation, but Rashi says the women melted their jewelry into mirrors so they could beautify themselves into irresistibility, thus insuring the survival of the Jewish people. See how important it is to be ultra-foxy? Without babeitude, we would not exist today.

So, one geoGirl “SWAK lip treatment” cannot crush a little girl’s soul. The problem is that girls marinate in a stew of imagery ordering them to be pretty and sassy. “It would be disingenuous to claim that Disney Princess diapers or Ty Girlz or Hannah Montana or Twilight or the latest Shakira video or a Facebook account are inherently harmful,” Orenstein writes. “Each is, however, a cog in the 24/7, all-pervasive media machine aimed at our daughters—and at us—from womb to tomb; one that, again and again, presents femininity as performance, sexuality as performance, identity as performance, and each of those traits as available for a price. It tells girls that how you look is more important than how you feel. More than that, it tells them that how you look is how you feel, as well as who you are.”

That’s the problem. Not nail polish.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.