ADOLESCENCE is an awkward time to grow a mustache. Especially if you’re a girl.
When Vidya Srinivasan was 7, girls would make her play a man in games of make-believe because of the downy hairs on her upper lip. “It really started messing up my self-esteem,” said Vidya, now 13. “I got to thinking that maybe there’d been a mistake and I was really born a boy.”
Her mother, Dr. Hema Sundaram, a dermatologist in suburban Washington, tried to reassure her. The amount of hair a girl sprouts (and where) varies widely based on genetics, hormones, and ethnicity, Dr. Sundaram said, and a bit of facial hair is not uncommon among women who, like the doctor and her daughter, are of Indian descent.
“But she started crying, and I felt like crying with her,” Dr. Sundaram said. “I tried to impart that if someone is saying something bad about you, it’s usually because they feel bad about themselves. But it’s very tough to deal with that when you’re 7.”
Together they decided to get rid of the unwanted lip hair. Bleach proved ineffective, depilatory creams irritated Vidya’s skin, and Dr. Sundaram ruled out waxing because of the inflamed follicles she had seen in her practice. Since last year, Dr. Sundaram has brought her daughter into her office several times to use a laser to put the hairs — and Heathers — at bay.
Her tormentors were silenced and, Vidya said, “I felt like I’d won.”
Parents of teenagers have long walked a fine line between helping a child grease the wheels of social acceptance, and stressing physical appearance too much. Do you let a tween shave her legs or armpits because other fifth graders do? Will a nose job be a lifesaver or a mistake to later regret?
In the realm of cosmetic decisions, there are few clear-cut answers regarding what is good and bad, comely or ugly.
Some cultural absolutes do exist. In the 20th century, for instance, Americans seemed to decide that crooked, imperfect teeth should be fixed as early as possible, even though most of us chew fine with imperfect choppers.
And now removing hair, like getting braces, is making the transition from vanity to the necessity for increasingly more parents and their girls and boys. “I have a teenage client who is on the swim team and is getting hair removed from his back,” said Rena Abdinova, a registered nurse and an owner of the City Skin and Laser Clinic in San Francisco. “He has a 24-year-old brother who was also on the swim team in high school and had hair on his back, but then it wasn’t an issue. People are becoming much more self-conscious about hair.”
Teenagers often require more laser treatments than adults because their hormonal fluctuations can change the rate and pattern of hair growth. Still, hair removal by laser is the most popular nonsurgical cosmetic procedure among minors, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, an organization of board-certified plastic surgeons.
In 2007, teenagers got 67,523 procedures — more than double the number that age group had in 2000, according to the society, which surveyed its members and board-certified dermatologists but not aestheticians or other doctors.
Many children seek to be denuded because excess fuzz embarrasses them. Others want to avoid a lifetime of battling hair. For Christine Furman, of Greenwich, Conn., getting laser treatment for the unibrow of her 16-year-old daughter Teresa was a celebratory event, not unlike ear piercing. Classmates had also nicknamed Teresa “Uno Brow.”
Ms. Furman was wary of electrolysis because it had left pockmarks on her chin. But she wanted to give her daughter the gift of never having to maintain her eyebrows again. “She got the first treatment the day after she got off her braces,” she said. “It hurt a little bit, so she squeezed my hand. Then we went to Bloomingdale’s.”
Laser hair removal devices, which were first cleared by the Food and Drug Administration in 1995, work by beaming light at various frequencies through the skin in order to heat up and damage the hair follicle. It can take minutes or hours, depending on the size of the area, and usually requires several sessions.
Until the advent of laser hair reduction, the only long-term hair removal option was electrolysis, which can be pricey, time-consuming and painful. The average upper lip needs 6 treatments (5 minutes each) to be lasered compared with roughly 20 sessions of electrolysis (15 minutes each).
Celina Ramsaywack, an electrologist and laser practitioner in Queens, charges $60 an hour for electrolysis and $25 to $95 an hour for laser
in case of anyone who is still growing. Children “need to have realistic expectations and understand that once they go through puberty, they will develop more hair,” said Dr. Ellen Marmur, the chief of dermatologic and cosmetic surgery at the Mount Sinai Medical Center.
The chances of complications are small when laser hair removal is correctly performed, according to the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery. But doctors do see patients who, after being treated with a laser by non-physicians, have burns, scarring, increased hair growth in adjacent areas and permanent skin discoloration. Often, these problems are a result of laser misuse or treating unsuitable candidates, such as people with dark or tanned skin, or with light hair. (Most lasers work only on people with dark hair and light skin.)
Laser hair removal. “Laser can be more expensive in the beginning,” she said, “but it takes less time, so in the long run, it’s cheaper.”
In recent years, laser hair reduction centers have sprung up faster than stubble. As many as 2,500 medical spas perform the procedure nationwide, a fivefold increase since 2004, estimated the International Medical Spa Association, a trade organization.
But there are no federal laws governing the use of lasers. In some states, laser hair removal can be performed only by a doctor, while in others, it can be done under one’s supervision, or by a nurse or physician’s assistant. A few states, such as New York, require no licensing.
“My suggestion is that all these procedures be performed by physicians,” said Dr. Roy Geronemus, the director of the Laser and Skin Surgery Center of New York in Manhattan. Not the least because they can point out possible causes of excessive hair such as polycystic ovarian syndrome.
It’s worth nothing that laser hair removal isn’t permanent
Laser hair removal, some say, should be a last resort. “I suggest kids first try bleaching, waxing or shaving or plucking,” said Andrea James, who for six years has run HairTell.com, a site about hair removal. Most people in the forum reported positive results; more than six who posted said they had experienced second- and third-degree burns.
For some critics, the quest for permanent hair removal at an early age is part of a broader problem. “There’s not supposed to be any signs of entering adulthood,” said Jean Kilbourne, an author of the forthcoming book “So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids.” “Adult women in the world of porn have always been rendered hairless. It’s part of the whole kind of infantilizing of women and the contempt for adult women’s bodies.”
Not to mention, some children grow into the bushy brows they perhaps once didn’t like (see Frida Kahlo). “Everybody has to learn to live with the body they got,” said Michael Thompson, a child psychologist and an author of “Mom, They’re Teasing Me.” Then again, he added: “If back hair is making you hate yourself and it’s not a lot of bothering to get it removed, O.K. But where do you draw the line? Really, does any 13-year-old look in the mirror and think ‘God, I look smashing’?”