When Is It Okay To Let Girls Wear Makeup

My mother was incredibly beautiful—had this fiery red hair and high cheekbones and the smoothest, most flawless skin you ever did see. With her hair just so, she looked so much like Whitney Houston (the pre-Bobby Brown/crack-is-wack version) her co-workers on the line at Estee Lauder regularly used to ask her to bust a tune. (Um, just for the record, my mother couldn’t hold a note if someone tucked it in a Birkin bag.) She was, in a word, stunning.

What made her more beautiful to me, though, was that she was gorgeous without make-up. She just didn’t wear a lot of it. A little mascara, some lipstick, and maybe some blush, that was it. I remember standing in the doorway, watching her blot her Fashion Fair maroon-ish red lipstick on a tissue, wishing for the day that I could slip a little of it on my lips, too. She’d smile—always that beautiful smile—and tell me, “If you want to keep that pretty skin, don’t wear make-up. Just keep your face clean and you won’t have to worry about bumps and all of that stuff.”

And, like a good daughter, I listened to my mother, because that’s what you did when you were Bettye’s child. I don’t think I wore much more than lip gloss until I was well into my sophomore year in college, and even then, I used it sparingly. And even now, as a mom with two brown girlpies of my own, I pretty much operate under the same philosophy: though I love makeup and am better at applying it thanks to my personal muah, Muse, I still live by the philosophy that a bare face is the best face. The only time I slather on my collection of Bobbi Brown, M.A.C and CoverGirl Queen Collection goodies is when I’m doing TV (rare) or going out with the hubs (bordering on never).

This is my long, drawn-out way of saying my make-up bag gets about as much action as a pimply-faced freshman on the first day of high school; I’ll wear it and wear it well, but it really is of little consequence around these parts. At least to me.

Turns out, this philosophy didn’t necessarily jibe with the thinking of my then-12-year-old, who’d made the argument to her mother’s face that she should be able to wear mascara and eye shadow. Yup—you read that right: My tween thought it was her God-given right to slather her face in goo when she strutted into her first day in middle school. Which made me ask the question: when is it okay to let girls wear makeup?

To be fair, I was the one who brought it up. After I’d read a story about a new Wal-Mart line of cosmetics targeted at tweens (!), I asked Mari if she would want to wear make-up. Her eyes lit up like the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree:

Mari: So I can wear make-up? *insert image of my daughter with a big cheese-eating grin here*

Me: *Long blank stare* Uh, no. That was a question, not an invitation. What makes you think you should wear make-up, anyway? Who do you know your age who wears make-up?

Mari: Danielle. Taylor.

Me: *Raised eyebrow with the side-eye* I meant girls I actually know and who’ve been to our house and whose parents I’ve actually met.

Mari: *pouting*

Me: Uh huh, that’s what I thought. None of you guys wear make-up because you’re too young to wear it. You’re 12. Maybe when you’re a teenager.

Mari: Wait, so I can wear make-up when I’m 13? *Big time cheese-eating grin.*

Me: You know, I wasn’t allowed to wear make-up when I was a kid. I didn’t start wearing it until I got to college.

Mari: *Dead fish eyes* So… I can wear make-up when I’m 13?

Me: *Deeeeep sigh*

I don’t believe in saying “no” to my kids without benefit of explanation and Mari certainly needed to understand why she won’t be wearing make-up until at least the 9th grade. Twelve-year-olds, in my book, I told her, are still little girls and little girls who wear mascara and eye-shadow and lipstick and blush look like teenage girls—teenage girls who quickly become eye candy for and playthings to teenage boys and grown men. God knows, as smart and independent as she is, my 12-year-old isn’t ready for the mental gymnastics and mind games that come with dating—especially when dating would involve older, more experienced boys.

I got where her mind was on this thing: when you’re a girl, you want to walk into middle school feeling a little more grown up—looking less like your baby sister, more like a young lady. I made allowances for this: for her birthday, I gave her a box-full of earrings that dangle, replacing the tiny hoops she’d worn since she was a little girl; I let her wear scented lip balm with an extra bit of gloss and lightly-scented lotion, and; she’s got a basketful of nail polish (pastels) and all the goodies she needs to give herself mani/pedi’s whenever she wants.

But even those things, it seemed, weren’t “grown up” enough for her. And it’s pretty easy to see why. Popular kid shows feature hot girls in expensive, trendy outfits, hair extensions and enough makeup to fill a cosmetics counter at Macy’s, all of them prancing around talking about which boy they want to kiss and which would be willing to kiss them back. Kid stores like Justice and Abercrombie Kids are making string panties, padded string bikinis for girls as young as seven, while WalMart whips up a 69-product line of anti-aging make-up for tweens—you know, in the event that 9-year-olds wake up in the morning and decide their pores are too big and they need to stave off those 10-year-old wrinkles. Don’t get me started on those Bratz dolls, dressed up to look like video vixens straight out of a scene of VH-1’s Love & Hip Hop. Hell, you know the entire world has gone mad when the fashion industry practically climaxes over a 10-year-old model who struts the catwalk and wears nothing but a necklace and blood red lipstick in one fashion spread and and poses suggestively in an oversized pair of Christian Louboutins in another.

Pop culture is trying to suck the childhood right out of our daughters’ bodies.

But I’ve said it before, and I will say it again until someone pries my tongue out of my cold, dead body: IT IS OUR JOB AS PARENTS TO STOP THIS MADNESS.

Turn off those stupid shows.

Stop shopping at stores that insist on sexualizing our daughters.

Don’t patronize radio stations, TV shows and websites that try to grow up our kids. Click To Tweet

Don’t patronize magazines and radio stations and internet sites that work overtime to grow up our children before they’re ready to be grown.

And by God, get your head out of the sand and talk to your kids honestly about this stuff. Don’t just say, “No, you can’t wear this,” or “No, I’m not going to buy that,” or “Alright, you win—I’ll get it for you”; tell them in the clearest, most honest way possible why they shouldn’t be wearing a face full of make-up and padded bikinis until they’re able to drive themselves to the doggone store and use their own money to buy them.

Or at least until they’re teens. Mari is now 15, and I’ve given her permission to wear lip gloss and eyeliner, and she can wear most colors on her nails. Rarely does she wear the make-up, and she still leans on pastels rather than red or black for her nails.

Old school, I know.

And my girls may hate my ass and sneak and put on make-up in the school bathroom when they think they can get away with it (because what girl didn’t do this?). I readily accept that as a rite of passage; sneaking is something I’ll have little control over (until they get caught. They always get caught.)

But as a parent who adores her children, I have absolutely no intention of being party to the madness. This is what good parents do.

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. I love this. I never thought of giving them pastels instead of grown colors like red. As someone who’s childhood was stolen very early and who desperately wants to protect her children’s right to innocence, I deeply appreciate these concrete suggestions.

  2. I completely agree. We allow lip gloss when she feels like it, and clear mascara on special occasions and when she is performing. She wears heavy makeup when she dances and acts and that’s enough. I relented this year and let her paint her nails lots of colors that I personally picked out. I’m all about color and trying new things, but there are no crop tops and no booty cutter shorts. For either her or for my 8 year old daughter. We’ve said no to getting her hair flat ironed or permed. She has beautiful natural hair that will stay that way for a long time. And I believe in negotiation, but I also believe in setting rules and letting my children (including my son) know that breaking these rules have consequences. And that everything comes in time. My husband and I tell them constantly. Enjoy this time, it goes fast. You’ll get adult things soon enough, and when you do you won’t want them because YOU’LL have to buy them!

  3. My girls are 14 and 11. They both wear gloss, and sometimes I’ll let them get something that says lipstick but is so pale it might as well be nonexistent (but, it says lipstick on the tube and that’s all that they care about). Before having kids, I was certain about the age at which I would allow certain things. And then they were here and I adapted. My oldest is not interested (yet) in anything beyond lipstick and I’m fine with that. She’ll be 15 this year and that was my original mascara allowance age. If she asks, I’ll probably say yes, but then tell her brown (or clear!) only (ain’t nobody got time for you walking around here with raccoon eyes).

  4. I agree that our girls need to stay young as long as possible. They are beautiful brown babies who grow up too fast. Teach them a good skin cleansing regimen when they begin to break out with pimples, which is part of growing up. This will help them to have healthy and beautiful skin way into their adult years.

  5. I find this article interesting. I am 41 and I do not have children. I started wearing makeup at age 12 and so did many of my peers. My mom always encouraged my creativity at a young age. She always encouraged proper cleansing, toning, and moisturizing of skin. She always felt that young girls should!d be taught to be polished in the workplace and look appealing at all times. She always said that mothers should encourfe such practices at n early age. To this day, I wear full makeup daily.

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