More than once, I've had to clean smears of make-up left by small fingers from our bathroom mirror, after my seven-year-old daughter dived into my bag of cosmetic tricks. Lipstick ends up on cheeks, black eyeliner wings out towards an ear, and bright blue eyeshadow is the norm. It's quite a strong look for a little girl, but I've never objected to her experiments. I'm not sure I'd feel quite so calm about my nine-year-old daughter doing the same, however, thanks in no small part to corrosive pangs of parental anxiety, fed by social media.
Unrealistic beauty expectations
YouTube and other social media platforms are awash with make-up tutorials by girls teaching their peers how to slather on everything from primers to bronzers, using techniques that would almost put Iraqi-American beauty mogul Huda Kattan to shame. In this world, more is more. You can forget starting out with a dab of blusher and lip gloss. As one beauty YouTuber and entrepreneur, Christen Dominique, jokes as she attempts to create a rainbow-coloured look using only make-up sets marketed at children: "Are you ready to slay the first day at kindergarten?" She goes on: "I was very surprised they had a setting spray and primer at Claire's [Accessories] … I feel like they make this make-up so that kids can follow along with make-up tutorials on YouTube."
Is it any wonder that girls are starting to wear make-up every day from a younger and younger age?
When British charity Girlguiding last year asked 1,900 girls and young women between the ages of seven and 21 about their attitudes to their appearance, 16 per cent of 11-to-16-year-olds said they were very happy with the way they looked, compared to 29 per cent who were very unhappy; 52 per cent of those surveyed between 11 and 21 said that bloggers and YouTubers create unachievable expectations of perfection, and 53 per cent agreed with the statement: "I sometimes feel ashamed of the way I look because I'm not like girls and women in the media."
One woman who is often in the media spotlight and mercilessly criticised for her appearance is the 2016 United States presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who discussed the subject during a Facebook Q&A session in 2015. "It's a daily challenge," she said when asked how she manages to think about her day ahead as US secretary of state while also picking out her wardrobe and fixing her face. Then, there's the time it takes to put on make-up each day and the costs of the products that add up over the course of a lifetime.
But it's not these grown-up practicalities that make parents cautious when it comes to the question of whether it feels right for their children to be wearing make-up. As Dr Emad Farrag, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Maudsley Health in Abu Dhabi, explains: "The main concern of parents who have an objection to make-up is the sexual aspect – their child becoming a sexualised female. There is an argument that grown-up women wear make-up, so how is this any different? The answer is because this is a child. She cannot navigate that world properly with informed consent and decision-making, and she may be influenced by other people or pressures."
Dressing up or under peer pressure?
Farrag is careful to separate young kids between the ages of four and seven wearing make-up as part of role-playing, and older girls in their tweens and teens. In this older group, motive matters and it's important that parents talk to their daughters to gain an understanding of what's driving the behaviour. "One of the things that would be of concern is if they want to comply with social norms and be part of social media; there is a pressure there," Farrag says. "Does she believe that she looks ugly and that make-up's going to make her feel better about herself? Is it peer pressure? Does she want to attract boys or be attractive to boys as part of that peer group?"
It might be that a child needs reassurance. "If she says, it's 'because I am ugly and I have these joined eyebrows', then reassure her about her beauty; reassure her about what is special about her," Farrag says.
Parents also need to look at the messages they are sending to their children as part of that social pressure. "There are parents who say: 'You need to do your eyebrows', or this or that. The message that you're sending to the child is, 'You are not good enough'," Farrag says.
While most parents would be appalled at the thought of undermining their child's precious self-confidence, how many mums take their children to local beauty salons for the occasional "princess mani/pedi"? My eldest daughter once attended a beauty-salon themed seventh birthday party in Abu Dhabi, returning home in triumph with a towel embroidered with her name. What messages do these convey?
One Abu Dhabi mum who is aware of the balancing act is Rhian Richards, who has two daughters, aged 10 and eight. "I feel the girls should grow up believing that there is so much more to them than the way they look, and there are far more interesting things in the world for them to focus on. But it's more complicated than that," she says.
"My 10-year-old daughter barely looks in the mirror, whereas my eight-year-old uses marker pens as make-up if she doesn't have access to any [real cosmetics]. I don't want her to feel intrinsically disapproved of, as she loves make-up so much, so I kind of shrug my shoulders and let her get on with it. We have way more important battles to face, to be honest."
While Richards acknowledges that the teenage years might bring this issue into sharper focus, Farrag agrees that wearing make-up is just one of a number of skirmishes parents face. "Parents will never win this argument, let's be honest," he says. "If parents say, 'no', children will probably go out and buy lip gloss from elsewhere. But I think it is important to pick this battle – don't expect to win it, but at least be part of it."