Kids and makeup: Is there a “right” age to start using beauty products?

A couple weeks ago, makeup artist Mario Dedivanovic posted a photo of a child decked out in makeup on Instagram, and people weren’t happy.

“My future daughter #SoCute,” he captioned, inspiring a choir of commenters to remind him that children don’t need makeup, that makeup on children is a type of abuse (let’s dial it down), and that children wearing makeup is ultimately criminal. Is the little girl wearing too much makeup? I personally think so. But I also think our relationship with makeup varies depending on our experiences with it, as well as how we grew up viewing it.

I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup for a very long time. As far as my parents were concerned, even at 12 I was too young, and I had my whole life to wear makeup, so too bad. To me, this was nonsense, so I reacted accordingly.

Whenever my best friend and I got dropped off at the mall, we’d go into Zellers and buy all the Lip Smackers we could find. The Dr. Pepper colour was slightly tinted (therefore becoming my favourite because it was technically tinted balm), and after breaking down that first barrier with my mom and dad, I eventually graduated to nail polish, as long as it was clear, which I embraced happily.

But what confused me was that my relationship with makeup wasn’t always so controversial. When I was little, my aunts would do my makeup at my grandparents’ place for fun, and it was “cute” and “hilarious” and I got attention, which I loved because attention is great. When my mom did her makeup, I sat in the bathroom and watched her, enamoured with her powders and eyeshadows, and excited for the day I could also wear perfume-smelling blush like a real grown-ass lady.

But things change in your tweens, especially when you become particularly self-conscious and worry that like the girls around you, maybe you should also be wearing lipstick. After all, “it was the nineties.” And if movies and TV I also wasn’t allowed to watch (but watched at neighbours’ houses when I could because #YOLO) taught me anything, it was a really great time for dark, matte hues. Also, boys seemed to like the girls wearing dark, matte hues, and I wanted them to like me, too. Which meant makeup had become less a fun, cool thing, and more “the thing I need to wear to become a woman worthy of male attention.” Woof.

So finally, when I was 13, the embargo lifted. I was a teenager. My youth had been preserved, and my parents rescinded. I could wear tinted lipstick without fear, and invest in coloured nail polish (especially with sparkles because it was 1998), and I could even pick up a compact. I was a woman, according to me, and easily mistakable for my heroes Sabrina Spellman and/or Emily from Student Bodies because of my poise and sophistication. Also, boys kind of talked to me, sort of. My Bonne Bell cosmetics were doing the trick.

Unfortunately, as tween years morph into teen years, my self esteem, like many girls’, collapsed. Now, clinging to the power of being able to wear whatever makeup I liked, I wore all of it all the time: dark lipstick, caked-on foundation, eyeliner, eyeshadow. I felt pretty-ish, but I also felt I was doing what I had to do. I thought boys would like me if I wore makeup. Even though some overtly told me that I shouldn’t wear as much. (Those kinds of boys are what we call “total dicks.”)

It took me well into my twenties to find a balanced relationship with makeup, mostly because we tend to preach “less is more” despite some of us simply enjoying lipstick, eyeshadow, or whatever it is you want to wear. By the time I realized I liked wearing makeup because putting makeup on is fun (meaning: I now separated makeup from the male gaze), I was 27 and very tired. Finally, I realized there are too many things to worry about as an adult in general, so whether or not a guy likes my lipstick is not one of them.

But part of me wonders if my relationship with makeup would’ve been different had it been a thing I was allowed to experiment with during my formative years. Until I wasn’t allowed to have it, I saw makeup as part of a ritual; as a way of bonding with other women, or having fun with colours or “getting ready.” Maybe in an attempt to preserve my childhood, the makeup embargo propelled me into a misunderstanding of how cosmetics are viewed and used. They don’t have to be about covering up “flaws” or making yourself conventional-looking—you can use makeup to express and/or arm yourself, too. I didn’t learn that until 15 years after I started using it.

So while Dedivanovic’s photo made me uncomfortable, what makes me most uncomfortable is the shame we’re throwing at the photo’s subject. To us, she’s a little girl masquerading as a woman. But to her, she may have had a blast playing dress-up one afternoon, and hasn’t thought about it since. Maybe her parents have already taught her that makeup is about dressing up and having fun. Maybe she’ll avoid the bear trap of “camouflaging one’s flaws.” Maybe she’s going to have a healthy relationship with cosmetics and her own self-worth. Maybe we just quit policing altogether because all we’ve seen is one photo.