Trend: Pretty Babies

Nowadays, the “women” getting spa treatments of facials, bikini waxes, mani/pedis and blowouts have yet to reach puberty

Melanie Engle was trying to just pluck the stray hairs here and there. She was trying to deliver an age-appropriate eyebrow wax to her client. It was hard, though, because there was a foot tapping next to her, and a voice shouting in her ear: “No! Not like that — like a supermodel’s. I want them arched.”

[sidebar]After years in the beauty biz, Engle had seen her share of crazy ladies demanding perfect, Glamour-cover-worthy brows. But this Crazy Lady wasn’t talking about her own brows. The brows in question belonged to Crazy Lady’s daughter. Who was eight.

After sweating through the kid’s eyebrow wax, Engle, today an aesthetician at the Adolf Biecker Salon/Spa outposts in the Rittenhouse Hotel and Strafford — and, it should be noted, one of the most sought-after eyebrow specialists in the region — was directed to give her pint-size client a … bikini wax.

Engle was, predictably, extremely uncomfortable with the idea. But she sent the girl next door to the spa to have it done  anyway. “It was clear that this girl was getting a bikini wax no matter what,” she says. “Better for her that we did it, instead of her mother dragging her off somewhere else to get it done.”

Engle is sharing this tale with me one afternoon over my own eyebrow session, after I’ve remarked on another young girl — no more than 10 or 11 years old — ­sitting nearby, thumbing through a magazine and obviously waiting for some sort of spa service. As Engle talks, my head floods with images of breaking this poor young munchkin out of the clutches of her surely nipped-and-tucked mother, to let her grow old and hairy under my prudish wing. “But … there’s nothing there, right?” I ask Engle. “I mean, at eight? Am I forgetting something?”

“Nope,” she says. “There’s not. Doesn’t matter. That’s when the mothers are starting them these days.”

OVER THE PAST few years, we’ve witnessed the swell of a luxury-class culture — you’ve seen it in these pages, manifested in reports of $80,000 “push presents,” lavish condo buildings sprouting up like beanstalks, and weekends spent stockpiling couture with on-call personal ­shoppers. But just when we thought this consumerist takeover couldn’t get any worse, here comes the trend’s newest tributary: The kids of the pampered are being taken along for the ride, without a backward glance at the childhood left behind.

“I’ve actually been joking that I’m going to write a book called Where Has All the Pubic Hair Gone?” Janice Hillman, a doctor in the Penn Health System at Radnor who specializes in adolescent medicine, tells me. “It’s such a rarity to find it these days in 10- and 12-year-old girls, and older girls. I need to check for it at that age — it’s an indicator of puberty and development, how much there is, where it’s growing. And now, I need to ask girls, if it’s not there, ‘Do you wax? Do you shave?’ Because so many of them do.”

Engle’s anecdote might be scary, but it’s not her only horror tale. She’s seen a pair of sisters — one nine, the other 10 — brought in for microdermabrasion. (Note: Microdermabrasion sloughs off dead cells to reveal glowing “younger” skin beneath. Which is awesome if you’re, say, 45.) And at Adolf Biecker, it’s normal to see 12-year-olds coming in for their first eyebrow jobs.

There you have it — the new norm for young, privileged, growing girls. It’s not just designer clothes, luxury cars, and the best-of-the-best in schools, lessons and tutors: It’s narcissism, and it’s inherited from — no, encouraged by — Mom. Mom, who not only lifts, tans and waxes herself into oblivion, but who has now turned her attentions to her daughter, hauling her from spa to spa before the school ­pictures or big dance, or, well, just because — for facial after blowout after wax. After a handful of appointments, the transformation from little girl to prepubescent supermodel is complete, thanks to beauty ­treatments that not long ago were reserved for big girls — with little consideration that the same beauty treatments meant to fix “imperfections” will probably screw the kids up down the road.

Lauren Albert, spa director at Rescue Rittenhouse Spa, says mothers frequently bring in their daughters between the ages of 10 and 14 for various waxes, nail services and facials; she’s booked more than one Sweet Sixteen spa ­extravaganza. Some moms even present their naked-faced ’tweens to Nives Riddle, Rescue’s award-winning and Vogue photo-shooting makeup artist, for early lessons in makeup application — you know, lest they learn the tricks of eyeliner by haphazardly painting it on Elvira-style a few times. Moms are also setting up pre-bat mitzvah spa treatment series for their daughters. “It’s not just to get them ready for their big party,” says Albert. “It’s like, ‘Okay, you’re becoming a woman now, here are the things you’ll need to do as a woman.’” 

Except, of course, they’re not women. This new, unstoppable desire of mothers to pluck and paint their daughters has created an unexpected conundrum for spa owners and aestheticians, who can’t afford to lose the moms’ lucrative business — but who also don’t want to be partners in crime. When moms book appointments to get their preteens waxed at Pierre & Carlo European Salon & Spa inside the Bellevue in Center City, owner Joseph Cutrufello makes it a point to run through with them exactly what will be happening to their child (read: pain, sweating, high ­probability of ensuing red bumps on young, sensitive, not-in-need-of-a-wax skin). At Bernard’s Salon & Day Spa in Cherry Hill, it wasn’t enough to simply suggest to moms that it’s not the best idea to apply harsh chemicals to the scalps and hair of their six-year-olds just to make their hair “more blond.” “We’ve flat-out told mothers that highlighting such a young girl’s hair is a bad idea, and something we’d rather not do,” says Carla Ciociola-Toppi, the spa’s marketing director. “But so many mothers push anyway that now we have them sign a waiver.” The waiver basically states that the spa prefers not to perform various services on children, that the mom understands this, and that she decrees it happen anyway. “It’s so weird,” says Ciociola-­Toppi. “It’s like they’re stage moms.”

In an effort to appease their ­consciences and avoid complicity, spa owners have gotten more creative, offering up palatable alternatives to moms intent on turning their daughters into eight-year-old Heidi Klums. Maurice Tannenbaum, who owns OMG Salon & Spa in Gladwyne, hawks an all-natural product to moms who want to lighten their five-year-olds’ locks; applied daily, it brings out subtle highlights. He has also drawn a line in his salon. “I had a mother once ask me to relax her 12-year-old daughter’s beautiful, wavy hair,” he says. “I just refused. I said absolutely not, that’s ridiculous, and turned her away.”

At the Phoenix Salon & Spa, on the bottom floor of the luxe Phoenix condo building in Center City, owner Sarah Keating finally drew up a waiver to deal with the constant influx of ’tweens (often the children of building residents) coming in — unaccompanied — for facials, highlights, waxes and massages. Some girls are in so often that they request specific spa employees. Keating recalls the day she informed one mother, who wanted to drop her 12-year-old off for a full body wax before a modeling casting call, that it wasn’t going to happen unless she, the mother, came in, signed a waiver, and sat with her daughter as any wayward hair that dared to grow on her adolescent skin — from head to toe — was ripped out.

SO WHAT’S BEHIND this surge of hyper-groomed mothers creating little spa-warriors in training? I catalog my own Main Line childhood: Did my friends and I sprout hair in places where hair had not previously been as we entered the double digits? Yes. Did we have lighter hair in the summer from frolicking on Avalon’s beaches, and duller hair in winter? Yep. And yes, we stressed over trying to be the best at sports and music and dance and school, and trying not to be the victims of middle-school girls’ cattiness. But did our moms shuttle us to high-end spas for corrective waxes, highlights, massages, facials and makeup lessons? What? Absolutely not. No one — not us, not our moms — even suggested it.

I remember greasy bangs and pimples keeping us in dark corners at our first boy-girl parties, and attempts — comical, of course — to cover said facial offenses with makeup stolen from our mothers’ bathroom drawers. Today, my girlfriends and I laugh when someone busts out evidence of “the ugly years” — the pictures from school dances, or those heinous school portraits from the fourth to ninth grades. They’re awesome. They make us feel better about how we look today. And they’re a reminder of everything we had to deal with, on our own, to grow up.

Which is what makes what’s coming down the road for the generation of tiny-tot Barbies so sobering. Without the ugly years, when do you learn to accept yourself?

The world has changed since my ’tweendom. Look at the media, and its obsession with fame, beauty, youth, celebrities, debutantes, celebutantes. It’s in our faces all the time. It’s in our kids’ faces, too. “It’s like this keeping-up-with-the-Joneses thing has stretched to our kids,” says Dasha Klein, a Main Line mom of an 11-year-old girl at Baldwin. She knows multiple teenagers who’ve gotten boob jobs for Sweet Sixteen presents, and a 20-year-old who gets Botox. “Except they’re trying to keep up with Hollywood — and Britney Spears and Paris Hilton and Miley Cyrus and whoever else they’re looking at. Well, guess what? You’re in Philadelphia. And you’re a kid. You’re not Angelina Jolie.”

When I was in my teenybopper heyday,  there were no pop chicks who I aspired to be. There were boys I aspired to marry. The media world surrounding us made us boy-crazy — maybe not a fabulous thing for a 10-year-old, but at least it didn’t lead my friends and me to inject botulism into our foreheads before we could legally drink. It was innocent: We giggled, swooned, hung posters of Joey Lawrence and Luke Perry, giggled some more. And our moms were … uninvolved. They didn’t drop us at the playground with instructions to bring home the boy who looked the most like Kirk Cameron. They rolled their eyes, bemusedly shaking their heads as they passed by our rooms: Oh, you silly girls. End of story. 

Not anymore. Today’s girls aren’t looking at posters; they’re looking in the mirror. They have a new obsession — a self-obsession — and it’s being aided and abetted by their mothers. “It’s like this focus on their outer life is trickling down to their daughters,” says Rescue’s Albert. These women have to look a certain way, so inevitably, their young daughters, still under their control, do, too.

“It’s definitely all about perfection,” says Adolf Biecker’s Engle. “The mothers who bring their young daughters in are the women who are in here getting a pedi once a week, a bikini wax every two weeks.” It’s also, she says, kind of a social-status thing: “They’re not bringing their girls to the nail salons. They’re bringing them to high-end spas.”

BUT WHILE IT’S easy to vilify women who push prepubescent waxing on their children, things get a little fuzzier when it comes to, say, a nail-painting party, or spa facials designed for young, acne-prone skin (especially when you consider that girls are hitting puberty earlier than previous generations did). No mom wants her unibrowed nine-year-old ­getting teased at school, or a 13-year-old suffering the angst of bad acne when a solution is at hand. “Instead of the moms just staring at the drugstore shelves, trying to figure out what’s best for their daughter’s skin problems, they come in and have a professional examine her skin and help them out with the products,” says Keating at the Phoenix.

Anastasia Egeli-Deppe has been taking her 10-year-old daughter, who attends St. Peter’s School in Society Hill, for cleansing facials at Rescue since she started breaking out and having it pointed out at school. “I just figured she’d listen better to someone who wasn’t her mother,” says Egeli-Deppe. “I didn’t want to be harping on her to brush her teeth and wash her face, and thought this would be more effective.” Her daughter’s skin has improved, she says. “And as a result, she really takes pride in taking care of herself. It’s less about vanity and more about health.” A bonus: Time spent in the spa means mother-daughter bonding. “It’s nice, because I’m not buying her something,” Egeli-Deppe says. “I’m actually experiencing something with her.”

Helping out your kid whose ­cosmetic/semi-medical problem is causing low self-esteem is respectable, as is spending time with her in ways other than loading up the shopping cart with mini-me Juicy. But somewhere along the line — well, the line gets crossed. We slip down the slope, and we’re back to seeing eight-year-olds waxing nothing but, um, skin, 10-year-olds requesting certain therapists for their Saturday-afternoon massages, and ­early-onset Botox.

“I do think, in some ways, this started as mothers and daughters spending time together, maybe getting their nails ­painted — but then it morphed into something else,” Hillman says. “A lot of times, these girls’ mothers have unresolved issues of their own — even perhaps an unresolved eating disorder — and are taking control over making some aspect of their daughter perfect. And then these issues transcend.” As beauty treatments become a habit, kids start to think this magazine-cover ideal is normal — and so is being pampered all the time. “Now, kids are asking for this stuff. It’s like a way of coping, an external support system,” Hillman says. “And it’s a huge problem.”

The Phoenix’s Keating, who sees nine-year-olds in her spa on a regular basis, says she’d refuse any spa-going request by her own nine-year-old daughter, save for nail-painting as a treat. Klein takes her almost-12-year-old daughter into spas for the occasional cleansing facial (“Good skin care is a habit, and I’d like her to learn that habit early”), but draws the line at other spa services (mommy-daughter manis excluded). “She has her whole life to do what she wants,” she says. “I want her to make those decisions about her body for herself, when she’s an adult. Plus, I know so many girls who go into debt in college trying to keep up with all of this — the spa treatments, the nice clothes. They feel like all this superficial B.S. is so important.”

And it’s not just an expensive spa habit young women are learning at the hands of their moms, Hillman says. “When you’re under the age of 16, change implies that something is wrong,” she says. “So you have to be very careful about the message you send to your kids. They need acceptance to build confidence, and when you’re bringing them in at a young age — ­especially when it comes to the bikini wax — you’re telling them that part of their pubescent bodies shouldn’t be there. And they think what mommy teaches is right.”

I remember something else. I was a senior in high school, writing papers for a string of AP classes, held hostage by the computer for so long that my shoulders and neck cramped, creating a constant, throbbing headache. My mom scheduled a series of intensive massages for me, in which the therapist both loosened my muscles and taught me ways to combat the grapefruit-sized knots, making writing my 1,500 words on FDR’s New Deal (virtually) painless. Until then, I had viewed ­massages as something only ­middle-aged people got, as a treat, to relax, to be pampered. But when my mom booked me, it wasn’t a treat; it was a lifesaver. And it made her a good mother. (Thanks, Mom!)

Which makes me hope there are other good moms who have found the happy medium. Maybe gentle facials for (emotionally and physically) scarring acne are a good idea. Maybe mini-mani birthday parties are just fun. Maybe moms can figure out a way to keep the bonding, and lose the creepy but-she’s-just-a-baby part. But for now, there’s backtracking to do if we want this happy medium to be the norm, not the exception. Consider Tannenbaum’s regular client at OMG, the one who schedules two blowouts per week — one for her, one for her six-year-old. “Oh, I don’t think it’s a treat,” he says. “This kid expects it. She expects her blowout.”