My family likes to tell an embarrassing story about my approach to presents during the Christmas of 1989. One of my gifts was a set of Tinkerbell lipsticks – a beauty brand specifically marketed to children, and presumably bought by desperate mothers who had already seen one Chanel compact ruined by eager, chubby fingers, and wanted a range of products that could be washed off walls and curtains. The lipsticks were the most exciting thing I’d ever owned. I screamed as I ripped the paper off, ran to the nearest mirror and set about applying them all at once.
There is video footage of my father trying to raise my interest in another gift, a beautifully illustrated children’s encyclopaedia, while I push it away, desperate to get back to faking my face. This is not the sort of thing that your relatives will let you forget, even as a 32-year-old adult with an English degree. “Will you be taking a book on holiday, or just filling up your makeup bag?” is a “hilarious” question I was asked more than once last summer.
We might be disturbed by the idea of lipstick-loving children, but it’s not unusual for young girls to care about cosmetics. This week, the Office for National Statistics found that girls spend more on their appearance than boys do from the age of seven. Between 2015 and 2017, girls aged between seven and nine spent 10p a week more on toiletries and cosmetics than boys – 20p a week – with their weekly spend rising to £1.70 when they entered their teens. There has been quite a bit of pearl clutching, and some generalised and understandable horror about the fact that in the UK it is very difficult to let children be children for long enough. But in context, this news is not shocking.
A 2016 study by a voucher code website found that adult women spent almost twice as much as men on hair care. Various media reports point to the fact that women spend way more than men on beauty products. In the US, a 2013 study by the Huffington Post and YouGov found that 25% of women used three or four skin care and styling products compared with 8% of men. Very young children exhibit body dissatisfaction and one in four will have engaged in some kind of dieting activity by the time they are seven, according to a report by the US-based NGO, Common Sense Media.
Women are valued for their looks in a way that men simply aren’t
Children live in a world that has been created by adults, and they look to grownups for cues on how to behave and who to be. Everywhere we look, we see the same message – women are valued for their looks, and defined by their appearance in a way that men simply aren’t. If a child watches much TV, they’re going to know that women are expected to spend huge amounts of time and money on improving their appearance. As young girls, we’re made to feel as though this is a good way to use our pocket money.
Let’s not forget that many children love dressing up, and playing with makeup often starts as a simple extension of that. It’s exciting to paint your face, become a new character and explore a different identity. Many of us take this idea into adulthood, and we use makeup to construct a calmer, more confident face on top of our real one. I suspect that the seven year olds who are buying toiletries and cosmetics are still just playing. They’re exploring their identity, making choices and finding out who they are. Admittedly, they might be experiencing pressure in the playground to join the game and look a certain way. However, it might make sense to accept that to them, makeup and beauty aids are really just toys. They only become dangerous if adults decide to treat them with suspicion.
Rightly, there’s a movement to stop gender stereotyping of children’s toys and to call out the manufacturers who make pink dolls for girls and blue robots for boys. Toys should be for whoever wants to play with them. However, there is nothing feminist about dismissing the feminine. Equally, there is nothing helpful about dismissing the choices that girls are making as young consumers without trying to understand what’s informing those choices.
While our choices are miserable and limited – as women, we can spend an enormous amount of time and money on makeup and trying to meet other people’s expectations, or we can opt out of the system, and accept the fact that if we don’t conform to societal beauty standards, we are likely to earn less – cosmetics do, at least in theory, allow us to take charge of our own faces and decide how the world sees us. While we don’t want our children to share these adult concerns, we can appreciate their desire for some autonomy.
Perhaps most importantly, we should make sure that girls and women have the same means as boys and men before we judge their economic choices. If today’s makeup-loving little girls reach adulthood at a point when the pay gap has been eradicated and the playing field is levelled, we might find that the pressure is off and we’ll know that women are buying makeup because they want to. Not because they feel they must.
• Daisy Buchanan is a freelance columnist and features writer covering arts, entertainment and women’s issues