Outrage of the day: Children's salon boom

The feminist in me hates the trend, but as a little girl, I would have eaten this up.

Published June 16, 2008 7:45PM (EDT)

The blogosphere has been abuzz over '80s childhood icon Strawberry Shortcake being revamped to look more grown-up, but if this article in the Guardian is to believed, it may just be that she now looks more like a contemporary child. Similar outrages of previous days, which tended to focus on group child-sexualization projects -- e.g., "pamper parties," visits to Club Libby Lu, baby beauty pageants, etc. -- have now given way to regular individual blowouts and mani-pedis for the prepubescent set. Girls are even getting their very own salons (and I can set aside my outrage long enough to chuckle at the fact that the first in the U.K is called "Tantrum").

Honestly, I'm always torn when I read stuff like this. As a grown-up feminist, I hate that little girls are encouraged to A) be self-conscious about their looks and B) try to "improve" those looks with makeup and various other beauty treatments. The sexualization aspect isn't even what gets me riled up. What bothers me is the thought of 5-year-old girls thinking they're not pretty enough if their nails aren't painted or if they show up at a birthday party without their eye shadow on -- can't they at least wait until middle school to start despising their natural looks, like girls of my generation did? But I also have to admit that, as a kid, I would have eaten this shit up. As it was, I painted my nails with cheap, peel-off, fluorescent pink polish whenever I could con my mother into buying some, and I flipped over finding Bonne Bell Lipsmackers in my Christmas stocking. When my older sister would take the time to curl my hair and dab some lip gloss on me, I loved both the attention and being allowed to engage in what I saw as distinctly adult rituals. The latter seems to be what the wee clients of salons like Tantrum are primarily interested in, too: "It feels quite grown up. I like to feel grown up because I'm growing older, and I like to feel older," says 7-year-old Scout Cockayne-Francis.

But we don't want little girls to act older! We want them to be little girls! Problem is, kids will always want to play grown-up -- the fact that the beauty industry's only starting to exploit the kiddie market now doesn't mean this generation of girls is somehow different from my own, or my mom's, or my grandmas'. And as far as I can recall, wanting to have my hair and makeup done was certainly never about being "sexier" before I even knew what sex was, and it wasn't really about wanting to be prettier than I was without all that crap. It was about wanting to feel like an older girl, if not a woman -- wanting a taste of the (perceived) respect and freedom afforded to those who didn't have enforced bedtimes, who didn't have to eat what was put in front of them and like it, who didn't have to ask permission to cross the street. I don't think that desire is a bad thing, and it's certainly not an uncommon thing among kids.

So what really makes me angry about this is not that girls are clamoring to look and feel older but that fancy hair and well-groomed nails are seen as such defining characteristics of female adults. Same goes for little pink vacuums, strollers and toy ironing boards. (I mean, what the hell is fun about ironing for a kid -- except that it makes her feel like a woman, which ... ugh.) I'm sure I would have been thrilled to see my niece banging away at a toy laptop at age 3 in an effort to be more like me, or playing at being a firefighter or a scientist or an astronaut out of a desire to feel more like an adult. I don't have a problem with little girls wanting to be grown-ups; I have a problem with a culture that still, in the 21st freakin' century, tells them that a grown-up woman's primary concerns should be prettying herself up and taking care of the house. Where the hell are the Rosie the Riveter-themed birthday parties?

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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