Beauty bug bites Beirut's littlest

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Mia may be only seven years old but the Lebanese youngster knows what she wants: a manicure and pedicure in purple, a golden star stenciled onto her hair, and a facial.

And while many an older woman may struggle over what works best for the complexion, to little Mia the answer is simple: chocolate.

It makes my skin soft, she explains, as a beautician spreads the dark goo over her face in the Spa-Tacular Salon, a professional beauty center for children in Lebanon.

The salon is one of a handful of parlors that have opened their doors to Lebanon s littlest, and the trend is picking up rapidly in a country reputed for its image-conscious populace.

Made of sugar and spice and many things nice, Mia s $15 (?11) chocolate facial is a hit with her friends who dip their index fingers into the homemade mix and then lick their fingers, squealing as they hold back their freshly-coiffed hair.

Dressed in bright pink robes, the little girls, whose ages range from five to 11, pick shades of pink and blue for their nails and settle into brightly-colored booster seats awaiting their turn.

It s not about spoiling our children, says Maya Hilal, 34, the owner of Spa-Tacular, located in Beirut s trendy Ashrafieh district.

It s a matter of maintaining their cleanliness. It s hygiene. It s feeling good about yourself.

A graphic designer, Hilal created the brightly-colored salon with the help of her sister when her oldest daughter, now seven, began to show interest in primping and pruning.

I started feeling that our salons, adult salons, they re not for kids. The colors they use, the treatment, the whole thing, she told AFP. So I got the idea: why don t I start a place for them, suited to their age, where they can be relaxed and happy.

A place that s fun, colorful.

Across town, six-year-old Hana has just finished hair, makeup and nails at the candy-colored Bella s Salon.

Looking up shyly from beneath eyelids glittering with blue shadow, the tiny brunette explains that this is her first trip to a salon: I just wanted to look pretty today, so I showed my mommy the advertisement in a magazine and she brought me here.

The clientele at Bella s range between the ages of four and 17, says beautician Raghida Shuman, and share the common desire to feel like a princess .

They like the foot massages and manicures, and they especially like putting on the pink robes and feeling like adults, said Shuman, who is 19.

While there are no official figures on the revenues reaped by Lebanon s beauty industry, it is clear the business is lucrative.

In the summer of 2009, the tourism ministry, keen on capitalizing on the country s image as a regional hub for plastic surgery, helped promote a private company that handles all bookings and accommodation for tourists seeking surgery in the tiny Mediterranean country.

Lebanon has also emerged largely unscathed from a global economic crisis thanks in part to a conservative banking sector, and there are no signs that women – and increasingly men – have been cutting down on their cosmetic expenditures.

The image of the impeccable Lebanese female was perhaps best immortalized in a 2006 photograph that captured perfectly manicured young women driving in a red convertible through the rubble of Beirut s southern suburbs, destroyed by Israeli bombing that summer.

The photograph by Spencer Platt won the World Press Photo award that year for capturing the complexity and contradiction of real life, according to the jury.

And in a country that functions similarly with or without government, the Lebanese beauty craze is, to some, not a luxury but a routine part of life no matter their circumstances – or age.

Hilal and Shuman insist that if done right, teaching children basic beauty care at an early age is a good thing.

I m getting a lot of good feedback because of the society here, where everybody wants to look good and to take good care of themselves, Hilal told AFP.

Especially for the girls. You always want them to look nice, to have clean nails, nice hair.

Others, however, worry that the trend may negatively impact on the children.

I think that it surely ingrains the idea in those girls that this is necessary, which is one more reason to feel less self-confident if they do not do it, said Hiba Morcos, a Lebanese anthropologist and doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia.

I think it has to do with ascertaining an upper-middle class status, she said.

It might also make them fit as future brides, to fit the norm as someone who has her hair in order, nails done … Someone who is marriageable. And this is what they re training their daughters to be.

It s survival in competition for a man. -AFP

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