‘Mummy, When Can I Wear Makeup?’ How to Talk to Kids About Body Image

As seen in The Guardian on October 20, 2023 by Anita Bhagwandas.

‘When can I start wearing makeup?’

Seeing your children in makeup can cause mixed emotions: it signals a transitional growing-up period you may not feel ready for. Choosing an appropriate age is up to you, but a 2019 YouGov study suggests that most parents believe that children should be allowed to wear makeup between 14 and 16.

“Conversations about beauty should start way before the child mentions it, [particularly] about how our appearance doesn’t necessarily equate to value,” says Suzanne Alderson, founder of the charity Parenting Mental Health.

“In early primary age, try using dolls or characters in books or on TV as a way to explore visual differences, keep communication open and non-judgmental. You could ask what they like about this character and why?”

Ask what makeup means to them and why they want to wear it. Children are taught to explore their identity through face paint and dressing-up boxes, and for younger children, this could just be an extension of that.

Children naturally copy what they see their older siblings and parents do. “The primary attachment figure – usually the main caregiver – is incredibly influential up to the tween years,” says Dr Jenna Vyas-Lee, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of mental health clinic Kove.

So we need to be conscious of our own beliefs around makeup – perhaps we criticise people who wear a lot of it, or we won’t go out without it.

“When we speak about beauty, value and worth, it should match our actions,” says Alderson. “Avoid self-critical comments like, ‘I’ve got so many bags under my eyes’.” Instead, children should be encouraged to accept themselves as perfectly imperfect because they see that you do.

Fiona Yassin, psychotherapist, founder, and clinical director of The Wave Clinic, cautions that, as children grow up, makeup can sometimes be used to hide negative feelings.

“We often see young people who have difficulty with their skin or have been bullied about their appearance wear more makeup, so watch out for those subtle changes,” she says.

It’s likely to be an ongoing conversation as they grow, so try to go makeup shopping with them and help them base their routine on skin health with lighter formulations (such as tinted moisturisers and lip balms) rather than heavy products.

‘I feel fat. Can I go on a diet?’

Childhood should be a time of joy and freedom, but a study led by the University of Oxford indicated that one in four children in England are on a diet.

“Sadly, kids become aware of our culture’s negative connotations around fatness between ages three and five,” says Virginia Sole-Smith, author of Fat Talk: Coming Of Age In Diet Culture. 

“Children learn anti-fat bias from the media they consume, from the way bodies are talked about in school and from the way we talk about and treat our own bodies.”

Throwaway comments from loved ones also have a detrimental effect, so employ zero tolerance of phrases like “you’ve filled out” or words such as “sturdy”, “stocky” or “big” to describe appearance.

If you’re on a diet, try to talk about how you want to feel healthier rather than how your body looks.

Talk to kids early on about body diversity, Sole-Smith says. Be clear you don’t think they need to change. The goal is to help them navigate diet culture and be resilient in the face of anti-fatness.”

If your child receives a negative comment about their body, listen to how they’re feeling without projecting your reaction onto them.

“Avoid outdated phrases like ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’,” says Yassin. “These dismiss a child’s feelings, can be damaging, and change how they view the world around them.”

Dr Beth Mosley, a clinical psychologist and author Happy Families: How to Protect and Support Your Child’s Mental Health, agrees: “You could say: ‘I can understand someone saying that might have made you feel really sad or upset. I’m sorry.’

If your child feels like you get it, without your immediate response being ‘you are perfect to me’, you’re in a good place to help them name and make sense of their feelings and understand that people have different body shapes.”

Perhaps most important is to examine your own beliefs around body size and food, says Yassin, as that inevitably influences children’s behaviour: for example, if your child sees you eating a third of a portion of a meal and then hitting the exercise bike to ‘burn it off’, they will do the same, which could create an association of guilt with eating.

If you’re on a diet, try to talk about how you want to feel healthier rather than how your body looks or the number on a scale.

‘I want to be more buff’

It’s widely accepted that girls face pressures to fit into beauty standards from an early age, but boys aren’t immune. From muscular action-hero toys to chiselled Love Island bodies, everything points towards achieving rock-hard abs.

Watch out for any drastic dietary changes, a preoccupation with weight gain and an obsession with the gym, which could, in extreme cases, signal muscle dysmorphia disorder. How do you broach the subject of working out and building muscle with your child?

“If they say they don’t feel good or don’t like how they look, take that seriously and work with them to find ways to ease it – but don’t try to solve it for them,” says Jodie Cariss, therapist, and founder and CEO of Self Space. 

“When you’re clothes shopping, you could ask: ‘How does it make you feel? Is it comfy? Do you feel confident in it?’ as a way to gauge how they’re feeling about their appearance. Try to praise things other than physical appearance.

For example: ‘I love being with you, you have such good energy, or you are always so creative, or you inspire me with how you see things’.”

It could be worth getting them a body-positive personal trainer who can oversee their routine and flag them when it becomes too intense. I suggest they try a sport or group class to help them see that there’s a social and community side to fitness, too.

“This enables them to start understanding their bodies and what feels good, as opposed to focusing on just looking good,” says Cariss.

‘Can I start shaving and waxing?’

Hair removal has been the beauty norm for many generations, but things have changed: it is now more of a choice and less of a taboo.

Explain that body hair has a biological function, but further than that, it’s their call whether they remove it or not. “If your child is being picked on for excessive hair, hair removal could improve their self-esteem,” Alderson says. In an ideal world, no one should be shamed for body hair, so it’s worth explaining how normal it is.

The topic of hair removal is interwoven with gendered and Eurocentric beauty norms. It can also be cultural or religious.

If they express an interest in removing it, which would most likely be during puberty, show them the right and wrong way to shave (not on dry skin, and with good-quality safety razors), and talk about other methods, such as waxing and depilatory creams. “Look at products together and try not to say a flat no (unless it’s a hard line). Try instead to understand why they want to do it,” says Cariss.

The topic of hair removal is interwoven with gendered beauty norms and Eurocentric beauty standards: Indian women are, for example, more likely to have facial hair (as I know well). It’s also worth noting that body hair removal can also be a cultural or religious practice.

“Once children are teenagers, you may find you have little control over their hair removal preferences,” says Mosley. Build confidence in them, she says, which involves having non-judgmental conversations.

‘Why do girls shave their legs and armpits?’

Children may notice that boys and men don’t have the same pressure to be permanently hairless. You could give them a mini history lesson (razor firms, the fashion industry and women’s magazines made hairy legs and armpits a taboo in the 1930s), and explain that everyone has autonomy over how their body looks – despite what they may see online.

Boys may feel the pressure to start growing facial hair. A survey by Gillette found that 85% of boys first notice facial hair between ages 12 and 16, but it could be as early as nine.

Starting to shave can be nerve-racking. “Teenage skin can be sensitive, so invest in a quality razor and shaving cream,” says Joe Pomper, a master barber at Murdock London.

There are basics to follow, such as shaving after a shower when the skin is warm, and not shaving against the grain to avoid irritation and ingrown hairs, and using a soothing balm afterwards. “A weekly shave will probably suffice to start with, but remind them not to share razors,” says Pomper.

Those with curly or coily hair types may want to shave less often, ensure their blades are extra sharp and could consider a shaving oil to soften the hair before shaving. If you’re unsure, seek advice from an expert, particularly if your teen is transgender.

You dye your grey hair. Why can’t I dye mine?

Though the beauty norms dictating that women should dye their hair as soon as greys appear have changed significantly in the past decade, many still do. If you’re one of them, how do you explain to children why you’re doing so?

Vyas-Lee advises being transparent and keeping the conversation going as they get older: “Be truthful that your body and hair change as you get older, and while some people embrace it, others prefer to delay. Both are fine as long as it’s your choice and there is no pressure, shame or guilt.”

However, you could make them aware of the role gendered ageism plays in beauty standards for women.

In 2021, researchers found that women who let their hair go grey naturally were viewed as less competent than those who dyed it, while for men, becoming a “silver fox” is a mark of distinction.

Many schools have a zero-tolerance policy on hair dyeing, so the summer holidays could be the perfect time for teens to explore.

Try exploring things like this with older children as a discussion rather than a lecture. “Talk about the pros and cons – ask them their thoughts, bring up role models and let them lead it,” says Vyas-Lee. If you impose your own ideas too strongly, you may end up with a more difficult relationship.

If children are going to dye their hair, it’s best to wait until after age 12, or they may risk getting allergies. So, hair chalks and temporary colour sprays may be more suitable for younger children.

Many schools have a zero-tolerance policy on dyed hair, so the summer holidays could be the perfect time for teens to explore.

If you suspect they want to dye their hair because of peer pressure – or bullying due to gingerism, for example – listen without reacting. “You might want to scream ‘you’re pretty, too’, but, instead, be curious,” says Alderson.

You could suggest they follow influencers with their own hair colour or speak to others they trust who have the same colour hair, to help them see past their immediate reactions.

This approach would also help children feeling the pressure of Eurocentric beauty standards to relax or straighten their curly, coily or afro-textured hair.

‘I look prettier with a filter. Can I have cosmetic surgery or tweakments?’

Studies have shown how social media can trigger children to dislike their own bodies, and one recent survey revealed that nine in 10 children are exposed to toxic beauty content online. So, how do we talk to children about the impact of filters?

“You could start by taking a picture of something simple and looking at it with your child. See what happens when you edit the image with reshaping, filters, and brightness,” says Yassin.

You can also explain how algorithms work to push certain kinds of content at them, how influencers are paid to promote certain things, and how excessive scrolling can affect their mood, sleep, and self-esteem.

If the conversation turns to them wanting to change how they look, remember it’s a criminal offence in England to administer botulinum toxin (Botox) or injected fillers for a cosmetic purpose to under-18s.

As for cosmetic surgery, Dr Omar Tillo, medical director at Creo Clinic, says: “Aesthetic procedures on under-18s should be considered carefully and are usually done in exceptional circumstances, pending psychological evaluation.”

Tillo advises giving children a safe space to express feelings and concerns. “Use open-ended questions, such as: ‘Can you tell me more about why you’re considering cosmetic surgery?’ or ‘How has this been affecting you?’

Reflect back on what they share to show active listening, and use statements like, ‘It sounds like you’re feeling …’ or ‘I understand that this is important to you’.”

Children might focus on the result of a treatment and ignore risks and complications, so Tillo says: “Ask ‘How do you think this will change your life?’ or ‘Have you considered how you might feel afterwards?’ I say it’s normal for young adults to have concerns about their appearance, but emphasise the importance of making informed decisions.”

Cariss adds: “Suggest people they could follow on social media who might help them normalise the issue they’re struggling with, and impress upon them how uniqueness is celebrated. Try to be honest and open, and talk about your own vulnerabilities – what they are often looking for is intimacy.”

Just ensure your words and actions match: “Young people can sniff out fibs from a mile away. If you tell them they are beautiful as they are, but then go for an appearance-altering treatment, it can create disbelief and distrust,” says Yassin.