For many of us, hearing the phrase “kids wearing makeup” immediately conjures up images of Honey Boo Boo and Toddlers in Tiaras—little girls forced to grow up too fast. As soon as I found out I was having a baby girl, I started noticing these shows in a new light, and my mind started whirring through how I was going to raise my daughter to be confident and assured in her own beauty and self-worth without relying on our society’s trappings of beauty. I knew she was entering the world at a disadvantage; as far as we have come, feminism is still a dirty word in many circles of society and there is an undeniable gender-based wage gap. I knew we were going to have to work hard to help our girl realize that her physical appearance was not the be-all, end-all of her value. We wanted her to excel at everything and feel free to try out many interests, not just “girl things.”
That’s why, when my daughter started expressing interest in wearing make-up, I cringed a bit inside. Is this how the obsession with beauty pageants and the sexualization of children begins? If we say yes to makeup, will high heels and thongs be next? To give you some context, I hardly ever wear makeup. If I have a few free seconds before a date night, I might put on some lip gloss and eyeshadow, but most times, my husband accuses me of being “fancy” if I put on earrings or wear a skirt. I’m also very careful to avoid saying I’m getting “beautiful” or “putting on my face” within earshot of my daughter. Instead, I call it getting “sparkly” or “shiny.” I’ve read Reviving Ophelia, and I’ve watched Oprah enough times to know that the strongest influence on a girl’s self-esteem is her mother’s self-perception.
With that in mind, I also trained myself out of negative body talk. I don’t let the scale or the mirror tell me how to feel about myself. Cognizant as I am about body image, and having worked for more than a decade with adolescents who are often painfully image-conscious, I was very worried that a foray into blush and lipstick might lead down a dark path for my little one. On the other hand, I wanted her to feel free to explore things she was interested in, and I wanted to be there to help her. I didn’t want her to become a teenager who leaves the house in jeans and a t-shirt and then goes to the bathroom to change into an outfit that challenges the limits of the dress code. I’m not even sure how the idea of wearing makeup entered my daughter’s mind when she was three. Her access to fashion icons is decidedly limited, but she did start asking often enough that I couldn’t ignore it any longer.
I didn’t want to increase the appeal by saying no outright, so I decided to approach makeup as I would drawing, singing, sculpture, music, or dance—as a form of art-making. I realized that her ideas about makeup would probably mirror my own if that’s the example I set. So one day, we got out the makeup, markers, and paint and began creating characters with makeup. Our focus is never on perfection or even beauty; our goal is fun, art, and impersonation. I decorate her face, she bedazzles mine, and sometimes we turn the brushes on ourselves. We have been characters from Mulan, Wicked, and Frozen, we’ve emulated puppies and butterflies, and I’ve gotten to the place I could draw a fairy mask in my sleep. The other day, just as we were leaving for an appointment, my daughter transformed herself into a wolf with a marker and walked the streets of Portland howling at passersby. Sometimes our facial creations are accompanied by costumes pieced together from the dress-up box. Other days, our canvases are more sparingly decorated with a bit of lip gloss and a lot of blush.
At least for now, my little girl still thinks of makeup as a means of creative expression. I hope she’ll always think of it that way, not as something she “needs” in order to feel “presentable” to leave the house. When she’s old enough to wear makeup for real, I trust she’ll remember that, just like mommy, she’s beautiful exactly how she was made or as she makes herself (up).