Audrey Sorensen's mouth dropped open in disbelief when she heard that her stepmother hadn't had a manicure until she was in her mid-20s. Audrey got started before she could even count her fingers.
"I was, like, 3!" she exclaimed with the puckish attitude of a 14-year-old. She looked down at her hands, one of which delicately rested in a bowl of warm water, while a manicurist filed the nails of her other. To celebrate her birthday, she and her two friends - giggling, braces on their teeth, lollipops staining their tongues red - got the Tutti-Frutti Manicure Delight at CapeCodder Resort's spa in Hyannis, Mass. It was pink polish all around - appropriate for the spring season, they said.
"I like getting pampered and picking out the colors and things like that," Audrey says. "I just got [a manicure] last week, and it's all chipped up." Apparently gym class and groomed nails don't mix well.
That doesn't stop teens and tweens from trying. Audrey and her friends are part of a growing population of kids who include pampering - ranging from manicures to mud masks - among their extracurricular activities.
While some adults see the trend as a healthy and fun focus on grooming, others question whether young girls are ready for such indulgences at an age when body image is a sensitive issue.
Spas are happy to oblige the youth market, especially when the demand is coming from more than 30 million teens who, according to a 2003 Teen Research Unlimited study, have a disposable income of $103 each per week.
Across the country, spas are scrambling to add treatments geared toward the sophisticated minors: Twinkle Toes, Fantasy Facials, Yo Baby Yoga.
Deb Catania, one of CapeCodder's owners, started offering kids' spa treatments last year in response to the increased demand, and she plans to open a separate facility just for kids.
"The spa industry in general has just seen this huge boom," says Heather Lee, a clinician and spa industry consultant in Boulder, Colo. "And today's teenagers are a lucrative consumer group. Spas know it's a hot market. They're seeing the big dollar signs."
Many in the industry believe the youth interest is fueled by the media - fashion magazines, Hollywood, advertisements - and bolstered by parental or peer pressure. Others say spas offer mother-daughter bonding opportunities and relaxation for stressed-out kids.
"It's a major positive step for wellness and also for grooming," says Susie Ellis, president of SpaFinder.com in New York. "To address problems at that age, I think that's a great plus for the kids as well as the parents. Growing up with low self-esteem is not a good thing for anyone."
Yet some parents and experts worry that spa treatments for children are more damaging than beautifying. Physical attractiveness is the No. 1 concern of girls when it comes to self-esteem, and countless studies show that self-esteem drops about age 12, says Matthew Hertenstein, assistant professor of psychology at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind.
"In a sense, you're exacerbating the problem by placing more importance on [appearance]," Dr. Hertenstein says of spa visits. "As a parent of a 9-year-old, would you want to begin teaching a child that physical beauty is so important that they need to go have a facial?"
There are plenty of ways to increase self-esteem and reduce stress that are less expensive and more effective, he says. "But who wants to go exercise or go study when Mom can take me to the spa?"
Audrey says she'd take a manicure over a movie any day, but she pays her own way with money she sets aside in an informal spa savings fund. She returns to the spa whenever she has accumulated enough dollars, and she learns what to ask for by reading tips in fashion magazines. She got her eyebrows waxed for her aunt's wedding. ("But that's not very fun. It hurts," she says.)
For her eighth-grade semi-formal dance next month, she and her friends plan to have their hair, makeup, and nails done.
What luxuries will be left to discover before senior prom, wonders Mimi Doe, mother of two and founder of www. spritualparenting.com. "The shift from child to sexualized adult is happening at a younger and younger age," she says.
Ms. Doe, who lives in Concord, Mass., says her 13-year-old daughter's classmates plan to leave school early to get primped for an upcoming dinner dance, which raises questions about how much energy is appropriate to invest in appearance.
With TV programs such as "The Swan," where participants' appearances are transformed through plastic surgery, it's easy to blame the media and our culture in general, she adds, but parents should hold themselves accountable.
"As parents, we can't feed into that frenzy," she says. "I strive to help [my daughters] stay centered and grounded [despite] a culture that wants to buff their skin, polish their nails, and squelch their souls."
There are some aspects of our beauty-centric culture that can't be ignored, says Claire McArdle of Beauty Therapies in Brookline, Mass. A girl who has a mustache or unibrow is an easy subject of ridicule - and laser hair removal or waxing can save her from taunting.
Ms. Lee, the consultant, agrees wholeheartedly with the focus on wellness and self-nurturing, but worries about the pampering part.
The allure of lotions and potions is obviously strong, she says, but the essence of spa treatment should be about helping to enhance lives, not lips.
"There are some spas that aren't taking the time to get a handle on child development, that are just about the hair and nail thing," Lee says. "I'm not sure that's the message the industry should be sending. They should take the higher road."