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New 'spa' targets tots

Yasmine Klein gets over to Le Petite to refresh her mani-pedi and get her hair styled when she can.

"It's always fun,'' said Yasmine, who has been to Le Petite about five times since it opened in March, "because it's painting with all different colors for the nails.''

Forgive her syntax. Yasmine is 4 years old.

That makes her a typical customer at Le Petite Youth Spa, a candy-pink shrine to pint-size pampering, primping and preening.

IF YOU GO

Le Petite Youth Spa is at 3097 NE 163rd St., North Miami Beach.Individual appointments or walk-ins 4-7 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. For groups of four or more, appointments also available on other days. Private parties scheduled on weekends.

Individual appointments start at $20 for two services (hair, manicure, pedicure, facial, massage or makeup). Party packages start at $550 for 10 girls. Visit www.LePetiteYouthSpa.com or call 305-949-1100.

The North Miami Beach spa targets girls ages 4 to 12. But kids as young as 2 are never turned away.

To fulfill the fairy-tale fantasy, there are frilly vanities for barrette-enhanced hairdos and sparkly makeup applications. Girls put on tiny bathrobes, admire themselves in full-length oval mirrors and climb atop massage tables. A pink shag runway allows clients to show off their spa day results, with camera-clicking parents substituting for paparazzi.

But owner Adriana Cohen says there's more here than meets the eye.

"We opened a spa that's not just about putting on nail polish,'' said Cohen, 34. "It's also about having nails that are nice and clean. That's a nice little thing for girls to have. We're trying to teach them how to be ladies.''

If feminist Betty Friedan were alive, Le Petite Youth Spa might give her a heart attack.

Learning to be ladies? Didn't we move past that a few decades ago, along with pancake foundation and conical bras?

Diane Levin, a professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston and an expert on societal influences on children, thinks places like Le Petite are damaging to young girls.

"When you're talking about a 4-year-old going to a spa or getting spiffed up and everyone says, 'you look so pretty,' they learn that's what you do to be successful,'' said Levin, author of the book So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do To Protect Their Kids (Ballantine Books, $25).

"They're not going to develop to their fullest potential if they think the most important thing is how they look,'' she said.

Plenty of spas tailor treatments for teens. Some venues, like the spa at the Ritz-Carlton South Beach, give manicures or pedicures to children as young as 6. Eclips Kid's Salon and Spa in McLean, Va., serves tots as young as 3. But unlike Le Petite, it draws most of its revenue from haircuts, said owner Neena Kundi.

The International Spa Association doesn't even keep numbers on spas for clients younger than 13.

Satisfied parents say Le Petite teaches positivelife long habits. Girls learn to sit still for spa services. They are taught to cross their legs. They focus on hygiene.

And, after donning the spa's tutus, slippers and butterfly wings, the children are instructed on how to walk: shoulders back, heads up.

"At school, they do what they see,'' said Mercedes Schamy, who takes her 4-year-old daughter Guilianna to Le Petite weekly for nails and hair. "But here she learns how to be different, like not running [inside] a place like a little boy.''

What's more, Schamy said, her daughter thrills to it.

"It's like magic for the girls. More magic than Disney!''

At Le Petite, the young women who perform the spa treatments wear tutus and pink wigs. Cohen's "dolls,'' as she calls them, are not licensed aestheticians.

Cohen said she teaches them what they need to know, which she admits isn't much … the services are essentially for show.

Nail polish is applied, but cuticles are never cut. Hair is styled but never trimmed. Facials entail only creamy masks and cucumber slices for the eyes. Body massages are entirely superficial.

Cohen says the girls are never made to look like pageant queens. The spa takes a more wholesome approach, Cohen said, with light makeup applications and demure pink nail polish.

"It's all make-believe,'' she said.

The spa is foremost a birthday party destination. But enough parents asked for regular visits that Cohen now takes appointments or walk-ins two afternoons a week.

A spa devotee herself, Cohen spent her childhood in Arequipa, Peru, where "I was the little tomboy,'' she said. "It wasn't until I became a wife that I got very, very girly.''

She moved to Miami in 1991 and later opened a Belini furniture store in Coconut Grove. The idea for Le Petite came about when her twin girls, Natalie and Rachel, now 4, began pleading to join her for a day at the spa, she said.

Yasmine Klein's mother, Sharon Klein, said she understands the allure for preschoolers firsthand. "They get to emulate their moms,'' Klein said.

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