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From the sandbox to the spa
Such pretty hair on that little girl so shiny, so soft, so expertly coifed.

Wait a minute: Does that little girl have highlights?

Only her hairdresser knows for sure.

And her manicurist, pedicurist, facialist, hair braider and henna artist. And don't forget her masseuse. Hey, being 10 years old these days can take a lot of maintenance.

Because pampering is not just for adult women anymore or even teens.

The age at which girls begin grooming regimens and beauty treatments has dropped dramatically in recent years, spa owners say, as girls follow their favorite celebrities and their self-indulgent baby-boomer parents.

Bombarded with marketing and media messages their parents never heard growing up, kids today find stores filled with grooming and cosmetic products aimed specifically at them. These days, it's not uncommon for kids as young as 6 to get minifacials and French manicures as spas-for-kids have evolved from a rarity to a growing subset of the bustling spa industry.

The Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort in San Antonio opened its popular youth spa three years ago, targeting teens 17 and younger.

"But the last two summers, the age of the consumer has dropped considerably, to an average of 8 to 10," says Melody Campbell-Goeken, public relations director for the resort, which calls its youth spa The SPAhhhT. "We're still surprised."

But why does a little girl need a facial, never mind a massage?

" 'Cause we're girls, and we're girlie," giggles Kailey Smith, 11, of San Antonio, who had her first TuttiFrutti Therabeauty Body Scrub and preteen facial on a recent visit to Hyatt Hill Country. "It was really nice. I really enjoyed it. I felt really clean and relaxed."

'America is into beauty'

Boomers for the most part didn't get into spa-going until they were adults, and now that they've found nirvana, they want their little darlings to enjoy it, too.

"For adult women, it has become basic maintenance to look the way they want to look, and their young children notice that," says Karen Grant, beauty industry analyst for The NPD Group market research firm.

Plus, celebrities and celebrity-obsessed media influence children, too. In its July issue, Glamour magazine ran a picture of actress Kate Beckinsale and her daughter Lily, 7, coming out of a salon with fresh manicures/pedicures.

The magazine said 77% of readers surveyed voted "It's a do" for mother-daughter mani-pedis.

"(Teens) have a fixation on celebrities, movie stars and sports figures, who change their hair every day," says Susan Tierney, 47, a former Seventeen magazine executive and co-owner of Seventeen in Plano, Texas, a studio/spa/salon for teens that opened in 2002 and will add two locations in Dallas this fall. "Changing their style is nothing to them. Meanwhile, I've had the same hair-color formula for 20 years."

Kid spas have "moved from a trend to a staple," says SPARTY! owner Alexis Ufland, whose company offers at-home spa parties for teens and tweens in New York and 10 other cities.

She recently did a birthday party for a gaggle of 10-year-olds on the Upper East Side that featured manicures/pedicures, mini-facials, henna tattoos, pink robes with each girl's name, goodie bags with pretend makeup, food and a birthday cake all for about $5,000.

"They already know what a French manicure is. They know they want square nails, not round."

But is all this grooming stuff harmless fun?

"It's just nail polish, for God's sake!" Tierney exclaims.

Mind you, youth spas don't apply adult treatments such as dermabrasion or waxing on tender little faces. Those that offer massages typically require parents to be present, and the massages are performed by young women.

"This is America, and America is into beauty, taking care of yourself, staying healthy, eating right and taking vitamins," says Siobhain Buckley, mother of Diandra, 11, and Ireland, 8, who love visiting the Hyatt Hill Country with their mother. The girls say they plan to keep going to spas when they become teens and adults.

Like many women her age, Buckley, 40, didn't get her first manicure/pedicure until she was an adult. But her daughters are growing up in a different world.

"Children are so far advanced compared to us. But it's for fun, and if it teaches them hygiene and good skin care, how can it be bad?"

Products aimed at children

Actually, Jean Kilbourne says it could be bad. She's a visiting scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College, an author (her forthcoming book, So Sexy So Soon: Sexualization of Childhood) and documentary filmmaker (Killing Us Softly, about the image of women in advertising).

She worries that the emphasis on grooming and appearance could encourage girls to think that their value depends on what they look like on the outside rather than what they're made of on the inside.

"A little girl getting a manicure is no big deal," Kilbourne says. "It's the idea of this becoming routine and starting so early that's what makes it harmful. There's a graduation to makeup and thong parties, so that girls look like they're 13 when they're 7 and like they're 20 when they're 13. It's important for people to take it seriously.

"At least," Kilbourne sighs, "they can't get Brazilian waxes yet."

Kim Fred of Plano does take it seriously. She takes daughter Sydney, 12, to Seventeen to have her hair and nails done, but she has held firm so far against facials, highlights and henna tattoos.

"I've tried really hard to make my kids appreciate that these are special-occasion things, not part of normal life," Fred says.

But resistance to this phenomenon could be futile. The size of the child consumer pool (ages 5-19) is an estimated 61 million, according to the U.S. Census, and is projected to rise to 81 million by 2050. So it's no surprise that the spa and beauty industries view them as a not-fully-tapped market that could sustain their business for decades.

As of 2004, about 14,300 spas were in the USA and Canada, according to the International Spa Association. A study the group commissioned found that two out of five spa-goers with children ages 13 to 15 have taken their children to a spa.

But the trend goes beyond spas and deep into retailing. Every year, more cosmetic, hair and nail products aimed at tweens appear on store shelves. Bath & Body Works has its American Girl line, including hair care, lip gloss and perfume for girls. Little Fing'rs launched its fake Girlie Nails this year, targeting girls ages 6 to 11. Cozy Friedman, one of the first to open a child-oriented hair salon, Cozy's Cuts for Kids, has three salons in New York, and she has lines of hair-care products, makeup and nail polish for girls.

And it's not just girls. Grant of The NPD Group says one of the recent market success stories is deodorant body sprays, such as Axe and Tag, originally aimed at men but quickly adopted by teen and tween boys. Almost overnight, a multimillion-dollar market was born, she says.

"I call it the mini-metrosexual phenomenon," says Friedman, who has two preteen boys who already have very specific preferences in hair-styling products.

'Anything in moderation...'

What has changed in recent years, Friedman says, is parents' acceptance of the idea of grooming for children, as long as there are appropriate products pale lip glosses, say, rather than blood-red lipsticks by Chanel that don't leave their children looking like freakishly small adults.

"It's OK to take pride in your appearance, to create good habits to build self-esteem, as long as it's not taking over your life," Friedman says. "Anything in moderation can be OK."

Little girls and their mothers already are convinced.

At Eclips Kids Salon & Spa in Ashburn, Va., six little girls recently celebrated Allie Ragan's 11th birthday with a spa party that included manicures, pedicures, hairdos and goodie bags.

Her mother, Deborah Ragan, 36, a teacher, says she has noticed that even her little first-graders already are carrying lip gloss.

"They're more into that than (Allie) was when she was in first grade," Ragan says.

At North Carolina's Pinehurst golfing resort, which opened its youth spa in 2004, Danielle Cormier, 10, recently celebrated her birthday with five other girls at a spa party.

"Kids should try it, even if they don't like it, just to have the experience," Danielle says.

Her mother, Tracy Cormier, 45, co-owner of the nearby Pinehurst Track Restaurant, also loves going to the spa, especially to burnish the mother-daughter bond.

"When my mother comes to visit, we all go to get pedicures three generations all sitting there drinking strawberry smoothies."

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