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Column: Taking kids to beauty salons? It’s far from child’s play

From junior manicures to baby clothes reading “I’m too sexy” – this sexualisation of children isn’t just a bit of fun, writes Joanna Fortune.

Joanna Fortune

MEMBERS OF RETAIL Ireland (and some who are not members) have signed up to a code of conduct that they will not stock sexualised clothing for children. It reminds me of the situation in May when Vogue magazine launched their ‘Health Initiative’, hot on the heels of criticism after they had photographed children as young as seven dressed to look like adults in the magazine. Vogue said they would not “knowingly use models who were under 16 years of age or who appeared to have an eating disorder”.

While I welcome the safeguarding of children and childhood in these initiatives, I resent the publicity and clap on the back expected for such things. It is quite shocking that special codes of conduct and health initiatives are required to ensure that retailers and magazines do not exploit and sexualise children.

It is also regrettable that the code of conduct only covers clothing in the stores who have signed up. There is an entire industry dedicated to premature sexualisation of children. There was much media frenzy about a beauty salon in Essex, England that is specifically for the under-13 market. But there are online clothing stores selling similar items including make-up for children – even t-shirts for babies and children bearing slogans such as “I’m too sexy for this shirt” and “All daddy wanted was a blow job”. (Yes, that’s real, I saw it myself).

There are salons in Ireland offering Princess Pamper Parties for small children including manicures, pedicures and makeovers with soft drink “champagne” cocktails. This isn’t about being prudish or saying this is morally reprehensible. I see it as being far more serious than this, it is an issue with far-reaching consequences.

‘Just child’s play’

We are facing a generation of preschoolers who are preoccupied and anxious about body image, how they look and what brands they are seen wearing. By tolerating this premature adultification of our children, we are ensuring that their development is short-circuited, shooting them from childhood straight into adulthood, skipping normal developmental stages. Which is detrimental for children. How did we allow this to happen!?

I’m going to be very clear on my position on this. I do not approve of bringing young children to a beauty salon to have manicures, pedicures, facials, spray tans or any other beauty treatment. (For an extra cost, one salon will also provide your child with a photographer to follow them around – so is fame now also an entitlement that is closely aligned with beauty, and nothing to do with achievement?)

I’ve heard both sides of the argument: how it’s just child’s play, and children play Mummies and Daddies and other adult roles involving hair and make-up all the time, and that it is good for them.  Yes, this is true – and this is good for them. However, a child playing the roles they see their parents in – and using their imaginations to enact the experience as they see and understand it – is quite separate to the experience of being brought to a salon where a professional is attending to their grooming as though they actually were adults. This is not a subtle difference, this is a screamingly obvious difference.

‘Yes to dressing up in mum’s high heels’

Children are growing up in an increasingly image-obsessed society where the onus is on how you look, as opposed to what you do.  Parents should be focused on empowering their children to feel beautiful from the inside and to behave and act in a beautiful way towards themselves and others. This is enough ‘beauty’ for any child to be concerned with. Beauty salons are an adult experience, and we should not tolerate attempts to force our children to lose their already too short and too precious childhoods.

I have witnessed first-hand how little girls and boys are fascinated with watching their mothers engage in their beauty regime, apply make-up, paint their nails. This should not be confused with a fascination with beauty and make-up alone. This is a child’s fascination with watching their mothers and idealising their mother’s routines. This fascination is as much about the child’s preoccupation with their mum as it is about any preoccupation with make-up.

To introduce your child to a salon of this kind at such a young age is to expose and immerse them in an adult world at a premature stage, it takes away the creativity and imagination that is fundamental to this kind of roleplay; and roleplay is an essential stage of any child’s developmental experience.

All children, not just little girls, need to engage in fantasy and roleplay. They must be allowed to use their imaginations to express how they are experiencing their world and the people in their world; this is fundamental to their growth and development.

So, it’s a yes to dressing up in mum’s high heels and dressing gown while roleplaying, and it is a very big NO to eliminating imagination and having your child experience life as an adult prematurely. Parents must trust their own instincts on this – and not allow the normalisation of such practices in society to make us feel like prudes when we tell our children that they are too young for a manicure.

Joanna Fortune is a clinical psychotherapist and the director of the Solamh Parent-Child Relationship Clinic in Dublin. You can find out more at solamh.com.

Read: Penneys, M&S, Tesco and more sign up to code on children’s clothes>

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