Conspicuous Consumption Starts at 2 Years Old

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The financial crunch has not appeared to stop the incessant search for beauty in a bottle. Writing in Newsweek, Jessica Bennett reports that the spa business for very young children is as robust as ever. I know that our leaders are desperately (?) trying to get the engine of our economy back in gear. But this way?

On a recent Sunday in Brooklyn, I stumble into a spa that brands itself for the 0 to 12 set, full of tweens getting facialed and glossed, hands and feet outstretched for manis and pedis. “The girls just love it,” says Daria Einhorn, the 21-year-old spa owner, who was inspired by watching her 5-year-old niece play with toy beauty kits… Sounds extreme? Maybe. But this, my friends, is the new normal: a generation that primps and dyes and pulls and shapes, younger and with more vigor. Girls today are salon vets before they enter elementary school. Forget having mom trim your bangs, fourth graders are in the market for lush $50 haircuts; by the time they hit high school, $150 highlights are standard. Five-year-olds have spa days and pedicure parties. And instead of shaving their legs the old-fashioned way—with a 99-cent drugstore razor—teens get laser hair removal, the most common cosmetic procedure of that age group. If these trends continue, by the time your tween hits the Botox years, she’ll have spent thousands on the beauty treatments once reserved for the “Beverly Hills, 90210” set, not junior highs in Madison, Wis.

I see in this stark evidence of our society’s continuing slide into the “having” mode of living. Our habits of thinking and acting start building early—like, beauty can be found in a “bottle.” Historical data show that beauty products were used millennia before the modern era. Maybe something like our spas and Body Shops existed at those times, but I doubt it. Nor was there a thriving business bombarding the young with seductive messages and images. Bennett writes, “It’s been estimated that girls 11 to 14 are subjected to some 500 advertisements a day—the majority of them nipped, tucked and airbrushed to perfection.”

The notion that applications of stuff can make one beautiful unfortunately doesn’t stop with the mascara brush. With modern tools, the body itself can be tweaked and shaped. Bennett continues:

In Susie Orbach’s new book, “Bodies,” the former therapist to Princess Diana argues that good looks and peak fitness are no longer a biological gift, but a ceaseless pursuit. And obsession at an early age, she says, fosters a belief that these are essential components of who we are—not, as she puts it, “lovely add-ons.” “It primes little girls to think they should diet and dream about the cosmetic-surgery options available to them, and it makes body the primary place for self-identity.”

And if the grown-ups that emerge from this process think that they can “have” beauty, there is nothing to stop them from believing that everything good in life can be found in a metaphorical bottle. Sustainability is as much about human flourishing as it is about “nature.” (I put the scare quotes here to point to the error of thinking we are not part of nature.) Flourishing can’t be produced by a machine. Beauty comes from living an authentic life and engaging in the experiences that show up, including those about the body that you received from your genes, not your cosmetician. Human beings are not paint-by-numbers kits.

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