Pandora’s Make-Up Box

Should you let your tween wear make-up?

Posted Jun 28, 2018

Used with permission, Jen Damminger, owner of Beauty Inside You Make-up Design
Source: Used with permission, Jen Damminger, owner of Beauty Inside You Make-up Design

I can remember being in the throes of sleep deprivation with an infant and a 1-year-old when a very wise colleague told me that so much of parenting came down to balancing short-term and long-term goals. You can feed the baby through the night because it feels easier in the moment, but your sleep may be compromised for longer. You can put your toddler to bed with a bottle because it facilitates a smooth transition to sleep, but your child’s teeth may suffer in the long-run. 

I can’t pretend to always be good at balancing these sorts of short-term and long-term goals that make up the day-to-day of parenting. But, it was with this balancing act in mind that I found myself taking my 10-year-old daughter to the Clinique counter at Macy’s recently.

Most people I know think that 10 is too young for regular make-up wearing. I know this because before deciding to do this, I asked friends and acquaintances and I looked to see if there was any research on the topic. I even found a somewhat dated New York Times article that seemed to validate the strategy I ultimately opted for.

Our Macy’s outing wasn’t a department store errand that my daughter was dragged on while I purchased my own make-up and allowed her to experiment with sparkly eyeshadows. We bought her her own (very neutral) eyeshadow “pencil,” (sheer) lip gloss, and mascara. We practiced putting it all on and talked about the importance of accentuating her natural beauty; not overdoing it. She told me that she found the outing to be “fun” and that she “felt older.” I was relieved that she didn’t seem too concerned about looking any one, particular way.

This all started because a few months ago I noticed that Lilly* started wearing some mascara, lip gloss, and maybe blush. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal, but I wasn’t prepared to offer my blessing either. I decided to basically ignore this with the thought that this wasn’t a battle I wanted to pick. Then, I noticed my eyebrow pencil went missing and I found it in her bathroom. I don’t own a lot of make-up and what I do own is not particularly fancy or expensive, but I am not prepared to share it on a regular basis. So much for inaction. 

As with many things (think, beer), adolescents will find a way to get what they’re interested in, regardless of their parents’ opinions on the matter.  It turns out that, according to one recent report, 80 percent of 9-11-year-olds use “beauty and personal care products.” I’m guessing that includes items such as face wash and deodorant, which feel different to me than mascara.  However, the same report suggests that 90 percent of 9-17-year-old girls use “beauty products.”  In fact, a growing portion of boys (69 percent) are using “products” as well. Basically, if you believe these numbers, it’s inevitable that both tweens and teens – girls and boys – will be buying their own mascara and body spray if parents don’t buy these products for them. Of course, this isn’t to say that we should also buy our kids alcohol or drugs – even if they want us to! 

I think that honest parents are parents that admit they aren’t sure if they are making the right decisions on behalf of their kids. Maybe I’ve opened Pandora’s box? Maybe, she’ll be wearing crop tops in a matter of months and by this time next year she’ll want to revisit our conversation about contraception. But, I really doubt it. My daughter is fairly confident, and I think beautiful, and I think she thinks she’s beautiful, too. She doesn’t “need” make-up and I think (hope) she knows that. I am choosing to believe that we’re not buying into the beauty myth, just engaging in social norms. And, let’s face it, make-up and nail polish and fashion can be fun. At least it can be fun when it feels optional and not oppressive. My goal as both a mom and a body image researcher is to keep any form of appearance-enhancement in the “optional” category. 

When I returned from the mall, my husband said, “So, let me get this straight. You don’t really want Lilly to wear make-up, so you just took her to buy make-up?” The short answer to his question was, “yes.”  But, only because I was trying to do the parental balancing act. By opening up communication about make-up and beauty products now, I’m hopeful that she will keep the color palette neutral and won’t care that much about any of this in the long-term. Time will tell.

*Name has been changed to protect the (still) innocent.