A California woman who went on "Good Morning America" this month to boast that she gives her 8-year-old daughter Botox injections for an edge on the pageant circuit triggered a universal shudder of revulsion.
The mom soon retracted her story, denying she actually shot up the little girl with the wrinkle-busting toxin - but not before she drew the attention of child welfare authorities and sparked debate over cosmetic procedures for minors.
Whether or not her shocking claim was a hoax, there's no denying that grown-up spa and beauty treatments for teens, tweens and even grade-schoolers is a trend that just won't quit.
The International Spa Association says half its members offer services for young people, and the number skyrocketed 47% in three years.
The Spa at Pinehurst, a luxury resort in North Carolina, has no trouble selling packages for kids as young as 6. The number of youth services in the first five months of the year surpassed all of 2010, a spokeswoman says.
It's big business but, some experts and parents wonder, at what cost?
Mother-daughter mani-pedis are unlikely to raise any perfectly plucked eyebrows, but what about highlights for a seven-year-old losing her baby blondeness?
From Highlights to Waxing
A Manhattan salon's website even advertises discounts for what it calls "virgin waxing for children eight years old and up who have never shaved before." In a phone interview, the owner insisted she was no longer offering the service, saying, "people didn't understand what we were trying to do."
Count Tess O'Brien among them.
The mother of two girls, ages 6 and 8, from Pleasantville, N.Y., is appalled by the idea of cosmetic improvement for kids too young to walk to the beauty parlor alone.
"It's nauseating," she says. "I'm even opposed to too many mani-pedis."
Dr. Robyn Silverman, a prominent child development expert says there's nothing wrong with bonding over some nail polish if the message is right. "Are you doing something fun, or are you telling your child this is something girls have to do to be attractive, to be worthy, to be noticed by other people?" she says.
A little-girl manicure might be an innocent extension of dress-up, but Silverman is troubled by reports of facials, leg waxing, and microdermabrasion for pre-adolescents.
"A facial? What is the purpose?" she asks. "I think it sends the message to a girl that their face right now needs improvement. "Hair on a girl's leg is normal and natural. When you're saying, 'You have to get that taken care of,' it says, 'Your development as a young woman is not acceptable.'"
Is it Ever Okay to Fix Something?
Silverman offers a caveat, though. In the case of a child who is being teased because of their appearance -- thick, dark hair on their arms or face, for instance -- parents need to weigh the benefits against the pain of "fixing" it.
That's the position Lynn Miller found herself in when her 9-year-old daughter came to her one day and said, "What's a unibrow?" "My heart went out to the poor kid," Miller says.
Schoolmates kept commenting on her daughter's thick brows until she finally declared, "I want to get my eyebrows waxed."
Mom's first reaction: No way.
"My initial reluctance was she's a little kid and she's beautiful the way she is. And I didn't want to get into the whole practice. I thought, 'What's next?'" Miller explains.
"But finally I said OK."
They went to the salon, and the technician quickly waxed the space between the brows.
"She was happy with it," Miller says. "But the funny thing is she hasn't asked for it since -- and it's grown back."
Scott Kershvaumer, co-owner of Esspa Kozmetika in Pittsburgh, says his wife recently used a "sugaring" hair removal technique to tame a 4-year-old client's unusually thick brows. "The little girl really enjoyed it," he says. "Mom loved it because no one is picking on her at nursery school." Even though he's proud of the spa's long list of kid-friendly services -- health massages, facials, body scrubs -- he says there are some things they won't do.
"When the mom brings a 12-year-old or a 13-year-old in for a Brazilian bikini wax...that's not our thing," Kershvaumer says. "We'll do a regular bikini wax."
A Dangerous Message
Dr. Douglas Goldsmith, director of The Children's Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, says that while beauty treatments may seem like innocent fun, he's concerned it makes kids focus too much on their physical appearance at too tender an age.
"You can start to build the seeds for distorted body image," he says.
"On another level, look how far women have come in the past 30 to 40 years. I really worry we're starting to see a trend backwards if we're saying to girls what's matters is how you look."