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Sweet & Sassy: Do Tweens Need Their Own Salons?

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

Sweet & Sassy
Earlier this week I was contacted by a reporter working on a story about a rapidly expanding chain of salons geared towards tweens called Sweet & Sassy. The images on the website look a little JonBenet to me, but it made me think about why it's so popular.

Tween girls are aging up faster. We've all read about how the age at which girls hit puberty continues to fall, but the impact of so much media and advertising on so many different screens at younger and younger ages is making young girls and tweens "aspirational" much earlier than in years past. The beauty industry knows this and exploiting this new potential market with loads of "personal care" products that will be marketed just to them. Instead of just playing with Bratz dolls, girls can now look like live Bratz, all dolled up.

Celebrity worship is having a huge impact on tween girls. I'm even not talking about the "trainwrecks" -- it's Hannah Montana, the girls in High School Musical, Zoey 101 -- they all require product to look like they do and they all talk about it in teen magazines (read by aspirational tweens) as well as celebrity weeklies like U.S. (also probably ready by tweens). These girls want to look like their idols -- and that requires product and professionals.

Kids and tweens live more heavily structured lives than past generations. They're busy with playdates, lessons and activities. Parents are no longer comfortable letting them go play outside unsupervised somewhere with the understanding that they will be back by dinner. These salons are a safe place where parents can drop off their tween girls and pick them up later. Sweet & Sassy is not about mother/daughter bonding through pedicures, it's about tween girls day out together. Just as Starbucks has become a safe hangout for teens to study and chat, these salons are another place that welcomes tweens, unlike many local malls, which have banned teens unless they are accompanied by a parent.

So are these salons a bad thing? I think it depends on how the notion of beautifying is communicated and parents' individual values when it comes to younger girls, make-up, nail polish, etc. Some parents pierce their kid's ears when they're babies or are perfectly fine with 7-year-olds painting their nails and playing "grown up." The reporter mentioned that when she visited the salon, there were girls from all different ethnicities there -- Latina girls getting made up for a Quinceanera. Girls seeing how girls from different cultures define beauty could be interesting.

But if going to a Sweet & Sassy is all about making yourself look better, then I think these salons are problematic. they also use the word makeover -- which implies you could look better. Maybe that's a concept adults can stomach when we watch the neverending stream of reality shows where people lose weight, get plastic surgery or have their closets overhauled, but I'm not sure that's a great message for 8-year-olds. The messaging I get from their website is that it's all about celebrating being "girly." This might also be problematic for some feminists -- then again so is Barbie, Disney Princesses and all kinds of tween girl-focused fare that represent stereotypical portraits of femininity.

What do you think?