Last week, I was “treated” to more than $1,500 worth of beauty products on my face (didn’t get to keep them — just try them out). They are supposed to change Life As I Know It. I eagerly await the transformation.
This all started out so innocently. A few weeks ago I strolled up to a cosmetics counter in Macy’s to buy a lipstick. That’s it. A pink product in a little tube. The Brand Representative (no such thing as a simple clerk, anymore) was enthused over the fact that as the highlight of an upcoming beauty event, six national makeup artists from her brand were flying in to do free makeup sessions in the store. She noted, looking at me critically, (I was wearing concealer and ChapStick) that I might really benefit from this celestial event. So I let her make an appointment for me.
I should note here that I am no beauty products novice. I had a long professional career requiring at least minimal skin care and cosmetics and at 63, I have lived through (and mostly ignored) countless breakthrough trends — mink oil, pearl dust, caviar, vitamin infusions, miracle enzymes, The Pinks, The Autumns, The Emeralds, The New Nudes, The Millenium Metallics and on and on. For the past several years I have dedicated my life to volunteer work and have (happily) retired most of the face stuff (along with pantyhose).
On the appointed day, after doing extra hours of service work (to cut down on the guilt associated with this indulgence), I sat down in The Chair and a frighteningly confident, perfectly made-up “artist” named Gwen (of indeterminate age) worked on me for 90 minutes. (Normal skin care and makeup routine takes oh, six minutes). I was tempted to plead the Fifth when she asked about my normal routines, and she was appropriately shocked and horrified. And then out came The Products, specifically tailored to a woman of my age and numerous deficiencies.
No real person could really use or buy all this stuff. That’s what I kept telling myself as I surveyed her loaded tray and as my gaze kept sliding over the other five artists’ chairs, where woman were signing up with abandon for the unbelievably expensive products used on their faces.
Before a molecule of makeup hit the face, significant prep had to take place. On me, she started with a cleanser. But not just any cleanser; one that was age-appropriate (read: for Hags) and fights something but I forget what. (Free radicals? Imprisoned radicals?) Cost: $38 per small bottle. This was followed by a toner. Gwen was very serious about this being a necessary step. In fact, very serious about everything. No humor in cosmetics. They treat this stuff like it’s stem cell research. Cost for tiny bottle of “fresh balancing” toner: $32. Then — and this is crucial — you absolutely must “start out” with a Serum. There is a mind-boggling array of serums out there. Mine was a repair concentrate, and it was rubbed all over my newly cleansed and toned face. Cost of a very small bottle, with eye dropper applicator: $95. While this session was in progress, makeup brand “cheerleaders” kept strolling by the chair, chirping, “Doesn’t it feel wonderful?" and “Your skin looks fabulous!”
Over the expensive serum went moisture lotion formulated to correct dark spots ($55), then overall skin illuminating and brightening lotion ($145 for a small bottle). I think another lotion was sneaked in there to combat wrinkles, but at that point I was becoming numb, so I didn’t note the cost. I have somewhat sensitive skin (more sensitive, say, than the average tree stump) so I was told I needed a calming fluid ($65). She next applied something I recognized as resembling a regular moisturizing cream (small jar costs $94). Then, Gwen smeared on something clear and kind of oily called makeup primer ($32), and we had not even gotten to prep for the eyes, neck and lips yet.
Under the eyes went an eye cream just for daytime ($52 for small jar); patted around the eye area, a pearly eye lotion ($62, comes in a tiny tube) and then a spot-correcting concealer just for eyes ($60). Yet another custom lotion was applied to my neck and collarbone area ($84). If I had let her, Gwen would have applied a “décolletage cream” to that area. (Throughout, it was soooo hard to keep from laughing out loud. How the hell did I reach this age, moderately intact, without all this help?)
My lips needed to be moisturized, plumped and “prepared” with three products, costing $18, $22 and $7. Did I mention I use ChapStick, and when I’m really rolling in the dough, the Burt’s Bees version?
Now done with prep which, Gwen intimated, is absolutely crucial to setting the stage for facial appearance bliss and in general, to a life well lived
First step in the next stage — Makeup Concealers, which are different from the Skin Care Concealers. I was too intimidated to ask Gwen how they differ; they just do. I think they have more pigment, a word I have never used until now. One concealer (from a tiny pot, $45) was sponged beneath my eyes and over the fine lines above my upper lip. (Yeah, I smoke, so lock me up or report me to New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.) Another concealing “essence” ($110) was applied with a brush ($22) to the dark outer corners of my eyes, as opposed to the general eye area. If I am counting right, five separate things had now been applied to my eyes, and we hadn’t gotten to actual color yet.
Next came the actual face foundation, which entailed an agonizing selection process involving formulas and shades, discussion of applicators (brushes vs. sponges vs. fingers). I think I dozed off during this part. Finally, application of a “lifting” foundation “specially selected” for my many facial faults ($37 per bottle). At this point Gwen had me look in a hand mirror to admire the perfect palette that now comprised the canvas for applying actual color to my face. I literally recoiled. I looked truly tragic … a scary white blob. It is true that my skin showed no blemishes, discolorations, lines, bags, puffiness, dents, large pores or other imperfections. It also showed no life whatsoever. I could have auditioned for a Zombie video.
But I am not being fair, commenting on an incomplete canvas. Gwen actually showed modest enthusiasm (a hint of a smile) when it came to the Blush category, calling it the most important face lifter. Blushes come in several formulations (cream, gel, cream-to-powder, tiny pots of what our grandmothers used to call “rouge,” etc.), but she skipped the tryouts (thank you, God!) declaring only the powder version would work for me. She chose a shade I would normally never consider (kind of a bright fuschia), saying it would tone down in the application. (Small powder compact cost $45; brush applicator, $34.) She demonstrated an application technique I had never before seen (and could never duplicate). It involved starting at the hairline, then sweeping in and out in a figure-eight pattern down the side of the face (repeated on the other side). Could this possibly imitate real color dispersion … on a human face? When she proudly held up the mirror to display this handiwork, I let out a peep. I looked like Bette Davis in “Baby Jane,” and said so. She attempted to tone it down with a clean “correcting” brush ($22), but it still screamed makeup to me.
More luck with the eyes. First, a creamy powder eye makeup base ($28, with its own special brush, $22) was smoothed over the upper eyelid. Next, what I actually recognized as eyeshadow in a beige-y color with a satin texture ($25 for a tiny compact) was brushed over entire lid from lashes up to eyebrows. A laughable, fingernail-sized brush is included as part of compact, but you would need to buy a real brush for each eyeshadow, at $22 a pop. Over that, but only in the center of each eyelid, she patted on a pearly peachy color ($25). On the outer third of the eyelid and extending up a bit, she stroked on (with a special slant-tipped brush - $22) a shimmery bright blue ($25).
You should know (and applaud the fact) that I turned down a gold glitter eyeshadow and a bright green frosted number that were very strongly recommended (“these would be outstanding on you”). I stopped doing glitter and frost when I stopped teasing my hair and wearing go-go boots. Next came the eyeliner, close to the upper and lower lashes, in a grey shade. The product consisted of a soft pencil on one end and had something else — I forget what — on the other end ($25). Over the eyeliner came the shimmery blue again, to make my lined eyes “pop.” Then, white goopy stuff called mascara primer was brushed on my eyelashes ($21). I was told this is vital, especially “as we age and our lashes become more sparse.” After much discussion of appropriate formulas (on her part; I had become near-catatonic) black mascara with “fortifying” or “thickening” in the title was brushed onto my upper and lower lashes ($38). Moved on to eye brows — a revelation. Gwen mentioned she would “clean off the pencil” on my brows and start over, and I noted I wasn’t wearing anything on my brows (never do). She was all agog and called over two of the makeup cheerleaders, who chorused, “Natural browline? You must wear product! Brows define your entire facial expression!” Cowed, I let them choose a brow stick thing in a blonde shade … creamy pencil on one end and little lump of sponge on the other end ($25).
Expression defined, we neared the home stretch with the lips. Onto my primed and plumped lips glided an automatic lip pencil in a rosy shade ($22, comes with a refill) with a stiff brush at the other end. “We” chose a lipstick ($25) that was kind of a coral crystal shimmer, which came in an actual tube with nothing at the other end. A colorless lip gloss ($22) was applied to the center of the lower lip ONLY.
Please note: The cheerleaders impressed upon me the need to buy special cleaning solution to clean all the brushes ($15), and products to take the makeup off, including treated towelettes for the face ($20) and a bottle of special solution ($18) to dissolve the eye gunk.
The Great Reveal. All right, I admit it. I did feel like Cinderella. I just didn’t look like her (or in any other way resemble a glamorous, normal or fictional being.) My eyes (although way overdone) did look hot. Not Angelina Jolie hot, but Helen Mirren if she was having a good day hot. And I liked my lips, even though their pouty, glossy look lasted the length of the car ride home. My face was one white flawless mask, with two fuschia Figure 8s painted on it. I couldn’t feel my skin at all. So the care products must have worked, right? I did not look younger … just, well, better-tended (as anyone who worked at this for an hour and a half ought to look).
Gwen and the cheerleaders started pushing ALL of the products like crazy, especially the skin products (given my age, I am a pathetically vulnerable sell). I held firm against much pressure, and wound up purchasing only the brow thing (one needs a facial expression) the lipliner and lipstick. They were good sports about it, and threw in a free sample for my time spent — a totally confounding wand tool that features a concealer tube at one end and a mascara tube at the other (why?).
Not that I wasn’t tempted to greater excess, or have my moments of doubt. I found myself asking, would I actually do all this, ever? Would anyone outside the performing arts actually do all this, ever? (I think I mentioned that all around me, women were purchasing this stuff like it was Sale Day at the Dollar Store.) Normally, I have my priorities straight, and they do not include “luxuries” or self-indulgence like this. But what if I got an invitation to a State Dinner at the White House? Or got asked to the Grammy Awards? Or just wanted to feel semi-hot a few times? Or wanted to “treat” myself? After living life in service to others, didn’t I deserve to splurge? Shouldn’t I be taking better personal care of myself, anyway? Wouldn’t this undoubtedly lead to higher self esteem, greater confidence, healthier eating and exercise habits, more effectiveness at the tasks I choose to pursue, a better marriage, decreased reliance on meds, prospectively hotter sex life, real progress on controlling gun violence and balancing the budget, etc.?
Throughout my professional life, I would normally have done a cost-benefit analysis at this point. So I did a very brief one, while the Hard Sell was proceeding and the adorable, Size 2 cheerleaders were trying to convince me that with all these products life as I knew It would never be the same.
(Before I total costs, please note here that the skin products used were daytime versions. You also need night versions so double the products and double the costs. Nor am I figuring in the cost of my time, should I elect to pursue this beauty routine on a regular basis. When I do paying freelance work, I bill $125 per hour.)
Starting Point For Cost Benefit Analysis — Total Cost of Products Used: $1,590
— My skin felt softer.
— I felt a bit prettier for a little while, excepting the above-mentioned scary whiteface and garish blush.
— I always like getting compliments, even marketing-motivated, insincere ones.
— I did learn some new notions, including the outer third of the eye color thing and the idea that Q-tips and saliva might not satisfy every cosmetics need.
— Last night, unexpectedly, neighbors invited us (with five minutes’ notice) to the local diner for a bite to eat. So I actually got to show off my Thousand Dollar Face, and I am sure the diner patrons, lounging about in their regulation sweatsuits, were suitably impressed.
— The Societal Cost. Are they insance? A lyric from the great rock opera, “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” kept running through my head while Gwen was plying her trade: “Think of the things you could do with that money, choose any charity, give to the poor …” On a daily basis, I work with people who are in dire need of soap. Food. Infant formula. Toothpaste. Socks. What kind of insensitive moron would I have to be to spend $145 on something called face brightening lotion?
— The Personal Cost. Easy cost-benefit analysis, here. We just haven’t got it! We have not even had The Retirement Conversation (how we are going to live on much reduced means going forward), and we are practically on top of it. The personal cost is greater than the dollar amount, though. I admit that there were years, many of them, when I was raking in substantial sums. I worked myself into total exhaustion and treated myself moderately well. (No thousand dollar batches of face products, however.) Mostly, spent the loot on things that were meaningful to me — notably, renting a great oceanfront beach house in a different location for a week each summer to attract my sisters, nephews, niece, their friends and significant others (outright, shameless bribe, and it worked wonderfully). I do own a few Coach bags and a pair of trademark red-soled, Christian LeBoutin black satin sandals. I bought the shoes, one size too small, at a 40 percent off sale at an upscale consignment shop in San Diego. Smushed my feet into them and limped around my nephew’s wedding. If you want them, contact me.
More personal cost-benefit analysis: We are “victims” of Superstorm Sandy (I prefer to think of us as survivors), living on the extreme south shore of Long Island. We sustained much first-floor flooding, landscaping is a wipeout, and in general, we have unreimbursed structural, property and contents damage. Neighborhood remains a war zone, with many tearouts and homes being bulldozed, many people still not knowing whether they can rebuild or not, Everyone caught in various circles of insurance-FEMA-SBA hell, families still displaced and not knowing from week to week whether they will be thrown out of their temporary housing, relief camp providing hot meals and cleaning supplies still operating around the corner.
Against this backdrop, let’s see. Should I spend more than a thousand dollars on skin care and makeup stuff that will make me feel a bit prettier for a moment in time, or should I put the money toward replacing salt water-destroyed outdoor a/c units? Or taking down an uprooted tree? Or replacing drowned contents? Any real decisions, here?
The truth is, even if Sandy had not happened, and even if we were well off, the cost-benefit analysis still would not have swung in favor of my thousand dollar face. This experience (re)opened my (heavily mascara’ed) eyes to the appalling, over-the-top products and tactics of a largely unnecessary industry that preys on insecurities and fantasies (held primarily by the young and the aging) and the belief that the next jar will hold the answer … to everything. I also realize that this is not exactly a groundbreaking revelation. It has been the case since well before the phrase “hope in a jar” was first coined.
I wonder if we might be approaching a time, though, when each of us, as women, can re-evaluate priorities, and encourage other women to put things in a more balanced perspective. The odds against this are great. It is an indisputable fact that in recent years, the numbers and types of beauty and skin care products have grown exponentially. Entire magazines and hundreds of web sites are devoted to them. Every reality show personality (most of whom I wouldn’t be able to pick out of a lineup) now has to have her own fashion, cosmetics and fragrance lines.
Heaven forbid, I am not saying, “don’t use makeup or care for your skin.” I am saying there is no reason on earth to have to use ELEVEN products on your eyes or spend upward of $100 on a skin cream. (And that’s for the so-called moderately priced lines. Check out the really high-end lines.)
Okay, preachy part over. And just so you know I’m not a dried out old stick, I actually had fun with my Thousand-Dollar Face session. Kind of like my 2-year-old grandniece has fun playing a Disney Princess for a day. Just don’t believe in it and for God’s sake, don’t buy into it. Do take advantage of the free sessions the next time a brand’s National Makeup Artists fly in. Just hold onto your perspective. And your wallet.