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Girls, Make Up and Self Esteem—A Double-edged Sword March 22, 2008

Posted by emsgeiss in parenting & family.
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Oh Yeah. It Starts Early

I belong to a few parenting groups—most of them directly relate to being a WAHM, others focus more on parenting specifically. Today, I saw a post at one of them about a young daughter’s self esteem. The question was about trouble with a five-year-old who only thinks she’s beautiful if she’s wearing make-up. Her mother has explained to the daughter that she is beautiful without make-up and that moms wear make-up because they have to in order to look beautiful. Oy. Every feminist fiber in my being wanted to scream at her, “What do you mean that moms wear makeup because we have to in order to look beautiful?” “Why are you buying into to cosmetic industry’s myths?” The post also made me wonder why this five year old was wearing make up to begin with even if it is “only lip gloss and eye shadow” as the distressed mother stated. Only eye shadow? Again, oy.

Girls Will Be Girls?

During the discussion and back and forth advice lent to the distressed mother, several women thought that there was nothing wrong with her five year old wearing makeup. Really? Hmmm. I wonder how many of these same women would be shocked and horrified if they saw one of the girls in their child’s first grade class with eye shadow and lip gloss on. These ladies might indeed be the first to question the morals of her parent(s).

Sure, there are make believe and dress-up, and perhaps make up is a “normal” occurrence in this little girl’s life because she models, does pageants, acts or whatever. But I didn’t get that feeling from the question. I even have vague recollections of being allowed to wear tinted, clear nail polish for very special occasions when I was little. The most “glam” I got was Vaseline on my lips, which was so cool because it made them shiny. Oooh! Ahhh! But even with a mom who was conservative when it came to make up, I was still aware of the external messages about being pretty. And that was in the early ‘70s during the height of the feminist movement and when messages about beauty were not targeted to girls quite in the same way that they are now. (Don’t let me get started on contemporary fashion targeted to girls.)

But even if there are occasions where make up is permitted, it is so important to explain the difference between those situations and other times, as well as why make up is okay for grownups (and really big girls) and not okay for a child.

A Rite of Passage

Like wearing hose and heels, in my opinion wearing make up is a rite of passage, not a given because you’ve got two x chromosomes. Let’s think about why we wear make up to begin with. Is it primarily because it makes us feel good and special? Or is it primarily to be attractive? And let’s face it, if the answer is “yes” to the second question, who is it that we’re trying to be attractive for? Isn’t it usually the opposite sex in one way or another? (Even if you admit to wearing make up to be “as pretty as” or even “prettier than” other women, deep down at the core of it, the other sex is involved indirectly.) Be honest. So why would you want to teach your child how to be attractive to the other sex from so young? Wouldn’t it make more sense to attach wearing make up to some special life changing age or event (when she’s older) and when she’ll be more equipped to handle the attention that wearing makeup will bring her?

Vanity vs. Self Esteem

Don’t get me wrong. When I was a teenager, even as a tomboy, I couldn’t wait to wear makeup. As an adult woman, I have my own little make-up vanity vice—I admit to rarely leaving the house without mascara on, but that’s because I happen to love mascara, not because I need it—luckily, genetics gave me naturally long and curly lashes to begin with. “Put a little more mascara on” from La Cage could be one of my theme songs. But, like with anything else, wearing make up is a choice. Thankfully, my mother instilled in me and in my sister a sense of what is necessary and what isn’t and taught us when wearing makeup is appropriate and how much is appropriate for which occasions. (Thanks mom!)

I’m no frumpy, schulby mama. Sure, I live in yoga pants and t-shirts or in jeans and a sweater on most days, but I can certainly glam it up when I need to. And sure, we all like to feel and look beautiful, but to adapt a phrase from Forrest Gump: Beauty is as Beauty does. But enough about me, and back to the self esteem issue. Because I was taught from early, I know that the underlying compass for my self worth comes not from what I put on my face or my body, but from the content of my character—what I do, say and believe, how I treat others and so on. We all know that there are a lot of well-coiffed, well-heeled, externally beautiful people out there who are rotten to the core. And then there are people who may not match our external prescriptions and standards for beauty but who appear so because they radiate with joy, kindness, and a joie de vivre that no pancake, shadow or mascara can make up for.

My advice to the mother distressed about her daughter’s self-esteem: teach her to understand and love the internal things about herself that make her a good, wonderful (and therefore beautiful) person and her talents, accomplishments and achievements that make her special and interesting. That’s the foundation for beauty and self esteem that she needs, not the kind that comes in a pretty little tin.

At least that’s what I think. But then again, what do I know? I don’t live their lives, and I’m just the mother of a boy.

What do you think about girls, make up and self esteem? Weigh in with your two cents. (You know you want to.)

Copyright ©2008 Erika-Marie S. Geiss



1. Nancy - March 22, 2008


You make some really valid points here. The self-esteem message this little girl is receiving scares me, too.

What frightens me more is that this mother doesn’t seem to be aware that she could be sexualizing a five year old! With all those predatory, twisted folks out there, we need to be hyperaware of this.

2. dawn - March 22, 2008

You said it all, Erika, I don’t have a lot to add. 🙂 I feel like the answer the mother gave the little girl was misguided… and says a lot about what our society thinks about *aging,* too. (“You’re young, you don’t need makeup. Mommies do, because they’re old.” (read: ugly))

I could see letting a little girl wear makeup for playing “dress up” (not out of the house), in much the same way a little girl might put on mommy’s heels or big, gaudy jewelry to dress up but not wear them out.

3. NL Beshear - March 22, 2008

Girls, make-up, self-esteem, you don’t tackle the easy subjects do you Ericka. Ok, I’ve got to admit your post reminded me of when my daughter was about 7. My mom gave her a shoe box full of make up, “to play with”. Uh-huh, why did she did to play with make-up? She was a little tomboy. I told mom I’d put the cosmetics up until daughter was a little older. Mom got angry. She informed me there was nothing wrong with my daughter wearing makeup, after all my sister did. Yeah, and my sister was 17. Big difference between a 7 year old and a 17 year old wearing make-up. Btw, my daughter is now grown, a mother herself, she wears make up and she is one of the most confident women I know.

4. Mada - March 22, 2008

I can’t even fathom my daughter wearing eye shadow or lip gloss in three years! Honestly, I think I was 15 before I was allowed to wear any makeup.

I think that you wrote a very intelligent post on the topic and if I were you, I would just post a link in that thread so the moms can see this.

I rarely wear makeup, but I will openly admit that when I do, it’s because there’s a special occasion that I feel warrants putting it on. If I felt more comfortable with makeup in general and had a job that it made sense to look nice for (instead of sweating in front on an oven and covered in flour), I would get myself a 5 minute routine.

I think that women can wear makeup without thinking about being attractive for the opposite sex. When I have a day off and take the time to do my mascara and tinted gloss, I feel a little bit more put together and less like a mommy who just threw on what she could find and ran out the door. At the same time, I will teach my daughter to be “put together” by having her hair brushed, possibly put in a ponytail or barrettes, and making sure there are no stains on her clothes. For her, she has a long time before makeup is part of feeling good about herself!

5. Carolyn Erickson - March 28, 2008

“So why would you want to teach your child how to be attractive to the other sex from so young?”

Erika, that’s not it at all. I’m the non-girly mom to a genetically improbable extreme girly-girl. (Or maybe that gene just skips a generation – I don’t know.)

I can tell you, she doesn’t get it from me. (I, with 2 pair of shoes – brown and black – am not the reason that when she was barely a toddler she cried to go to the shoe department at Wal Mart.) And she certainly doesn’t get the message that ‘makeup=beauty’ from me either. (I own makeup. But that’s as far as it goes usually.) And I don’t think the teletubbies or Elmo gave her that idea.

I can also say with quite a bit of assurance that my daughter doesn’t have self-esteem problems or feelings of inadequacy in the beauty department. (I had to teach her that when someone says she’s pretty, the proper answer is not “I know.” LOL!)

Some girls just like to get girly. I let her. Within reason! (But for play – not for real-life stuff.)

6. Megan - May 5, 2008

Recently, we’ve been talking about the U.K. company marketing padded bras to 8 year olds and what all this means. There is so much going on trying to influence young girls and in turn causing problems with self-esteem and worth. What is hard is that we know that the parents are suppose to be the primary influence but with the media and marketing there are just too many messages. I need to start discussing this more on my self-esteem blog about young girls and low self-esteem. If need any good self-esteem info you can check out our educational blog: http://sweatitout.wordpress.com/

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