My stepdaughter Julia's first visit to Abu Dhabi was a great opportunity for a manicure. Not for me, but for her. She is 14, an age where girls are starting to care about these things. Or so I thought. As Julia and I settled into our chairs at the salon, I noticed a small figure with blonde hair at a nearby manicure table. She was no more than seven years old and was having her nails painted a glittering silver colour.
"What is that child doing here?" I asked my manicurist. "Oh, her," she said, glancing over her shoulder. "She comes every week." It was lucky I was in a chair too large to fall out of. "On her own?" I shrieked. "When did she start?" "Sometimes she comes alone, sometimes her mummy drops her off," said my manicurist, calmly filing my nails. "We get lots of them. Especially at the weekend, they all have parties to go to and want to look nice."
Call me old-fashioned, but since when does looking nice when you're seven involve perfectly manicured nails? Apparently I am way behind the times. Nowadays it is perfectly normal for girls as young as five to have this kind of pampering. Some of them even get hair extensions. "We are seeing a lot more girls coming in on a regular basis," says Vicki Powell, who owns the Beauty Spot hair and beauty salon behind Marina Mall. "As a result we have started Princess Parties where girls can enjoy their birthday by getting their hair and nails done."
As well as Julia, I have two daughters of my own; Olivia and Bea. I decide to take the younger ones along to Vicki's Beauty Spot for the full works; manicure, pedicure, blow-dry, make-up and, at Vicki's suggestion, a delicate little hair extension adorned with diamonds. "It's called the Great Lengths Swarovski Hair Extensions," explains Vicki. "It's not real diamonds, I hope?" I ask, slightly concerned that this visit will cost more than I planned.
Vicki smiles and tells me they cost about Dh100 each. Cheaper than real diamonds, but still, beauty for babies doesn't come for nothing, and it is a fast-growing business. In Florida, for example, there are salons specifically for children, and, judging by the success of them, it won't be long before they are everywhere. "It's never too early to start feeling good about yourself," says Michelle Grimm, the owner of the Kid Spa in Boca Raton, which provides manicures, facials and pedicures for girls between five and 12. "At our tween spa we don't apply make-up or dress the girls up to look older. Kids come in looking like kids and leave looking like kids. Our store focuses on freshening skin and nails, and we want tweens to get their first spa experience in an environment that is inviting to them."
Just as there are salons aimed at children, there are products made for them. Boris Becker's daughter, Anna Ermakova, was photographed promoting hair and hand-care products from the Alessandro Girls range of products, which are aimed at the over-fives. "It hurts me to the depths of my soul how my daughter has been put on show, whether in TV interviews or at child fashion shows," he told the German magazine Stern.
Most of the major designers, including Dior and Dolce & Gabbana, have an under-11s range. And then there are the accessories. Walk around most shopping malls and you will come across Claire's; a shop that is packed full of trinkets you need to be below five feet to appreciate. Some blame the likes of Hannah Montana, a character in a popular US TV series, for the rise in 'tween' culture, whereby pre-adolescent girls (eight to 12 year olds) are abandoning traditional childhood pursuits in favour of interests usually the preserve of teenage girls.
"The adolescent period seems to have been extended to around seven and eight," says Pam Danziger, president of Unity Marketing, a brand consultancy based in Pennsylvania. "And it has a lot to do with the exposure they have to the media. When I grew up we had three channels and girlhood was dictated by Walt Disney, who had a very clear image of what a young girl should be. Now it is much more sophisticated. We have the likes of Hannah Montana, for example, and so the audience has become more sophisticated too."
Julie Gale, a Melbourne-based mother of two, got so fed up with the way children are portrayed in the media, advertising and clothing industries that she set up an action group called Kids Free 2B Kids (www.kf2bk.com). "Our kids are constantly being manipulated by messages such as 'buy lots, then you'll be popular and happy'," she says. "In Australia, the tween market is worth around AUS$10 billion per year. The driving force behind the tween market is not the welfare of our children. The aim of this game is to manipulate kids so companies can make more money. We parents play a key role in what we allow our children to see, watch and wear. However, our parenting is being undermined by the powerful forces of advertisers and marketers, who have multi-million-dollar budgets and use sophisticated psychological techniques."
Elizabeth Pearson, 34, an Abu Dhabi-based mother, thinks it is time to take stock of other values. "The message we are reinforcing at such a young age is that being beautiful is the most important thing," she says. "We have to balance it with more important things like being clever and working hard at school." Tina Palmer, a 36-year-old mother of two daughters who lives in Dubai, points out that if they are allowed to do all this now, what is there left for them to look forward to? "We should let them be children for as long as possible," she says. "They are not adults and it is just stupid to treat them like adults. And what happens when the peer pressure sets in; are we going to see seven year olds weeping because they can't have a manicure?"
Josephine Pennicott, an Australian author and mother, agrees. "I hate it," she says. "I've noticed how many mothers are dressing their small girls in rock star T-shirts and outfits similar to theirs. I really like small children to be dressed as children. I think it is just pathetic parents wanting to look cool and trendy. My daughter is dressed as a three year old should be, and I think she looks adorable."
Olivia and Bea enjoy their time at the Beauty Spot enormously. "I have to come here every time so I can try all the colours," says Olivia, who chooses a rather lurid purple called Viva la Vespa for her first-ever manicure and pedicure. She and Bea sit in chairs next to each other as their nails are being filed, chatting about marriage and babies. In one way it is a glimpse of the future, of how they will be in 10 years' time. They even have some make-up put on, which I think makes them look rather clown-like.
The visit is a hit. As we leave Bea says: "Mummy, can we come here every day?" Possibly not. However, I don't think that it is especially harmful, and it is natural for little girls to want to be like their mothers. And here in the UAE, as one Emirati woman who asked not to be named points out, mothers will spend a lot of time grooming. "It's a long day in the heat if you don't work," she says. "And the ratio of women who don't work here is much higher than in Europe. The girls see their mother spending all day in the salon and want to do the same."