My daughters—Rebecca, 7, and Elissa, 5—spent a good portion of a recent Sunday morning fighting about a pale pink Hello Kitty lip gloss. Neither could remember who had received the treasured prize in a goody bag last year. Eventually they brought the debate to me, which I entertained for a total of one minute before I came to my final decision: Nobody would be keeping the lip gloss.
“First of all,” I said, “I’m tired of you two arguing all the time.” Then I paused, put on what I considered my best this is an essential life lesson face and spoke softly so they’d have to lean in to catch every word. “And don’t forget,” I added, “you’re beautiful just the way you are.”
They seemed satisfied with those words and with my solution to save the lip gloss for when they are older, which any parent knows is code for, I threw it away. Still, I’m left wondering at what age they will be old enough for makeup. Ages 5 and 7 is an obvious “no” in my opinion, but I’m curious if I’ll know when it’s time to say yes.
It’s important to note that I’m not an anti-makeup person, which certainly influences my thoughts on the matter. I don’t think that eye shadow is the root of inequality nor that mascara causes promiscuity. To be perfectly honest, I love makeup. I probably love it a little too much. My gift to myself every year on my birthday is to walk into a department store, or even better, one of those smaller makeup-only stores that have cropped up everywhere over the past few years. I sit down in a chair by the counter and let a makeup artist have some fun with me. Usually I end up looking as if I’m staring in a Broadway show where people paying $100 for terrible seats would still be able to see my face from the back of the theater. But that doesn’t bother me. I simply put half the amount on when I’m applying the products at home, and it all works out as makeup should. That is to say, it improves my look a little, but doesn’t appear like a costume or a disguise.
None of this provides the answer to what my stance should be on my daughters’ desire to add a little of this and that to their faces. Somebody gave Rebecca a Barbie-themed makeup kit last year when she turned 6. “When can I use it?” she has asked every few weeks since that day. “Not for a very long time,” I always respond, no closer to a specific answer more than a year later.
I remember my mom’s simple advice on the subject when I was in fifth or sixth grade. “Once you start,” she warned, “there’s no going back.” She pointed out that when you’re used to seeing color on your face, you end up looking like a corpse when it’s bare. She was absolutely right, but she eventually succumbed to my begging. I don’t remember the exact details, but I know there was a Clinique counter involved and the words “a natural look” were tossed around just like they have been every time I’ve purchased makeup since (despite everyone knowing that “natural” is more successfully achieved with no makeup at all).
The first Clinique item I owned was the gateway drug of the beauty industry—a satiny lip gloss in a long, skinny silver tube that I carried around like it was made of gold. By the time of my Bat Mitzvah in 1989, I was already wearing eyeliner and the blush in the green Clinique case that came with a little applicator brush inside. Those three items—lip gloss, eyeliner, and blush—and of course a fourth thing in a tube to help cover the pimples, were the extent of my makeup kit until about my freshman year in high school when the brand MAC was all that anyone wanted to discuss. At that point I graduated to a cosmetic bag complete with special brushes for everything, including for eyeliner, and little pots of various shades of eye shadows. The only product my mom refused to buy me was foundation, which she swore would make any acne situation significantly worse. She was probably right about that, too.
A few years later when my friends and I were done with MAC, we moved up in the world to Bobbi Brown, Trish McEvoy, Nars, and other very fancy brands. (I admit, we lived in a fancy suburb.) I loved when my grandmother would take me through the beauty department at Neiman Marcus. When the saleswoman tried a new lipstick on me, Grandma Pauline would insist on buying two. “One for home and one for your purse,” she’d tell me.
I’d be happy for my girls to have a similar positive experience and feeling about makeup that I’ve enjoyed. Meaning, if they decide they’re into makeup, I want them to have fun with it, but not feel like they need it or as if they’re being bamboozled by the industry. At the same time, I don’t think they need to feel like less “serious women” for wanting to partake. It’s a tricky bit of self-esteem and self-control to achieve, but I think it can be done.
Truthfully the biggest challenge my girls will have in the makeup discussion will come from their old-fashioned dad, who doesn’t think we should let them even consider it until they’re 18, which is also when he thinks they’ll be old enough to get their ears pierced and to start dating. I can’t decide if life would be better or worse for our girls if we lived in a time where waiting that long for any of those milestones was remotely realistic.
What do you think?
Illustration by Christine Juneau