Monday, February 7, 2011

Glamour Gals: Makeover Do-Gooding

There’s an interesting discussion over at Beauty Schooled about Glamour Gals, a nonprofit founded by an ambitious young woman in 2000. The idea of Glamour Gals is that small armies of young women—mostly high school students, though there are college chapters as well—go into nursing homes and give female residents makeovers.

I was inclined initially to feel as Virginia first wrote:
OK, I am a mean horrible person and Oprah loves them. But if you want to volunteer with old folk, can’t you just spend time with them? Do you have to put makeup on them like they five, instead of grown-ass women who have been deciding what looks good on them all by themselves for oh, decades now?

But the comments made me (and the writer) rethink:
It seems kind of, pointless, maybe, BUT – many women, especially older women, really really enjoy getting made up and being made to feel “pretty.” Living in a hospital or assisted living facility can obviously be very, very dreary. Even if it doesn’t actually DO anything, maybe it can make an elderly woman (who maybe can’t do her makeup as well anymore) FEEL happier and better, a little like she did when she was young; and isn’t that worth SOMETHING?
It’s not easy for everyone to interact with people but doing hair and makeup has given me a platform to being more extroverted. Sure, it would be just as valuable if I went to sit and read with the elderly, but this is fun too. I know what I was doing at 17 and it wasn’t nearly this productive.

You’ll see my comment at the bottom there; I was sort of grumbling before I’d had my coffee and that’s not exactly my problem with it (even if I do think that breast cancer activism can take on a faux feminist sheen at times; see Barbara Ehrenreich, who says it much better than I do). So what is my problem with Glamour Girls? I mean, I’ve documented on this very blog how unexpectedly engaged I felt by getting a makeover. Besides the reflections (and lipstick purchases!) it prompted, it also just plain felt nice to sit there and let Eden tend to my face; I can only imagine that feeling would increase tenfold if I were living in an assisted living home, widowed, with few visitors, as is the case with many of the Glamour Gals. I mean, when was the last time you touched your own grandmother’s face? When was the last time you touched anyone’s face but a child’s or a lover’s? (Am I the only one who gets bashful when I brush a fallen eyelash from a friend’s cheek?)

But you know what? This is all conjecture: I wouldn’t know how it feels for the makeover recipients, because they’re invisible on the Glamour Gals site. There are bios and journal entries from volunteers (“Victoria’s First Makeover”—Victoria is the volunteer, not her elderly counterpart), internal and external news tidbits ranging from press to updates on its volunteers (“Marisa Parrotta, chapter president of our Bolton Central School a finalist for the NYC teen pageant”), and clips from The Glammys, the organization’s annual awards event. We hear from the Glammys host (style expert Robert Verdi), from the founder, from volunteers, from Oprah. Nowhere do we hear from the senior citizens who are getting services from Glamour Gals. Their voices are literally mute, only static, smiling photographs giving us an illusion of what the senior set might actually feel.

Buried in the site’s “Our Story” section, I did find a news clip from the Metro Channel—that is, something not produced by Glamour Gals itself (though it had a promotional feel to it so perhaps it was a joint project; I don’t know)—in which some of the makeover recipients get a chance to speak. Or, in one case, to wheel over at the volunteer’s prodding to her bureau in order to fetch a Polaroid of the two together. “Do you still have my pictures?” the volunteer chirps.

I suppose it’s really this that bothers me: “my pictures.” I understand that in order to stay afloat, nonprofits need to emphasize their achievements—and upsetting and counterproductive to the group’s goals as it may be—a bevy of fresh-faced 17-year-olds in candy striper aprons may be more palatable to potential donors than elderly women sporting lip stain. And Glamour Girls is vocal about its mission being a two-way street: elderly women receive sorely lacking personal care; young women strengthen their leadership skills. But on page after page, I saw only the volunteer’s voices and nada from the other side of the supposedly mutual exchange. I suspect that Virginia was onto something when she initially pinned it as the “best college application padding activity I’ve seen in a while”—and, criminy, I remember the terror of college applications back in 1994, when it wasn’t as competitive as it is now. I get it. And it’s worth noting that Glamour Gals has been noted by an organization devoted to eldercare: the American Health Care Association named it Group Volunteer of the Year in 2004. That’s encouraging; it shows that there is a real response to the group’s efforts, which isn’t surprising.

The group also deserves props for taking this kind of stuff seriously. When I first heard of this group, I was working at CosmoGirl magazine, which honored Glamour Gals founder Rachel Doyle as its first-ever “CosmoGirl of the Year.” (I’ve never met Rachel but remember that the staff at the time was supportive of her efforts and admired her outreach, marketing, and PR skills, which are remarkable now and certainly were when she was a teen.) I groan-laughed on the inside at the time, because it just seemed so damned appropriate, a teenage girl volunteering by putting makeup on old women, snapping some photos, and gathering a scrapbook. Who could ask for a cuter, sunnier, more winsome story? And, c’mon, the polar ice caps are melting and there’s bride burning and you, Teenage Girl, have very limited access to contraception—but, sure, let’s put makeup on old women and call it a day, okay? But I see that was shortsighted and cynical of me: Beauty is a major concern to a lot of women, and that doesn’t just stop once one’s hair turns gray. For a young woman to grasp that and turn her attention not toward herself and the beauty woes that go along with being a teenage girl, but to an under-served population who could benefit from the simple, human act of course—that’s prescient and gracious, and Doyle’s dedication and ambition have helped perform a small healing for more than 10,000 women. There’s a guileless earnesty here that I regret having rolled my eyes at years ago; Doyle saw something that I’m only now beginning to give credence to.

The founder of the group is now, by my calculations, 27 years old, so I don’t feel like a total Scrooge for mentioning my concerns (let’s think of them as suggestions!) here. If it were still the brainchild of a 17-year-old girl who was looking for a creative way to honor her grandmother and maybe come up with something to put on your college app as a nice side bonus, I’d keep my trap shut. And, again, I don’t have a problem with what they’re actually doing, even if I’d like to see it broaden out a bit (if the group can harness its resources to put on the hot-pink-carpet Glammy Awards, maybe it could also find volunteers versed in, say, massage therapy or senior yoga, which has as many mental health benefits as lipstick. And yes, I know I’m nitpicking here). I’d also love to see the group expand its nascent attempts to have a larger dialogue about beauty: The group partnered with photographer Annie Levy for “Conversations in Beauty,” a 2010 photo exhibit at a New York nursing home documenting the group’s work and exploring intergenerational ideas of beauty.
But I think that a resourceful group of young women who have managed to find a unique niche way to help the community can also find ways to truly frame it as a more mutual experience. The site says, “Our teen volunteers become the voices for these women writing about their experiences in GlamourGals journals, school essays or college applications.” And of course teens are web-savvy and are the ones who have broader access to public mouthpieces, not the older women. But I’ll keep my eyebrow a tad raised about this idea that a teenager—even an intelligent, kind one—can appropriately "become the voice" of a woman with decades more life experience, and that a college application is the best place for that voice to take center stage.


  1. WELL SAID, lovely!

    I was a little surprised by the vehemence of the Glamour Gal defenders on my site — and I remain suspicious of the way the group markets itself, ESPECIALLY how little voice it gives to the elderly recipients of its mission.

    But the more I think about it, the more I like that these girls are getting up close and personal with old ladies. We have a major squeamishness about aging female faces and bodies in this society — see Go Daddy's new commercial with Joan Rivers, dear GOD - and anything that helps young women see old women as beautiful (heck, even just as human) is a really good thing.

    I think maybe the main reason the nursing home residents are silent on the Glamour Gals site is because, whether the group realizes it or not, this isn't charity for the elderly. It's education for teenage girls — and the elderly are actually doing them a pretty huge favor by participating.

  2. Why, thank you!

    I think it's this weird bridge that they're trying to cross--on one hand I think that it really is mutually rewarding for both parties (though I agree with you that the elderly women are doing the youngsters a favor in many ways--if you watched the video that's definitely the impression I got) but the framing of it is so one-sided that that gets lost.

    I dunno, I hate to nitpick but I guess I feel protective of the whole thing in a certain way and want it to be something that doesn't ick people out at first glance like it did you and me, because it IS really great that these teen girls aren't squeamish about spending intimate time with their elderly counterparts.

  3. I agree - I would like to see more exposure from the recipients of the Glamour Gals services. This strikes a strong chord with me, though - I had a similar (albeit more intimate) experience with my own grandmother. She was a glamorous, classy broad in her day, always taking the time to take care of herself, even with five daughters. Toward the end, though, she could barely feed herself. For her 80th (and final) birthday, all she wanted was a girl's day - manicures and pedicures, hair styled, make-up applied. She was frail and it had been years since she was able to feel like herself again, if I can be so bold as to paraphrase what little we could understand from her at the time. She would pose and giggle and we'd pretend to take pictures, because she, still strong in mind, forbade actual cameras at the party. (No! was one word she could clearly articulate.) It was a truly happy moment amidst years of being trapped in a body she couldn't control.

    So yes, it would be great to be able to measure the joy it brings to the women. The women who, if they are in a nursing home, are probably only touched when it involves a medical exam. It seems like a great research opportunity on defining whether there's a relationship between what Glamour Gals offers and longevity or happiness in these homes...but what about those who aren't in the nursing homes? The ones who do consider their appearance as a strong part of their personality but are living alone, or with their equally frail husbands who know not how to care for that side of their well being? Interesting questions in a time where elder care is becoming a forefront issue.

  4. Dear Autumn Whitefield-Madrano,

    You brought up a few nice points about GlamourGals
    and to address your concerns, I would like to invite you to volunteer with our program.


    Rachel Doyle

  5. Hi Rachel--

    Thanks for this--I've e-mailed you at the address on your site.


  6. @Sarah: That DOES seem like a great research opportunity. I'm thinking of my own grandmother, whose husband is still alive. They live in a retirement community but are largely independent. When my parents helped them move (from a house to a much smaller apartment in the retirement community), my mother reported back to me that the hardest thing for my grandmother to pare down was her cosmetics and toiletries. I think for her it signals not the woman she "was," but the woman she still is. I'm planning on interviewing my Mimi for this project and I'd like to touch on this with her--thank you for pointing that out.

  7. This is a very timely article - with the baby boomers beginning to turn 65 this year - I think that there will be more and more focus on maintaining ones looks as one ages as well as redefining what it means to be old. I can't imagine my mom not caring about her face or her figure when she's 90.

  8. Excellent point--there was this spate of attention being paid to older women's looks in the '80s and '90s when the "greatest generation" became senior citizens (remember Mirabella magazine?), but it faded. I'm guessing that with the tech-savviness and stronger market presence of the boomers, that a much bigger industry, both culturally and product-wise, will come out.

  9. Thank you for broaching this topic, Autumn. I used to be one of these kids that was uncomfortable around elderly people. My grandmother lived with my parents for 18 years beginning when I was in HS. I learned to appreciate it. The last few years of her life I would trim her nails for her sometimes. I even soaked her hands and feet and rubbed in lotion. These are some of my most precious memories. In fact, this is how I discovered that I have my grandmother's hands.

    I think Glamor Gals is doing good for both parties, as any visitor or interaction in retirement communities is welcomed, but I agree, it would be wonderful to see more of the experience of the elderly women involved. Not only would the program continue to help the volunteers in numerous ways, but it would help make the elderly less invisible overall. The US has an issue with hiding our elderly and it is going to continue to cause issues as that population grows in size. I did find a link on the Glamor Gals site to some photos on Facebook from a recent event, but overall I didn't find the site's announcements/blogs posts etc. easy to navigate. Once other items get posted the link to those photos will be buried ...

    Anyway, great food for thought! Thanks the critical thinking.

  10. You hit it, Andréa--I think that the elderly are so invisible in our society and this organization seems like it has such a unique and positive way of framing the senior life that it's a wasted opportunity to share their perspective.

    That's a lovely image of you and your grandmother, and a beautiful way of recognizing that there's a part of her with you every day.

  11. The first thing I thought of when I heard about the Glamour Girls was a story my grandmother told me about her friend who was one of the WWII nurses trapped on Bataan by the Japanese and forced to march.

    After the nurses were rescued, and the ship scheduled to bring them to Hawaii was being prepared, a group of women who ran a local beauty salon demanded to go along. As soon as the nurses were on board, the makeovers began. And what my grandmother told me was that after their rescue these nurses had been fed and clothed, but it wasn't until they had their hair set and new lipstick that they truly felt the march was over. A floating beauty salon freed something within them.

    A different set of circumstances, but I can see how what the Glamour Girls do can help others reclaim a sense of self and dignity.

  12. Katie, that's an incredible story, and I actually got goosebumps just now thinking about the power that must have had--both the direct, hands-on care of it, and the feeling of "wholeness" that can come with looking your best. (To be honest, rereading this now I think I was just looking for something to complain about! I do wish that the women being serviced were at ALL visible on the site, but it's a creative idea and one that certainly has its place.)