Lip Gloss: The Gateway Drug

What Women Really Think
Feb. 3 2011 11:08 AM

Lip Gloss: The Gateway Drug

This time it's Wal-Mart, offering a new line of makeup called "geoGirl," filled with "the products tween customers are clamoring for." The WSJ illustrated its article on geoGirl as well as Target's Hello Kitty cosmetics with a picture of an adorable 8-year-old redhead, face still plump and glowing with babyfat, happily, and, as the WSJ put it, "easily" putting on her own lip gloss. This is so far from new that it's almost surprising the Journal thought a new makeup line for adults and "younger than that," according to a Wal-Mart spokesperson, merited an article. Lip gloss and associated body-glitter-style products are marketed to girls so young, and so much as a matter of course, that you can buy a Barbie Lip Gloss maker for "ages 5 and up."

Lip gloss itself has become so completely innocuous that I've bought glittering tubes for both my preschool daughter and my preschool son, and thought very little about it until I realized that 5-year-old Rory was literally eating the stuff (as in, licking it and taking bites out of it, not just eating it off her own lips). It's just shiny Chapstick, right? And better that they paint their arms with that than with the Sharpie I accidentally left on the coffee table. In the article, famed makeup artist Bobbi Brown is chosen to give words to my no-worries attitude. It's "fun for them," she says. "It's not a big deal. Making it taboo is the problem." Of course! Lip gloss isn't a problem unless you make it a problem.

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But should I really take parenting advice on make-up from Bobbi Brown (who just might not be an unbiased commentator)? The problem with lip gloss at 5 isn't really lip gloss at 5. (Well, except for Rory, for whom the lip gloss itself clearly is a problem.) The problem is that, as with so many things, the earlier you start with lip gloss, the earlier you start feeling that lip gloss is for babies.  Leslie Gibbs, marketing director at Aspire Brands, home of Bonne Bell and Lip Smackers (shades of my own girly youth), says "girls start cosmetics usage really as young as 6. Then, at a certain age-and that's becoming younger and younger-she begins to want to enter real cosmetics as an enhancement." Gibbs sees that as a good thing, of course, but I'm unconvinced. Lip gloss, like so many other things, is subject to a fundamental error I've made often as a parent: too much, too soon.

A girl who uses (or eats) lip gloss at 5 is never going to see lip gloss as a big deal, just like a kid who gets a new, appropriately sized bike annually is never going to be excited to receive one for his birthday. Watch Star Wars at 3, and by the time you're able to understand it, it will have lost any thrill it ever had to offer. We parents tend to want to give our kids every fun thing we ever longed for when we were young, and now that most of the fun things are so much cheaper and more abundant, we shower them on kids in a way that practically begs them to take it all for granted. We continually up the ante, then complain that they grow up too soon. And by we, I mean me, who put not just one but two "Lip Smackers" in each kid's stocking this year, because I loved them so much and once wanted one so badly, and because they came in a pack of 10. In the end, the dog took care of the ones Rory didn't get to first.

I do worry about marketers over-sexualizing my girls, draping them in glossy pink and, as Myla Goldberg said in her review of Peggy Orenstein's Cinderella Ate My Daughter , sending them a message that the "21 st -century girl is supposed to be a high-stakes combo of high-achieving and pretty that's arguably more unrealistic than anything foisted on her predecessors." I do. But I worry just as much about some of the things I seem to be saying with that same lip gloss: that it's yet another toy in a disposable, plastic world, one that looks and tastes like something that it's not. I never was able to convince Rory that the lip gloss was not candy; she sees no reason to wish for shiny or softer lips. That was my desire, or my desire for her, or just my not really thinking about it very much at all.  In the end she viewed the whole episode as some sort of mean trick I'd played on her, and maybe it was.