Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Retail Therapy: My Maiden Voyage to MAC

I literally haven't bought makeup since 1999, until last week. I wear it every day, but one of the perks of working in women's magazines is the phenomenon known as the beauty sale, in which the products companies send to the beauty department for consideration are put in the conference room and sold for a dollar. It's a snarling, savage madhouse of magazine staffers—but one that means that if you work there you can walk away with dozens of products for a sliver of cash. I don't use tons of products but for the past 12 years I've been grabbing every brown eyeliner, black mascara, concealer, and fair-tone powder off the tables. And even though I haven't held a steady job at a ladies' mag for the past two years, my stockpile has held out nicely. (I do buy tinted SPF moisturizer, because I'm picky about that.)

Besides the obvious benefits, this also shapes how you perceive makeup. When a $95 face serum is priced the same as a Wet'n'Wild nail polish that would fetch $2 at Target, your evaluation of a product's worth shifts. You can only base your reaction to a product on how well it works (or how it looks on your shelf), not what investment you put into it in your hopes of achieving greater beauty. I don't care if the name on the package is Chanel or Maybelline; only rarely have I found something that worked so well I'd happily buy it at its retail value.

But last week was a hard week--cramps, back pain, general stress. And after my bombshell makeover I decided I wanted to try wearing lipstick on a daily basis for a while, just to see how I felt in it--but because I never wear lipstick, I don't own any except a singular beauty-sale leftover called Rum Raisin, which makes me resemble a kindly retiree, so off to the MAC store it was.
As a copy editor, I'm more annoyed by the missing period after the "C" than I should be.

What's that? you ask. MAC? I thought you said drugstore stuff was just fine! That's exactly it, though. It didn't cross my mind to go into Duane Reade and pick up some Cover Girl lip liner; I specifically wanted the experience of walking into a nicer store and spending nicer money on a nicer product, even though  the effect on my face would wind up being roughly the same. (By all accounts, though, MAC really is the leader in lip color longevity and rich pigmentation, and they're reasonably priced.) Wearing lipstick was about one thing; buying lipstick was about another.

Now, I've gone my whole life without buying lipstick. In fact, the only time I've procured lipstick (besides the aforementioned Rum Raisin) was when I uncharacteristically swiped a tube from the drugstore at age 15, which I've since learned was sort of a rite of passage for a lot of girls. The sticky-fingered Daphne Merkin, in her essay "The Shoplifter's High," writes:

Ours is a culture in which women, more than men, are dominated by the ruthlessly depersonalizing ethos of materialism... We are, in other words, the face—and clothes—we put on in the morning. ... Seen from this angle, shoplifting can be viewed as a means, however misbegotten, of managing the tension induced by being at the beck and call of the marketplace.... Once money is not the issue, how much is too much to spend on a new lipstick? And behind that valuation lies a more lift-threatening barter: How much am I worth?

Now, I didn't shoplift the MAC pencil, of course (though I don't think it's just the size and portability that makes lipstick a frequent target for shoplifters; I'm certain there's something specific to the purpose of cosmetics that's behind it--if anyone out there is a habitual makeup swiper, pipe up as I'd love to chat!). But what Merkin is saying here applies nonetheless: The actual price paid, the actual 1,415 pennies, wasn't the issue. My budget allows me to drop $14 when I'd like (though not habitually). It's more that by assigning MAC-value to my time, effort, and cash instead of CVS-value, I elevated myself--back pain, landlord tensions, cramps and all--to a higher worth.

I'm not sure where lies the line between treating myself to a small, colorful, pricier-than-it-needs-to-be pleasure to boost my mood, and plain old American retail therapy, foolishly spending on MAC in order to join the legion raspberry-lipped girls who pepper the halls of places I work. I'm pretty sure a $14 lip pencil isn't crossing that line. But I'm still questioning the whole idea, and I continue to be surprised by the pleasure I feel when I find the sleek pencil in my bag and spend a moment giving myself some lip service.

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