Do you remember the first time you became interested in beauty products? While I played with peel-off nail polish and occasionally painted my mom's nails, it wasn't really until I was in junior high that I busted out the Bonne Bell and Rave hairspray. Anything beyond that just wasn't allowed via my parents' strict rules.

These days, girls get grooming much earlier. A recent Newsweek article reports on the growing trend of today's youth taking it to an obsessive, way-too-mature level. Pop culture has long valued appearance, but the pursuit of "perfection" means that girls are worrying about their looks long before they hit puberty. With fourth-graders receiving $50 haircuts, kindergartner pedicure parties, and 8-year-olds getting bikini waxes, haven't we crossed the line into scary territory? Experts blame Photoshop, makeover programs, and the prevalence of cosmetic surgery (and, I'd add, porn culture).

For my take on the issue,


As therapist Susie Orbach notes in her recently released book, Bodies ($11), the danger of appearance obsession is that girls won't develop self-esteem from their skills, talents, and accomplishments. "It primes little girls to think they should diet and dream about the cosmetic-surgery options available to them, and it makes body the primary place for self-identity," she says.

Then again, the "girls are growing up too fast" meme is a perennial favorite for magazines, and I have to wonder how common these girl-grooming activities are. While I definitely think girls grow up faster these days than I did, the girls I know are more into books, soccer, and drawing than primping. Are they the exception or the rule?

I know it seems strange for someone who loves beauty to decry girls' obsession with their looks, but here's the thing: my parents encouraged me to be creative and to study in school, so I found most of my value in accomplishments instead of the way I look. As an adult, primping is something fun, but my day isn't ruined if I have a few pimples. (Beauty is just the icing on my cake of self-esteem.) So whether glamour girls are everywhere or not, what can we do to help them develop confidence that doesn't rely on fitting an impossible beauty ideal?