My 11-year-old daughter is obsessed with makeup. She spends all her free time watching how-to videos on YouTube and all her money buying eye shadows and highlighters. Her idea of a fun Saturday outing is going to Sephora and “swatching.” She also has her own Instagram account, where she has started posting pictures of herself wearing 10 pounds of makeup—and looking a tiny bit like JonBenét Ramsey. (Her friends write things like, “You look soooo gorgeous.”) She insists that it’s just a “hobby” and that makeup application is an “art form,” but it’s starting to freak me out.
Should I shrug my shoulders and assume it’s just a passing phase? Or should I object on feminist grounds and begin restricting her activities? I’m worried that, if I protest too vehemently, I’ll only make the whole business more exciting!
I like and wear makeup too, but it’s never been of all that much interest to me. I also now feel (in middle age) that I spent way too much of my young life stressing about my appearance! And it was both corrosive and, in the end, a waste of time.
We shouldn’t fall into the sexist trap of dismissing girlish preoccupations as inherently silly. Makeup artistry is probably more creative than Minecraft, for example, which obsesses many boys her age. (One of my former students is now applying to law school, inspired, in part, by the intellectual-property problems she encountered as a YouTube makeup artist.) And what a pleasure to acquire a skill, be publicly admired for it, and get praised for your beauty, all at the same time!
Still, you’re right to worry, Muddled. It’s not the makeup that’s troubling here; it’s your daughter’s relationship to media and to her own appearance that should concern us.
Enjoying one’s beauty and its social power is fun. But in the image-drenched and still male-dominated world we live in, girls’ value is too often reduced to their looks. Your daughter needs to understand that she is so much more than her pretty Insta pics, and the medium makes this hard to keep in perspective. Like you, I worry that if she’s getting too much praise for her good looks, at such a crucial time in her development, beauty will become too central to her identity. And on social media, notes Kris Harrison, a professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan who has extensively researched girls and media, “They quantify the heck out of it: ‘How many “likes” did you get?’”