The pre-tween beauty crisis

Newsweek (once again) discovers that the girls are not all right.

Published March 31, 2009 3:52PM (EDT)

If the apocalypse ever comes, I will not look for horsemen of any color, but rather for a feature in Newsweek magazine on the unprecedented plague of depravity among this generation of girls, usually brought on by mimicking the shameful depravity of adult women, who, by the way, grew up in a time of golden innocence when such things were never known (unless you get wise and read the newsweeklies their parents were reading during their teenage years). Usually those things end up being sexual in nature, so I guess this generation of tweens -- an absurd marketing category meant to invoke the fear that girls roughly between the ages of 8 and 12 look disconcertingly similar to adolescents -- got off easy. According to writer Jessica Bennett, the primary features of "Generation Diva" include an unhealthy obsession with lip gloss, highlights and hair products brought on by reality TV, makeover shows and a plastic surgery culture that encourages a cult of perfectability -- a state of affairs that sounds not at all dissimilar to the "beauty terror" described by "Bodies" author Susie Orbach who, incidentally, is mentioned in Bennett's article.

Before we start counting all of the ways the pink plastic things of today differ so much from the pink plastic baubles and toxic-smelling Tinkerbell cosmetics of, say, the'80s, I would like to revisit a more recent decade. Let's just scroll back to 1999, when Newsweek, scandalized by a tween culture that included exposure to "Friends," Brandy, the Backstreet Boys, Pokemon and Quake III, ran a cover story that dared to ask, "Tweens: Are They Growing Up Too Fast?" I happen to remember that story because that was my first year working as an editor at Salon, and we assigned writer Karen Houppert to go find out what was going on with these alleged accelerated tweens. Her take on the trend is nicely summed up by her title: "Freudian Fear and Cooked Statistics."

But she also dug up a 1991 Newsweek story titled "The End of Innocence," which warned, "A 3-year-old who no longer holds her mother's hand becomes a 9-year-old who can discuss homosexuality, AIDS and transsexual surgery." And back in 1980, in a feature called "The Games Teenagers Play," we were told "something has happened to those enduring young charmers who used to wobble around playing grownup in Mom's high heels." Houppert concluded by predicting, with uncanny prescience, to look for more of the same in a decade or so.

Those wanton 8-year-olds of the late '90s look like grizzled veterans next to this generation's youngest victims of precocious girlhood, who fall into a category today's evil marketing geniuses might be forced to call "pre-tween." While watching an obsessive stage mother spray tan her 2-year- old daughter, Marleigh, on "Toddlers & Tiaras," the admittedly appalling TLC reality show, Bennett writes, "I watch, mesmerized by the freakishness of it all, but wonder how different Marleigh is from average girls all across America."

While I am as horrified as anyone by "Toddlers & Tiaras," I would wager that very few parents watching that show come away thinking, "Where can I sign up my 2-year-old for spray tanning?" Rather the show is a kind of gratuitous display of "bad parent porn" -- the show only works because at its very essence, it is about parents who seem freakishly far away from the average American parent.

But after running into a salon in her Brooklyn neighborhood that caters to girls 12 and under, Bennett is off and running with sweeping generalizations about a generation:

Sounds extreme? Maybe. But this, my friends, is the new normal: a generation that primps and dyes and pulls and shapes, younger and with more vigor. Girls today are salon vets before they enter elementary school. Forget having mom trim your bangs, fourth graders are in the market for lush $50 haircuts; by the time they hit high school, $150 highlights are standard. Five-year-olds have spa days and pedicure parties. And instead of shaving their legs the old-fashioned way—with a 99-cent drugstore razor— teens get laser hair removal, the most common cosmetic procedure of that age group. If these trends continue, by the time your tween hits the Botox years, she'll have spent thousands on the beauty treatments once reserved for the "Beverly Hills, 90210" set, not junior highs in Madison, Wis.

Well, assuming your Madison, Wis., junior high school tween – by that age, haven't most girls graduated to "teen"? -- has access to "thousands" of dollars for her treatments and a willing parent to chauffeur her to all those $150 highlight sessions. Having grown up in a  small landlocked city, I wouldn't disparage the finer spas of Madison, but as the mother of a fairly well-groomed teenage girl living in Brooklyn, N.Y., I can say that neither one of us has $150 highlights, and while we've been known to get a few summer pedicures, we've never really made a day of it. I'm not at all surprised to hear that laser hair removal is "the most common cosmetic procedure" among teens -- thank God it isn't labioplasty! -- but I must have missed the part where Bennett cites the figures to support the millions of girls tossing out their Bic shavers.

Many signs of diva-ization sound pretty old to me. "Twenty years ago," writes Bennett, in an uncanny echo of the kids of yore clomping through the 1980 article in their mother's heels, "a second grader might have played clumsily with her mother's lipstick, but she probably didn't insist on carrying her own lip gloss to school." Actually, back at my elementary school, more than 20 years ago, we did insist on carrying our Bonne Bell Lip Smackers and tins of Rachel Perry lip balm to school. I might also point out that it was clear. Maybe in her part of Brooklyn things are different, but where I live, I haven't seen many crimson-lipped second graders outside of the school play or ballet recital. And while I also agree that it sucks to see teenage girls bombarded with companies shilling beauty products and unrealistic images of women in advertisements, I absolutely do not agree with the 30-year-old mother who says, "None of this existed when I was growing up."

I really don't see an appreciable difference between ads on the Internet and those in Seventeen back in the '80s. I, too, find it distressing to imagine what a girl might think growing up watching her middle-aged mother get bimonthly Botox injections. But I also wonder about the girls who grew up watching their mothers wear girdles and heels for their daily housework back in the '50s. All cultures have their share of vanity and vice and stupid ideas, and it's not doing our daughters any favors to pretend that their particular challenges are so much greater than any we have ever faced. Every generation of women has had some version of the unrealistic beauty standard and the options are pretty clear – conform to it, resist it, ignore, transform it -- or do some combination thereof when you think about it at all.

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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