You’re beautiful, baby! – on the sexualization of girls in beauty culture

Tragically, I return to blogging with a depressing topic. Today, one of my favourite skincare bloggers shared a link to an article on the launch of a new beauty startup called Petite ‘N Pretty. New brands launch all the time, but what makes this line different is the target audience: little girls ages 4 and up.

I’ll be the first of admit that my initial response was terror. And it’s not just me – Beauty editor Sable Yong of Allure wrote this very lucid piece on the topic.

Of course, experimenting with makeup is a normal way for kids to play with their self-expression, or with acting out different characters. It’s perfectly fine for a child to put glitter all over their face. Kids love glitter. Glitter is fun.

What’s not as fun is the way this particular iteration of glitter presents itself in its marketing. The sense of play flickers by in bursts – in the promotional video posted to the brand’s home page, girls laugh as they put glitter on their cheeks or in their hair. But the video also involves a lot of close up shots of girls applying lip gloss and posing with parted lips in a way that feels wrong.

We are alienating girls from their own childhoods at younger and younger ages. In the context of a myriad other uncomfortably grown-up products for girls such as toddler high heels and bras and thongs for pre-teens, this becomes a clear sign that we see girls as tiny women to be objectified. Just ponder the prevalence of child beauty pageants, perhaps the pinnacle of the way we force girls into a role of feminine servitude to the male gaze, caked in makeup and flirting with the crowd.

Indeed, girls learn early on to leverage their appearance in exchange for attention, admiration, and validation, often by mimicking their mothers and older sisters. We teach them that their appearance is their most valuable asset, to be cherished and pruned into pleasing shapes for the benefit of a predominantly male gaze.

Girls become sexually aware – not of their own sexuality, but the sexual demands and expectations placed upon them – at a young age, and are forced to grow up very quickly. They become seductresses in the eyes of society. We put them on stages, red carpets and film dressed like adults. They are not adults. They are children.

You might say that there’s no inherently sexual element to makeup. You might say that wanting to try on adult roles is normal and healthy. This is true, to an extent. But it is also true that femininity and beauty culture are impossible to take out of the context of objectification and dangerously narrow beauty standards.

It is also true that the current state of the beauty industry is hyperfeminine and hypersexualized. Do we want kids to feel the pain of womanhood so soon? To know that she must always be viewed as object? Why is it that boys can remain children well into adulthood, but a girl must take on the responsibilities of womanhood before she reaches puberty? Let’s not get her a contour kit just yet.

Header image c/o Petite ‘n Pretty. FAIR USE!!!!

2 thoughts on “You’re beautiful, baby! – on the sexualization of girls in beauty culture

  1. Jessica

    (Longtime reader and lurker posting here – hi!) I’m reading a book at the moment that I think you would find super interesting – Aesthetic Labour: Rethinking Beauty Politics in Neoliberalism. It’s a collection of academic essays on beauty culture and how it interacts with feminism, capitalism and neoliberalism. The first essay parallels this post of yours in a lot of ways – it’s an analysis of the way ideas of play, fun and girlishness are incorporated into beauty advertising. It’s only a short essay but for me it really helped articulate aspects of “play” in beauty that I’d felt uncomfortable about but couldn’t quite put my finger on, beyond things such as the inherent infantilisation. For example, the author talks about how playfulness in beauty is implicitly positioned as being in opposition to some sort of imaginary, conservative, killjoy feminist notion that you’re not allowed to have fun and enjoy beauty products and processes. By creating that fictional spectre, playfulness is positioned as a fun and rebellious act that women/girls are entitled to and that they can exercise their “freedom” by using cosmetics in a fun way. So when women and girls really need to be taught and supported to rebel about unreasonable beauty standards and expectations of beauty labour, they’re instead taught to rebel against some false idea of a conservative feminism that’s trying to deny them from having fun. This all erases women’s and girls’ awareness of the patriarchal structures that insist upon their beauty labour. So as you say, there’s nothing inherently sexual or problematic about playing with makeup, but it becomes harmful when women and girls do so because they feel compelled to do so by societal standards, rather than being aware of and questioning and challenging those societal standards (and perhaps still choosing to experiment with makeup because that’s what they enjoy).


    1. Saffron

      Oh my god, thank you so much for this comment!! I’m buying that book ASAP, it sounds so fascinating from your description!! I’m definitely also of the mind that upholding compulsory femininity is unjustly enforced whether you enjoy it or not, and it’s so important that we turn a critical eye to the things we participate in and enjoy. Thanks for reading the blog, this comment made my week <3


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