When Maria Schur and her dad were looking for the perfect party place to celebrate her ninth birthday, they settled on Girl Talk at the Spa in Newton, Mass.
Maria and her friends giggled their way through getting some mini mani-pedis ("No pink polish, please, that's SO yuck"), making their own lip gloss and transforming heads of limp, straight hair into glittery fashionable up-dos. After 15 minutes in a salon chair, Maria presented her new hairdo to the group and got a suitably stunned reaction.
"Oh, my gosh, you look so different," one 10-year-old partygoer said. "Different in an awesome way."
Maria and her friends may not know it but they are smack dab in the middle of a trend — the billion-dollar beauty industry is reaching out to the tween and pre-teen market in a big way. It seems just about every corner salon these days offers a "Little Diva 'Do" package. And a hot seller at Toys R Us is the Hannah Montana Backstage Makeover Set — targeting the 3-7 age group. Not to mention services for teens and kids is the hottest growing trend in the spa market.
Spas like the Pinehurst Resort in Pinehurst, N.C., offer a "Twinkle Toes and Fancy Fingers" manicure/pedicure service for 6- to 11-year-olds and a facial for the same age group. Both services cost a piggy-bank, breaking at $70. At the kid-focused — and phenomenally popular — SPAhhht in San Antonio, Texas, they offer treatments for 3- to 17-year-olds including a "Girlie Girl Facial Perfect" for pre-teen skin.
You won't hear the soothing sounds of the ocean in the treatment rooms either. Hannah Montana is pumping through the sound system as girls leaf through American Girl magazines while sitting on beanbag chairs, awaiting a treatment.
At the Seventeen Studio Spa Salon in Plano, Texas, business is so good that owner Susan Tierney is looking at licensing franchises next year. Her location pulls in about $1.5 million a year. The bulk of Tierney's clientele is in the range of 12- to 24-year-olds.
"Maybe at seventh grade, they're starting to highlight their hair with their mom's OK," Tierney said. "They'll get manicures and pedicures and that starts the age they will get a facial. We have acne treatments for that age group."
And then there's waxing. "Eyebrows are a huge business and that does start in middle school," she said. "Moms bring them in for the first time because maybe they have a unibrow … but we will only do bikini waxing on ages 18 plus."
While Tierney sets age limits on her treatments, other salons apparently do not. A recent Philadelphia Magazine story, "Pretty Babies," profiled an esthetician who claimed moms were bringing in their middle-schoolers for bikini waxes.
The story caused outrage among the mommy blogger-set. On Silicon Valley Moms, the comments ranged from, "Are you XX@# kidding me?" to "I am positively mortified at the thought of waxing becoming a trend for the pre-pubescent crowd."
The Ohio-based cosmetics company Bonne Bell also came under fire last year for teaming up with Mattel's Barbie to launch a cosmetic line of makeup for 6- to 9-year-olds, leading some critics to ask what's next, "baby's first blush?"
But what little girl hasn't begged to have her toes painted pink or asked to try on her mom's lipstick "just this once." What's the harm in that?
Diane Levin, a professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston and co-author of the upcoming book, "So Sexy, So Soon," argues that the early glam trend has the potential to create problems.
"It's not that every little piece in and of itself is a problem but it may start with nail polish and going to a spa and that becomes a trajectory for feeling good about themselves," Levin said.
And, Levin added, if they don't have highlights in their hair or polish on their toes, young girls can start to feel that "something is wrong with them."
Dr. Jennifer Johnson, a specialist in adolescent medicine in Newport Beach, Calif., who treats everything from acne to eating disorders, worries about the spa trend, too.
"Manicures and pedicures are okay; that's fun … but anything beyond that, anything that puts so much focus on appearance to me is one more step in the direction of really serious problems."
Johnson adds that if moms are bringing their daughters in for treatments like eyebrow waxing, there's a not-so-subtle message being conveyed.
"That's putting daughters on notice that that's what their moms are noticing — their appearance," Johnson said.
But salon owner Tierney believes that times have changed for kids and their parents.
"I think it's just the norm," she said. "It's baby boomer parents that nurtured and took care of their children and they want their children to look good and feel good about themselves … Let's face it, today's 12-year-old is yesterday's 17-year-old. The world is different and they are more mature and they want the latest thing."
And Donna Rabb, owner of Girl Talk at The Spa, said that there's an important education component to the services she offers.
"It's about wellness and making the body and face healthier," Rabb said. "We talk to the kids about proper cleansing and we don't emphasize beauty so much as self esteem."
As for Maria and her friends, they know exactly what a spa party is all about — fun. A show of hands revealed exactly none of the girls had ever worn makeup. And only one girl admitted having highlights in her hair but "only if you count the time I sprayed my hair green after we won a soccer game."
One of Maria's friends summed the party up this way, "This is fun, it's a treat, but I know it's what's on the inside that counts. My mom told me that."
So, the kids may be all right after all.