Los Angeles — Being a girl is so much trouble. It always has been. Ask any female who's ever slept in curlers or ironed her wavy hair straight.
While women have long tried to improve on nature, in the last few years spas and salons throughout the country have seen an influx of progressively younger clients seeking services their mothers didn't indulge in until they were out of college and able to support their own beauty budgets.
It's not hard to find 12-year-olds who book $30 to $75 blow-dries every time they're invited to a party, or 14-year-olds who go under the brushes of an $80-a-session makeup artist, then spend $100 to take home the tools of transformation.
"Some of my friends are so obsessed," says Meredith Coyne, a 16-year-old from Naples, Fla., who recently became a redhead when her aunt treated her to a $550 make-over at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York. "They act like Jessica Alba just left 'Dark Angel' and they have to look good enough to fill in."
What it takes
Here's what it takes to be cute these days: a great haircut, chemically altered hair color (preferably accented with highlights of another shade or two), any hint of frizz blown and flat-ironed into oblivion, professionally manicured fingernails and pedicured feet, waxed legs and sculpted eyebrows, skin bronzed in a tanning parlor or tinted with self-tanning cream.
The tab for this level of personal maintenance would rival the service bills of an aging BMW. All told, American teenagers spent $155 billion in 2000, up from $123 billion in 1997. They persuade their parents to spend another $100 billion, according to Teen Research Unlimited, a Chicago-based marketing company.
"If I read one more model or actress say what really counts is being beautiful inside, I'm going to vomit," says 15-year-old Jessica Bell from Redondo Beach, Calif. "I figure I have two choices. I can go to bed every night praying I'll wake up looking like a model, or I work at looking good, like all my friends do."
Of course, teen beauty inflation is most prevalent among the privileged, yet experts who giddily report on the buying habits of adolescents would have us believe the entire generation is flush.
The trend, which crosses ethnic boundaries, can be attributed to the influence of celebrities, to the growing acceptance of vanity in American culture, or seen as a consequence of more money, technology, media and expertise being within reach of those under 20. But, more than anything else, a shift in parental attitudes seems to be behind the escalation of power spiffing.
When the baby boomers were kids, symbolic barbed wire separated adult privileges and activities from those available to minors.
Once the children of the '70s had children, they ditched the exclusionary style of their elders and adopted a spirit of inclusion. Youngsters were welcome at their parties, viewed as suitable restaurant companions and considered worldly enough to contribute to the most sophisticated conversations.
"You can't color your hair 'til you're older" was replaced by "if it's good enough for me, it's good enough for my kid."
Galloping vanity does have its foes. Mindy Caplow of Sherman Oaks, Calif. considers herself part of a thoughtful opposition. She said no when her daughter asked to have her legs waxed at 11. Now that Emily is nearly 14, she's allowed to have her eyebrows done occasionally, but hair color is a no-go.
"Once you strip away the glamour, as mothers we're sending a pretty negative message," Caplow says. "I'm an interior designer, so aesthetics and beauty are a part of my everyday life. Yet we do a disservice to our daughters by giving them the idea that if you look good, you are good. That gives the girls a false sense of being complete."
Emily devours beauty tips from Allure and Elle as well as the teen magazines but thinks that girls who wear too much makeup look "hard and mean."
"Part of playing with makeup is just being a girl and experimenting for fun," she says. "But when girls try too hard to look good, it's a big turnoff."