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Concealing pain

Experts: Young girls who wear makeup may be covering up insecurities
Published 9:57 am, Tuesday, May 7, 2013
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Playing dress-up is a time-honored practice among young girls.

Odds are, most women remember a time in their early years when they stalked around in mom's high heels, piled on costume jewelry and, in many cases, slathered lipstick, blush and other makeup on their faces. Such playacting is normal and even healthy among young girls, said Lauren Sardi, assistant professor of sociology at Quinnipiac University in Hamden. But, in some children, using makeup at a young age can indicate a troubled psyche, she warned. "When girls become obsessed about makeup and use it to hide themselves or won't go out without makeup, it can signal that something is going wrong," Sardi said.

Natalie Hoeffel agreed. Hoeffel is director of the Greenwich location of the Renfrew Center Foundation, a national organization dedicated to the prevention and treatment of eating disorders. Late last year, the center -- which has 12 facilities in 10 states -- released a survey of 572 girls, 8 to 18, and found that 58 percent of them wore makeup. That included 15 percent of those 8 to 10 years old and 50 percent of those 11 to 13.

Hoeffel, Sardi and other health professionals said the prevalence of makeup use in children is troubling, as it can indicate a negative self image. That, in turn, could lead to extreme behaviors, including eating disorders. It's not a simple cause and effect. "It's not like every 8-year-old who uses makeup is going to have an eating disorder," Hoeffel said. But early makeup use can be an indicator of body image woes, particularly if a girl won't leave home without it. "The concern comes from people trying to use makeup as a mask to hide other things," Hoeffel said.

Sardi agreed. "I actually see it as a way for girls to have control over (their appearance)," she said.

According to the Renfrew study, more than a quarter of the girls who wore makeup reported rarely or never leaving the house without it, and that at least 20 percent of those who have ever worn makeup said they had negative feelings when they went without the products. The research was done in connection with the Barefaced & Beautiful campaign Renfrew launched a few years ago. The campaign asks women to go without makeup on a specific day during National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which took place Feb. 24 to March 2 this year.

The idea is to get girls and young women to recognize their beauty. Hoeffel said it's often heart-breaking to hear children with body image and other appearance issues complain about their freckles or their nose or some other supposed flaw. "How many 8-year-olds have you seen who aren't beautiful?," she said.

Others specializing in eating disorders also believe there's a link between early makeup use and poor self image, including Claire Mysko, teen coordinator of the National Eating Disorder Association. Mysko also oversees the association's Proud2BMe website, which is geared toward building self-esteem in girls and young women. Like Hoeffel, Mysko said there's no evidence of a direct correlation between makeup use and eating disorders, but the impulses that cause 8-year-old girls to cover their faces with blush aren't that much different than those that can lead to eating disorders. "We can certainly make a link between self-esteem and makeup, and definitely low self-esteem and poor body image are risk factors for eating disorders," she said. "It's a piece of the puzzle."

Another piece of the puzzle is the media. Mysko said girls continue to be influenced by thin models on magazine covers and even by such TV shows as "Toddlers & Tiaras," about child beauty pageant contestants. "So many things out there send the message that girls' self-worth is very much connected to appearance," Mysko said. "That's very damaging for young girls."

Sardi cautioned that not all early makeup use is linked to low self-esteem. If, for instance, a girl sees all of her friends wearing makeup, she might want to wear it, too, in an effort to fit in. But if your child's relationship to makeup seems obsessive or she won't leave the house without makeup, Sardi said you might want to speak to a pediatrician, therapist or other professional.

She and others also recommended that mothers and other female role models set an example by going barefaced on occasion. "You can show your daughter that mom doesn't wear makeup when she's going to the gym or the grocery store," Sardi said.

acuda@ctpost.com; 203-330-6290; twitter.com/AmandaCuda; http://blog.ctnews.com/whatthehealth/