In our society, for young girls on the perilous journey from preadolescence and adolescence to young adult status, one of the emotional pitfalls is the social pressure and self-awareness that precipitates wearing makeup. Putting on blush, lipstick, mascara, and eyeshadow has become one of the primary rites of passage that marks the moment when changing hormones begin to influence both mind and body. As this new style of expression is developing, teenage anxiety begins to take on a whole new depth (witness a teen’s explosive desperation at a single perceived insult or problem). What do you do when the little girl in your life (who is looking less and less like a little girl) wants to start wearing makeup? Particularly when her sensitivities are overflowing but her sophistication is lagging? And it isn’t just that she wants to wear makeup—she has to. To make things even more confusing, teenagers continually demonstrate an inexplicable duality of fierce individualism, while at the same time buying only what everyone else is wearing. How many times have you heard the teen in your life proclaim loudly that she doesn’t care what anyone else thinks, while at the same time she refuses to wear anything else but the same style of makeup, shoes, skirts, blouses, sweaters, and dresses her friends or her latest rock-star idol are wearing? Too many to count!
Feeling attractive is an overwhelmingly important aspect of life for many teenage girls. It is often complicated by well-meaning adults who don’t quite know what to do or say. “You look beautiful, you don’t need to wear makeup” is just as irksome as “A little pink blush, rose lipstick, and brown mascara will make you look beautiful.” The first statement, “You look beautiful just the way you are,” comes off as a thunderous lie. It discounts what the teenager sees all around her on television and in magazines—that women can look more exciting and glamorous with makeup on (or why else would Mom and the rest of the world be wearing it?). The other comment about adding just a little color here and there suggests that the girl is unattractive and would be better off hiding her face behind a layer of cosmetics (albeit a small one). Then there’s the ever-popular, “You can start wearing makeup when you’re 16 and that’s that.” At best, an arbitrary date like this ignores the specific needs and development of each teen.
What to do? I wouldn’t recommend any of the above approaches, that’s for sure. Instead, I suggest incorporating all three positions into a compassionate compromise. The goal is to acknowledge the teenager’s needs, letting her know they are valid and important. Tell her something along the lines of “I know wearing makeup is important to you and it could look lovely on you. But at the same time I want you to know that I think you are beautiful just the way you are.” Then the two of you can decide together what is appropriate, giving in a little as you go. Remember, what you think is important may not be what the teen thinks is important. Gloss yes, lipstick no; blush yes, but only a little; mascara yes, but only brown; concealer yes, but foundation no; and so on. Mostly this process is about being gentle and respectful of the teen’s feelings as they arise (and not about trying to control or contradict).
Another option is going together to a professional makeup artist or makeup demonstration. This can be a positive experience as long as you are careful to ward off any attempt on the part of the salesperson to foster insecurity and vulnerability via sales techniques. Let the salesperson know ahead of time, in no uncertain terms, that you don’t want her to use any language that suggests something is unattractive or wrong with any aspect of your teen’s appearance. If the salesperson wants to introduce something different she can easily say, “I think a softer blush can be an attractive look,” instead of “The blush you have on is all wrong for you.” Don’t let the counterperson get away with “You have small lids and a bright color will make them look larger,” when a simple statement such as “A pale brown eyeshadow on the lid is a good color choice for you.” Instead of encouraging an addiction to makeup brought on by insecurity, that phrasing can go a long way to build self-esteem.
If the age of your teen is of great importance to you in making your decision about when to allow makeup, you can put off the inevitable by intervening with an emphasis on skin care (which is a good starting point in general). Encouraging the everyday use of UVA – protective sunscreen, regular cleansing with a water-soluble cleanser, exfoliating gently with an AHA or BHA product, and using 2.5% benzoyl peroxide over blemishes is a great way to start paying attention to beauty issues without getting into makeup, except maybe for mascara or lip gloss. At the same time, it is essential that you take the time to share information about how the cosmetics industry can take advantage of women and stress why it is a waste of money to buy expensive products. That combination is an excellent and beautiful introduction to the world of cosmetics.
You and your teen can even read one of my books or visit my Web site together, marking areas to discuss. If you reach a crossroads and cannot agree, seek out an impartial third party to mediate (preferably not male unless you’re looking for a “Who cares?” response!).
Most of us grown-ups started off on the wrong foot with makeup and skin care, somehow learning incorrectly from the outset that it would make us perfect and correct all our flaws (of which there were always too many—eyes too close together or too far apart, nose too broad or too narrow, face too square or too round, skin too yellow or too pink, and on and on). We are now in a good position to hand the next generation a new measure of self-worth and to tell them the truth about cosmetics and what they can and cannot do. That’s something the cosmetics industry probably isn’t expecting.