The Big Business in Baby Beauty
How the beauty industry sells to kids
The prospect of a kids-only salon, offering manicures, pedicures and other mature beauty services to four-year-old girls, raises the ghost of JonBénet Ramsey. The proprietors claim they offer fun, and harmless spaces where girls can experience the adult world of the beauty parlor. But critics say they prematurely ritualize beauty regimes and induct girls into lifetime careers of insecurity about their appearances.
Dimples Kids Spa, in the affluent New York neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights, offers makeup, manicures, pedicures and novelty facials, in addition to haircuts. The salon is white and bright, decorated with toys ranging from Barbies with wild hair to a large stuffed elephant that dwarfs many of Dimples’ customers.
On a recent day, a mother struggled in with a grizzly toddler who resembled a cabbage patch kid.
“Daddy doesn’t like Dutch girl bangs, and daddy doesn’t think we should be getting haircuts, so something natural is best,” the mother instructed stylist Latoya Jackson, who snipped a few strands from the girl’s bangs.
Some parents visit Dimples because they can’t cope with their children’s tantrums, the stylists said. But during birthday parties, the energy and excitement among the girls is infectious: The stereo blasts tween anthems and partying kids are treated to facials, manicures and pedicures while they feast on fistfuls of candy.
“I love all the giggling and girl-talk,” Jackson said.
Make no mistake: there’s big business behind the pampering and play. In October 2009, over 250 excited tween girls converged at a hotel complex in Washington D.C. They were told they would meet some of their favorite celebrities, grab a stash of free beauty products and, most importantly, have the opportunity to voice their feelings and experiences of being a tween girl. Girls were allowed to write on the “White House Wall” (a message board where they could air their thoughts about what matters to them), and participate in “body image” workshops.
This was the inaugural AllyKatzz Tween Girl Summit, an event designed to gather information about the tween market for a report to be sold to marketing firms and brands across America. AllyKatzz has clients with vested interests in this age group, like Disney and Dove. Tweenage attendees enjoyed the girl-themed festivities, while a team of marketing professionals observed their every move.
The event promised girls that their voices would be heard. But their thoughts and opinions were to be released only to organizations that paid $12,500 each for the subsequent report.
Denise Restauri, head of AK Tweens, the market research firm that organized the event, is surprisingly critical of the practice of marketing beauty products to girls as empowerment.
“It’s as shallow as the days are long,” she said. “Makeup for children? No. And with the whole manicure and pedicure thing, we are raising a generation of divas…. What we are seeing now is that girls are getting their hair dyed at a younger age. Now you are seeing girls with highlights when they are eleven years old.”
AK Tweens’ research indicates that girls don’t want to use makeup or beauty products, she said. But they live in a culture that tells them that they need improvement: she doesn’t think kids spas should be dismissed. “If you get all the girls together and [they] say, ‘oh lets go get our hair cut and we will go to a place that is really cute and pretty,’ then it is kind of like going to have tea in a way.”
Babes in Wonderland
Michelle Plair, 38, likewise thinks there’s nothing wrong with serving this niche. Noticing few kids’ spas in New York City, she teamed up with her goddaughter, Daniela Richardson, 25, and the two opened Wonderland Kids Spa in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Cobble Hill, to offer manicures, pedicures and facials for children aged three and up. Plair, who grew up in foster homes, said Wonderland expresses her love for children.
Their spa, with its fluorescent pink and green walls, looks like it was decorated by a munchkin on a sugar high. Popcorn and cotton candy machines pump out fairground treats. One salon chair features butterfly wings, while the other sports a large furry teddy bear head.
It’s an escape for local kids, Plair maintained. Amanda, a tall 13-year-old with curly black hair, has been a loyal client since the salon opened in August 2009. “Amanda, you’re slimming down!” Plair said warmly, as she covered her client in purple plastic cape decorated with miniature guitars. Prior to Wonderland, Amanda went to an adult salon to have her tresses tamed. She says she is pleased to have found a place where she feels comfortable.
“Kids like it here, because it is something different and it is something fun which is just for them,” said Plair, maintaining that her clients weren’t wealthy or spoiled.
Both Dimples and Wonderland are popular party venues. One recent afternoon, the six guests of Tiffany, 10, were treated to manicures, pedicures and facials. One girl with beautifully braided hair chomped on marshmallows while soaking her feet in a footbath. Plair lovingly massaged her legs and toes. The girls received flip-flops, plush pink robes and headband shaped like princess crowns.
Tiffany’s interest in hair and nails prompted the idea for a spa party, according to her aunt, Marie Desforges, who said: “She’s a little girl, so of course she likes that stuff.”
Going for the Toddler Market
But some salon clients are boys, brought in by mothers who want to emulate Maddox Jolie Pitt’s “faux hawk,” or ask for the “Wall Street” a severely short haircut. One Saturday morning at Dimples, the mother of a four-year-old instructed Jackson not to ruin her son’s sideburns, which she called his “little something-something.”
The distinctly feminine 21st century identity category, the tween, was developed in an advertising boardroom. Since the late 1990s, a girly lifestyle that involves coloring one’s hair and sitting in hot tubs has been translated to toys for very young girls. Mattel and MGA both offer salon-themed dolls, and MGA’s Moxie has a magic makeover hair salon, with tools for makeup and hairstyling.
Sandra May, a mother of two who owns Get Spa’ed Girl! has been hosting mobile girls’ spa parties across New Jersey and New York City for the last five years. She says her clients are getting younger: she recently hosted a party for 20 four year olds in Manhattan. The spa party, which initially attracted upper-end clients, has become a mainstream concept, May said, perhaps driven by mothers seeking novel ways to entertain their kids.
“I used to think that kids are too young to get their nails done…I never do my two-year-old’s nails or toes,” Plair said. “But my three-year-old loves it. Not all the time, just for special occasions. The same with our customers, they come in for special occasions.”
Party girl Tiffany was certainly making the most of her birthday treat. She proudly displayed her glossy manicured fingers.
“It’s so pretty,” cooed her Aunt Marie. Tiffany returned to the nail dryer. She chatted with her friends, who had started to help themselves to chocolate fondue, as they excitedly awaited the next step in their beauty regime.
Alexa Tsoulis-Reay is a graduate student in journalism at New York University.
Michelle Plair (foreground) pampers her tiny clients at Wonderland Kids Spa in Brooklyn, New York.Photo by Alexa Tsoulis-Reay