This summer, Uni K Wax salon, an East Coast chain, offered 50 percent off waxing services to girls 15 and under, promoting the experience as “natural, safe and pleasant,” in their ad. Is this a creepy trend, or an empowering take-charge-of-your-own-beauty moment for teenage girls?Controversy surrounding the ads indicated the former, but Noemi Grupenmager, founder of Uni K Wax Centers, has said, “as young girls develop, some earlier than others, they might be the first to have hair on their legs, or perhaps their upper lip….Girls can be mean. Boys can also be cruel. The prevention of bullying in schools has taken center stage and waxing can be used to help.”

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Heidi Kannenberg, 13, agrees. Her mom Stacey takes her to the salon without hesitation. “I really love having my eyebrows and lip done,” says the sixth grader. “Seeing girls with gorilla faces—well, I just feel bad for them.”While the ads brought a spotlight to the issue, salon owners acknowledge that they’ve seen mothers bring their daughters in for services for years and popularity is only growing. Maggie Santos, the manager at J. Sisters, the high-profile salon that some say put Brazilian waxes on the map, told The New York Times that about 40 percent of hair-removal services performed at the beginning of the summer are for clients younger than 16.YouBeauty Self-Image Expert Heather Quinlan, LCSW, acknowledges that waxing can be beneficial for young girls in some “very limited circumstances.”

“A young girl with thick, dark hair on her arms who faces consistent ridicule from classmates may be an appropriate candidate,” she says. “But a girl who sees mom regularly waxing her eyebrows and wants to join that ritual to play grownup is probably not.”

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Dana Cirincione, now 27, first got her underarms waxed when she was 13. “To this day I have never shaved,” she says. “I told the woman who now waxes me the story and she said that when her daughter is old enough she’s going to do the same.”

In fact, many women have positive memories of being taken to wax appointments in their tween and teen years. But according to Quinlan, introducing such an intense beauty ritual so early shouldn’t be taken lightly. “Parents should be articulating and modeling acceptance of a wide variety of physical features and an expansive definition of beauty,” she says. “Even if there’s a healthy family perspective on appearance, the daughter’s self-esteem and body image should be assessed as the option is considered.”

If there’s an issue that needs resolving—like teasing or low confidence levels—it’s important to think about whether waxing is the only or best way to address it. “In the right circumstances, waxing may help a young girl feel good about herself and confident about her appearance,” Quinlan allows. “But in the wrong circumstances, waxing may contribute to a young girl’s unhealthy focus on appearance, poor body image and unrealistic physical standards for herself. It may also teach a girl that pain is necessary to meet society’s expectations for women’s appearance, or that she is somehow flawed if she doesn’t undergo certain beauty rituals.”

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And then there’s the undeniable truth that waxing ushers a young girl into the world of adult beauty standards and, if it’s done too soon, she may not be ready physically, emotionally or socially. Quinlan acknowledges that waxing a lip or an arm is one thing, but more personal areas are a whole different story. “Unless it is somehow necessary for costuming for someone intensively involved in dance or gymnastics, I cannot imagine a reason why it would be necessary for a young girl to have a bikini wax,” she says.

Most salons indicate that girls stick to a “moderate” bikini wax and don’t go for full Brazilians (phew!) but still, Quinlan notes, dealing in that area seems to be “a purely adult and largely sexualized grooming choice.” It’s a physical change that can give a girl confusing and prematurely sexualized messages, she says, and it may start her off “associating painful (and potentially embarrassing) experiences with her private parts.”

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Laura*, now 36, got her first bikini wax at age 12. “I was an early bloomer and also quite hairy, so I started shaving my bikini line by middle school and got awful razor burn,” she says. “My mom—who has never gotten waxed in her life—booked an appointment. I was lucky that she understood my hirsute misery, and had the time and heart to ease it!” She adds that she hopes her young daughter doesn’t take after her in the hair department, but that she’ll have no hesitation booking a wax for her if she does.* Does not want to give her last name.