The New York Times
April 3, 2008
A Girl’s Life, With Highlights
By CAMILLE SWEENEY
LEXI JAMES, 11, a sixth grader in Hope Mills, N.C., had been asking for a hair treatment, any hair treatment, ever since her older sister, now 13, first had her hair chemically straightened by her mother three years ago.
“Lexi’s hair wasn’t the right type for that treatment because it was too curly,” said her mother, Lisa Stasser, a cosmetologist. “It just drove Lexi crazy. Lexi found her own hair so boring so I gave her a few highlights and for a while, that was fine,” she said.
But, last fall, Lexi begged for more. “I wanted highlights, you know, and the salon thing,” Lexi said, explaining that the idea of being pampered seemed fun.
In her case, “the salon thing” meant a couple of hours at Toadly Kool Me, a children’s hair salon in nearby Fayetteville. For $45, Lexi would receive six caramel streaks of permanent color along her part, for a look she described as “a little punky,” followed by a blow dry and flat ironing.
“Lexi works hard, gets good grades,” her mother said. “I feel like she deserves a treat.”
Most adults want their highlights to look natural, as if they had just come from a wind-swept beach. But highlights that make a bolder statement, like chunky strips of contrast color, are in vogue among 8- to 12-year-old girls.
Hair treatments like shiny glosses or full-color dye plus highlights, once reserved for women with salaries and mortgages, have increasingly become the norm for pre-pubescent girls as more busy parents with discretionary income are willing to pay salon prices for what used to be done at home.
“We’ve had girls as young as 6 in for highlights, but 9 and 10 is more the norm,” said Tammy Currin, the owner of the Toadly Kool Me. “If it’s not a relaxer, highlights are usually the first step mothers will allow. Once the girls’ friends see them, they’re in the next week getting streaks of their own.”
No one tracks how many girls 12 and younger go to professionals to receive lowlights that darken, pale tints of color, straighteners, curl-inducing permanents or full-color dye with highlights.
But, “the trend is definitely there,” said Gordon Miller, a spokesman for the National Cosmetology Association. “It’s a lucrative niche market for the industry that is beginning to be addressed at trade shows and other association events.”
Mark Goodman, the vice president of the association and owner of Hair Designers, a salon in Hilton Head Island, S.C., estimated that his preteen clientele now makes up about a quarter of his business.
“I’m hearing similar stories from stylists around the country,” said Mr. Goodman, who conducts color seminars nationwide. “Five years ago, the rule of thumb was 15- to 16-year-olds would come in for their first color. Now, that girl is 10.”
In his seminars, he now addresses how to market to preteens and even discusses how to keep them entertained in the chair (a wireless laptop or DVD player). “I tell stylists to get more involved in school and community events to reach out to these younger girls,” he said, adding, “they may not want to think in those terms, but these girls are our future business.”
Parents of this generation’s preteen girls may have been more likely to experiment on their own hair as teenagers, using at-home relaxers, color kits and spray-in bleaching products like Sun-In, according to stylists and colorists.
Today’s girls often want to their locks professionally handled, and salon-styling, even for 8-year-olds, no longer denotes beauty queen.
“It’s outsourcing,” said Nina Kovner, vice president for marketing at John Paul Mitchell Systems, a line of hair products marketed to salons. “Moms and daughters do it together. Friends do it together. We’ve become a salon culture.” She thinks heightened awareness of fashion and style motivates girls to seek salon hair treatments, as well as peer pressure — the desire both to fit in and stand out.
“Let’s just say it’s a great time to be in the business,” she said.
The professionalization of hair care means young girls across the multicultural spectrum can pay to get the sleek blond hair of Paris Hilton, the glossy black curls of Vanessa Hudgens or the white-blond skunk highlights of Hannah Montana, or to create a unique look that’s then the subject of instant messages long into the night.
And some stylists nationwide make it a point to be able to distinguish Ashley Tisdale of “High School Musical” from the singer Ashlee Simpson.
“These girls want flexibility to imitate the styles of their idols, and they need it to look right,” said Ouidad, who owns a Manhattan salon where she is also a stylist. “Girls as young as 10 come in with little support groups of friends who wait with them hours. And when I turn them into Hannah Montana or whoever they want, they literally jump and cry and scream,” and their parents are willing to spend $200 to $400.
And yet Ouidad said she feels conflicted: “I wonder what message we are sending the girls.”
Nancy Amanda Redd, a former Miss Virginia who was educated at Harvard, is wary of that message.
“I was never allowed this stuff growing up, and, there’s a reason,” said Ms. Redd, who wrote “Body Drama.” “Pregnant women can’t get highlights, what makes it safe for little girls? These girls are going from baby to mini-adult. They feel naked without their highlights. I think we need a giant dose of realism here.”
At-home treatments aren’t always a good compromise, especially when a mother’s efforts at playing Frédéric Fekkai fail.
“Oh, I’d never try it on her at home,” said Robin Bernstein of Manhattan, whose daughter, Tessa, 11, has the golden waves of grain look, with a few subtle salon highlights, any blonde would splurge on.
In a recent forum on Weary Parent, a child-rearing blog, one person admitted in a post that she had tried to give her 11-year old daughter the blond on brown look of Jamie Lynn Spears of Nickelodeon’s “Zoey 101.” “But that was a disaster,” she wrote. “I had to pull her out of school for a day so I could fix it.”
Many of those who made comments, however, echoed the sentiments of the blog’s founder, Charlene Polanosky of Fredericksburg, Va., who has refused to allow her daughter, now 13, to get a single highlight.
Ms. Polanosky said she will not give her consent until her daughter is in her late teens.
“To me, it’s like makeup for hair,” Ms. Polanosky wrote in an e-mail message. “I don’t let my tween wear makeup on her face either.”
Today’s parents must decide earlier on when is the right time to allow their daughters to take part in grooming issues like eyebrow shaping, upper lip hair bleaching and hair treatments.
Jane Ordway, a real estate broker in New York City, went to the Sally Hershberger Downtown salon last month to receive highlights, allowing her daughter to tag along. Ms. Ordway was a little taken aback when Ruben Colon, who was putting in her highlights, suggested that he add a swath of burnt orange to the bangs of her daughter, Olivia, 12.
Ms. Ordway eventually acquiesced.
“Originally, we went to the salon because Olivia wanted me to have my hair colored to cover the gray, which I did. But then it turned out she wanted a highlight herself,” Ms. Ordway said. “She does have a really good fashion sense and some of her friends have done it, and I felt we were in the right place to have it done well so I let her.”
But Olivia, who is thrilled that her bold stripe adds a “vintage-ish, rock-ish” look, might not secure her mother’s permission next time.
“Even now, if you were to ask me, ‘Would I let her get more?’ ” Ms. Ordway said, “I’d have to say, ‘I’m sure she’d love to, but that takes me to another place I’m not sure I’m ready to go.’ ”