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This startup wants toddlers to wear makeup

This startup wants toddlers to wear makeup

Let’s just be clear about one thing: Four-year-olds don’t just wake up one day and decide to be makeup influencers. Reams of research document how malleable and impressionable children are. If a child, barely out of toddlerhood, shows an interest in makeup, it is because parents, brands, and society have made a concerted effort to introduce the concept to her.

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Take Samantha Cutler, for instance, the former chief product development officer at Stila Cosmetics. She remembers watching her mother put on lipstick, and these days, she loves putting makeup on her very young daughter. “Now that I’m a mom, I love seeing my daughter’s face light up when I put a touch of sparkle on her cheekbones,” she says.

Now, Cutler wants to cultivate this obsession with makeup among other girls throughout the world as young as four years old. She’s launched “Petite ‘N Pretty,” which makes cosmetic products that will look good on small faces. Cutler does not seem to believe she is actually brainwashing young girls to aspire to be “petite” and “pretty,” although it is right there in the name she chose. Instead, the website claims that the brand is consumer-led, and responding to the needs of young girls clamoring for these products. “Young creatives are changing the way the world sees pretty by redefining it on their terms with a next-gen point-of -view that celebrates sparkle in everyone,” reads the website. “This is about expression and good old-fashioned fun.”

I would like to call bullshit. The beauty industry is a $445 billion sector that has the power–through advertising and marketing–to shape our values. Cutler must be aware of this, having spent 15 years in the industry. For years now, consumers have been pushing beauty brands to broaden their ideas about what is beautiful by using more diverse and size-inclusive models. Cutler cannot be naive to the fact that by launching a kid’s beauty brand, she is, in fact, shaping what children will believe is beautiful.

At the same time, the website attempts to use progressive language around beauty, with vapid phrases like, “Everyone’s sparkle is all their own, and we think that’s pretty much the prettiest.” But it doesn’t take much analysis to see where this logic fails.

First of all, there’s the brand’s name. Petite is meant to describe little girls, but since American culture is obsessed with thin women, it could easily feed into body negativity. (What about all the little girls who are not so “petite”? This brand is presumably not for them.) And then there’s the “pretty” part. No matter how you define it, it is ultimately a focus on superficial looks, rather than intelligence or character. It’s a uniquely gendered concept: Most brands encourage four-year-old boys to aspire to be brave, strong, and smart.

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Of course, other brands have targeted young girls, priming them for a lifetime of makeup consumption. Wet ‘n Wild and Lip Smacker, for instance, have created fun, inexpensive products, like lip gloss, that girls can afford on their allowance. But these brands target tweens and teens: Selling products to four, five, and six-year-olds is quite different.

Anyway, there’s a good chance that “Petite n Pretty” won’t work in today’s world. Consider Barbie, a brand that has historically focused on giving girls a very narrow idea of beauty and encouraging them to be pretty. Over the last few years, the dolls haven’t been doing well, and many believe that millennial parents don’t want their daughters being exposed to toys that are so focused on appearances. Many are opting for more progressive toys, like GoldiBlox, a doll that uses her knowledge of science and engineering to make things.

Sure, Cutler’s daughter lights up when she plasters makeup on her cheeks. But this isn’t because little girls are born with a desire to use highlighter. It’s because makeup–and looking pretty–has been presented to the child as a positive thing.

But, let’s hope there are other little kids out there who aren’t devoting their time and aspirations toward beauty. They are, instead, spending hours getting excited about science or being kind or making the world better in some way.

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