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Reflections on "Sephora Kids"

Their obsession with maintaining beauty involves the search for ways to postpone aging.


"Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest one of all?"

Sound familiar? If you were ever exposed to one particular Grimms' fairy tale or saw a certain 1937 Disney movie, you'll recall the story of Snow White and the question that the solipsistic evil Queen posed to her magic mirror as she gazed into it. The answer that horrified and enraged her called attention to a much younger and more beautiful female who threatened her self-identity.

In an American culture that continues to equate youth with beauty, it follows that older age implies ugliness, an association apparent in many children's stories featuring wicked, hunched-over, old hags with deeply lined, warty faces. And because girls are especially pressured to consider their physical appearance as a measure of their worth in others' eyes as well as their own, their obsession with maintaining beauty as a way to postpone aging fills the coffers of the multibillion-dollar profit-making industry.

Enter this latest wrinkle in the sad portrait of gendered ageism, namely, the rise of “Sephora Kids,” preteen girls who haunt the cosmetic company’s stores, as well as those of Ulta Beauty and other similar ubiquitous outlets, trying on skin-care products they’ve learned about over TikTok and Instagram. Their goals: not just to look pretty but also to prevent the inevitable changes their faces will undergo with the passage of time. That latter reason is a disturbing twist to adolescent development.

Creating special skin-care products for teenagers or marketing established ones to them are tactics that through sheer cultural osmosis are now attracting 9- to 12-year-olds who naturally want to --- and worse, feel compelled to --- get in on the action. I’ll leave it to dermatologists to weigh in on the appropriateness and safety of very young skin being exposed to the chemical ingredients in such items. What concerns me is the desperation behind the trend.

But should we really blame those young girls for their feelings and actions? After all, they can’t help being impacted by the never-ending flood of media messages that confront them, a well as the concerns expressed by their mothers, aunts, older sisters/cousins, grandmothers, and other influential women in their lives who themselves may be using anti-aging products with the same intent to postpone the physiological effects of time.

Research has shown that ageist attitudes can start to take hold in human minds as early as age 3. That’s when children can begin to assume that old people are frail, slow, incapable, and laughable. Add to this the additional whammy of sexism, and these preteen girls are being groomed to value beauty over health, surface over substance, and eternal youth over naturally growing old.

It's going to be a huge challenge for their parents and other concerned adults to help these girls develop a different and healthier perspective about their identity as maturing females in a gendered ageist society. But the consequences of not addressing this situation are great. After all, it's harder for most women to shatter glass ceilings if they can’t even look rationally and positively into their own magic mirrors to appreciate just how “fair” they are.

Maybe, like a certain different fictional character named Alice, we might dare to look beyond our reflection, move "through the looking glass," and step into a world that offers a radically different (and in our case, more positive) world view, bringing those preteen girls with us.

Surely that would be a happier-ever-after tale to tell.


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