The age of beauty?
The US beauty industry is targeting little girls as young as two with 'kiddie spas' where all manner of treatments are available. But is the trend about to take off here? Judith Cole finds out
As part of the new craze spreading throughout the United States, little girls as young as three attend spas to receive pampering, make-up instruction and even skin treatments.
This market has rocketed in recent years - billions of dollars are spent on the pre-teen beauty industry and tens of thousands of kids' spas have sprouted to take advantage of the demand.
So is Northern Ireland about to witness a similar boom? Certainly, there is some demand here from young girls to have makeovers, but mention the very idea of anything more than a drop of nail colour or lip gloss to beauty therapists and a look of horror passes across their faces.
Kerry O'Neill, from Michele International Hairdressers and Beauty Salon, Belfast, agrees that visiting beauty salons is part of life for many young girls now.
"There is definitely a big increase in young girls going to beauty salons," she says. "In particular, tanning is popular for those doing Irish dancing or disco dancing contests, flower girls or first communion.
"They can be as young as eight or nine but the interesting thing is that when they come it's all familiar to them - they've had it done before and are used to it. There's also a demand for manicures - sometimes mothers come in to get their hair done and the daughters will have a manicure while they're waiting."
However, a line has been drawn there and Kerry believes that treatments should not be given to this age group.
"Some young girls have come in to the salon determined to have treatments like eyebrow waxing done, but because of health and safety we can't do it - skin as young as that couldn't cope with it. It would be completely wrong for them to have this done, but it shows just how much more they are aware of their looks these days.
"Also, giving them facials would be, I believe, the height of madness. Facials are meant to normalise skin which suffers from problems like acne or oiliness, and for girls who haven't reached puberty they are simply not appropriate."
But she fears that the pressure of demand means that there could be more intensive treatments on offer.
"Dress-up kits for young girls used to be a set of plastic high heels and a mirror, now they include hair extensions, make-up and false nails, and it's only a matter of time before young girls will be getting waxing treatments.
"But this is wrong - it's not allowing kids to be kids and it's making them aware of flaws."
Manus Magill, of New York City Nails which has salons throughout Northern Ireland, agrees that too much, too young is wrong. But the company caters for increasing demand from the pre-teen market by offering nail painting.
"There is certainly an increasing demand for kids' parties where girls of age seven or eight come in and get their nails done - by that I don't mean they are getting their nails filed, just painted," he says.
"The thinking is that if you get these kids at such a young age, they grow and develop with you.
"Some of the treatments that are given in America are absolutely ridiculous - and they say we're five or six years behind them.
"The idea to have parties at the salons for girls arose out of demand - mothers were getting their nails done and were looking for something different for their daughters.
"I've no problem with putting some colour on their nails, it isn't going to do any harm. We are absolutely adamant that when dealing with children under 18 we need parental consent if we are going to do anything. We're absolutely rigid about that. But once we have consent we have no problem putting colour on their nails - that's all we do."
Indeed, Manus believes that there can be an educational benefit from girls attending a salon so young.
"It's not unheard of in some of our nail bars where mothers or grannies are buying five, six and seven-year-old girls nail lacquers because they want the colour on their toes and fingers. It's very much a growing market and the girls are getting younger.
"At the parties, as well as colour the girls will sometimes have cuticle oil put on their nails to improve the cuticles and nails. As long as everything is done in a controlled environment in which the nail technician is fully qualified and the parental consent is there, there is absolutely no harm done to the nails - quite the opposite in fact. It's about education, showing the girls how to look after their nails for the future. We have the opportunity of teaching the importance of moisturising nails and looking after them."
And Claire McEvoy, make-up artist and owner of the Make-Up Boutique on Belfast's Lisburn Road, said that it is important that youngsters should not grow up too soon.
"I think it's ok for little girls to get involved in beauty - but only things like nail painting, and sparkly lipgloss," she says. " Sometimes when I am doing wedding make-up and there is a little girl as flowergirl, I will put some lip balm or clear gloss on so that she feels part of the getting ready gang. But that's where I think the line should be drawn. I don't think young kids should be getting any waxing or tanning, or such like. Kids should be kids."
Twelve-year-old Sasha Jordan, who attends Methodist College, Belfast, enjoys going to parties with her friends, but says that they are not influenced by celebrities - like many young American girls are.
"My friends and I love going bowling or to the cinema and we have thought about going to a beauty salon to get our nails done for our next outing - I heard how you could do that through one of my friends whose sister went to a kids' party centre for a birthday and everyone got their hair and make-up done, which sounded like great fun," she says.
"There is no competition between my friends as to who looks the best or who has the most exciting parties. I wouldn't like that at all. We don't try to copy singers or film stars either, we just do what we enjoy ourselves."
Sasha got a taste of life as a model when she took part in last year's Belfast Fashionweek.
"I was modelling children's clothes which was brilliant fun. I got my hair done and it was great to see behind the scenes and how all the models get ready. I was very nervous at the start of the show but then I was ok when it got under way."
Like any father, Sasha's dad, Julian, doesn't want her to grow up too quickly.
"She's beautiful the way she is and doesn't need any make-up at all," he says.
"Taking part in Fashionweek was great for her confidence and she got to meet a lot of people. Like the other child models, she didn't have much make-up applied anyway which was good."