Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Ladymag Beauty Sale (and What I've Learned From Them)

This post is a part of this month's Feminist Fashion Bloggers prompt: women in media. You can read a roundup of all FFB prompt posts here.

Imagine every single beauty product you have ever heard of being crammed into one room, and you have something resembling the women's magazine beauty closet. And when I say "every single beauty product you have ever heard of," I want you to really picture every permutation of every product possible. Lipsticks, lip pencils, lip stains, lip glosses. Fake nails, fake hair, fake eyelashes, fake tans. Body moisturizers, body butters, body creams, body oils, body lathers, body lotions, body powders, body bars. Eyelash curlers, skin supplements, bust enhancers, electronic ab exercisers, "face yoga" contraptions, pubic hair dye, coconut-scented underarm powders, brow waxing templates, nail polish that changes color with your mood—you get the point. I'm not talking a narrow selection here, people. I am talking buckets—literally, buckets—full of lipstick, bins of nail polish, drawers full of powder compacts.

"What about the seventh generation? Where are you taking them? What will they have?"
They will have my nail polish collection.

Companies send magazines these products in hopes of making it into the pages, which sometimes happens and sometimes doesn't. (Beauty editor Ali gets into this in our interview, and if you're interested in the goings-on of beauty departments, add Free Gift With Purchase by Lucky beauty editor Jean Godfrey-June to your must-read list. Incidentally, she estimates she receives 50-200 products every single day, which is par for the course.) For every product you see featured in a magazine, there are hundreds that don't make it. But unlike couture fashions, which are usually returned after photo shoots, all the beauty goodies wind up in the beauty closet.

So the closet gets full, and the beauty team needs to make room for more products to come in, so maybe once a quarter they'll have a beauty sale. The bins and buckets come out, and staffers have at it. Whether it's a $2 Wet 'n' Wild lipstick or a $98 face serum, it's $1 now. (Proceeds go to charity, often a women's shelter, I'm glad to report.) If it's a big enough sale, you may well see a line of women snaking through the office, bags and single dollar bills clutched in hand, ready for the fray. And a fray it can be.


At this point, you may be wondering what a ladymag beauty sale has to do with feminism, even as its link to women in media is obvious, since everyone there is, indeed, a woman in the media. Here's what:

Despite the easy targets that ladymags sometimes make for feminists, the brains behind them are usually those of intelligent, perceptive women, many of whom identify as feminists, or at least notafeministbuts. Trust me, these are women who care about improving women's lives, even if the product isn't always what I'd like it to be. And, of course, these are also women who care about beauty. So when you put together dozens of these minds in a room with hundreds of beauty products that are essentially free for the taking, you wind up with a hothouse of beauty messages. You hear hope ("will this work?"), and joy ("Tahitian vanilla bean body lotion! OMG!"), and camaraderie ("Ooh, I'm glad you got that face scrub")—and, of course, anxiety.

It's this anxiety that has become the caricature of women's magazines. Were a beauty sale ever depicted in a Hollywood movie, it would culminate in a catfight over a bottle of mousse with which Amy Adams and Drew Barrymore set one another's hair on fire. (Laffs!) Of the beauty sale in Confessions of a Beauty Addict, beauty editor turned novelist Nadine Haobsh writes: "...otherwise warm-hearted, generous women...behaving like spoiled, me-me-me! toddlers. The conference room is crowded with assistants and editors, all frantically pawing through the products on the tables....One woman...snatches a lipstick.... 'That's mine!' she exclaims nastily. 'I just put it down for a second. I'm buying it.'"

"If someone's in the hospital or a nursing home, load up on the cheap beauty products. While it's fine to give the patient something, that's not the point. ... Put them all in a big bag, and hand them over for the patient to distribute to his or her caregivers. Not only will the patient receive markedly more receptive care, but he or she will get that not-insignificant zing of power that comes (I'm speaking from experience here) from being the distributor." —Jean Godfrey-June, Free Gift With Purchase, the best of the ladymag tell-alls, fiction or otherwise

Don't get me wrong: There is tension at these sales, and it is a madhouse, and people do get inordinately out of control on occasion. (Records circa 2001 may reflect a hapless copy editor who cadged her boss into handing over some cake mascara and still feels guilty every time she uses it, which is never. It's cake mascara and therefore too amazing to be used.) But the ensuing beauty talk reveals quieter, less stereotyped stories of the women in this world; the conversations that take place after a beauty sale, as everyone walks around and checks out each other's finds, teach me more about my colleagues than you'd initially think. I remember my abrasive manager walking out with more than 75 products, then seeing her pore over her goods at her desk. "I grew up poor," she said to me, nearly apologetically. "When my mom saw something on sale, we always had to get it, because we didn't know if we'd be able to afford it any other time. I'll never use sandalwood body spray, but it was a dollar." I remember overhearing a woman from the ad sales department—that is, a woman whose job it is to appeal to beauty and fashion companies and show them how our readers want to spend their money on products—holding a bottle of vitamin C cellulite cream at arm's-length. "Does anyone know if this works?" she said in this flat, cynical tone that belied the daily grind of mustering up enthusiasm about an industry that, like me, she's probably conflicted over. I remember a woman I'd never seen in a drop of makeup carting out a showgirl's dressing room of eyeshadow. "I should just get shampoos, I know, since I never use any of this stuff," she said to me—again, apologetically. "But it's just so fun to think about using them, isn't it?"

Beauty sales exemplify the push-pull of ladymags that has long fascinated me—and that has continued to pull me back into the industry during times when I wanted to push away. I used to consider the fashion and beauty talk in women's magazines the "hook" that would lure readers in so we could give them the good-for-you features—you know, the vitamin-rich pieces about women in Afghanistan or reproductive rights. Those pieces are essential, to be sure. But through dallying over bins of lipstick with my coworkers—and through witnessing my own impulse to grab as much as I can and then horde it—I began to become more comfortable with my own relationship with beauty. The beauty sale was a baby step toward seeing beauty products not as weapons of concealment but as potential tools of communication: of myself to the world, of colleague to colleague.  

As beauty editor Ali said, "It's funny that some people look down upon a journalist like me who's in women's service magazines. I may or may not want to know about the third reich of blah blah blah, but they always want to know what lipstick to buy!" If beauty talk sometimes serves as the lingua franca of women, then women's magazines function as its motherland. There's genuine communication happening there, even in what seems to be the most frivolous of settings. You just have to listen.


  1. I've never looked at the beauty industry from this angle but I can definitely relate! Though I'm afraid there's a whole baggage of false empowerment that beauty products as "tools of communication" have to be stripped of before they can really be used as such.

  2. Great post! I had no idea JGJ had a book--I. Love. Her. Hers is the only beauty page I read.

    Honestly, I miss beauty sales. And I never felt more powerful than on the holidays when I could go home with arms full of amazing products for my female relatives--they looked at me like I'd MADE IT. Writing books and offering them those is a step down somehow.

  3. Really interesting post!

    I have a conflicted relationship with beauty products too, not that I don't like them but that I find them quite boring. All the women's bonding stuff over them sort of passes me by because I just really can't get excited about a new colour of Chanel nail polish or whatever. I wear make up every day, but I never use anything up except maybe mascara and so I never feel the need to restock. I just seem to acquire this stuff my osmosis as free gifts with other stuff. Though I do know what that person that never wears any make up but bought loads means, its the thinking about it more than the actually using it that is fun. In a way that is the danger of it though, because it makes you buy without need.

    Sorry, that was quite a incoherent comment!

  4. Great post! I like how you have reconceptualized beauty products and women's fashion mags. Though they often tap into our anxieties and insecurities, I like how you discuss them as tools to foster meaningful conversation.

  5. My mom and I always bond over beauty products. We were dirt poor, but she still used Estee, Borghesa, Channel...and everytime I'd come home for visits I'd take notes on what she was using. It makes me cringe a little, to think that my relationship with my mother revolved so strongly around looks, but it was also always wonderful. I never felt more beautiful than I did upon trying on one of Mom's new perfumes or lipsticks.

  6. Fascinating post! I'm like Franca in this respect - I wear make-up, but I'm just not interested in it and acquire a lot of products without actually going and seeking them out. After reading your post, I went and peeked at the Boots website out of curiosity and frankly had no idea what on earth half of the skincare products were for.

    It's interesting to see the flip side of what I admit I've often possibly somewhat snobbishly perceived as frivolous and uninteresting edtitorial - thank you.

  7. Oddly, I very very rarely have this kind of "beauty talk" with my colleagues...fascinating insight. I guess the version of it in my field would be books.

  8. Poet, I totally hear you on the false empowerment angle. In college I wrote a story about the reasons women wore makeup, and focused on the whole "relax, babe! you're worth it!" angle. And then I re-read "The Beauty Myth" and read up on how that's a part of the tactic companies use and I was all...oh...!

    Melissa, JGJ's book is fantastically breezy; if you like her column her book is a great read. And a big yes on the boost that comes with being able to dole out free beauty products; I felt like lady Santa.

    Franca, the beauty talk really does go both ways. On one hand I have little interest in it, but under the right circumstances I'll totally engage in it--it seems like with people I don't know, it's a way to get to learn something about them (potentially; certainly sometimes I just learn WAY TOO MUCH about someone's eyelashes), and then it's a way to learn a bit of history about someone I think I know well. Beauty talk is such a particular mode of speaking that it can't help but reveal something on occasion that wouldn't come out otherwise. And sometimes, that "something" is vapid, but you can't always win...

    Krystal, thanks! Now I want to have this conversation with my magazine colleagues and see if they're at all on the same page as me on this or if I'm just seeing stuff because I'm on hyperalert?

    Cameo, I think that beauty bonding can be particularly tough when it's a family member, even as it can serve as such a handy tool. Because while a colleague might make a comment that irks me for a second, I'll get over it, but if my makeup-obsessed grandmother starts going on about my skin, I'm going to remember everything she says, and I'll internalize it. At the same time, I cherish the conversations I've had with her... it's tough.

    Cat, thanks! And I don't think it's snobbish of you to think that--I mean, the pages are usually meant to be taken in as eye candy, and they're not to everyone's taste. (I get a kick out of them but will nearly always skip over fashion talk, whereas I'm guessing most fashion bloggers get something out of even weak fashion copy, on a critical level.) I will say, though, that I've talked with enough beauty editors to know that they are often particularly critical thinkers, and that can come out in surprising ways sometimes. It's easier for me to see that because of my work, of course--honestly, I don't really know what I'd think of these pages if I didn't *have* to read them.

    Terri, it's a weird sort of field in that sense--a strange mix of designers, writers, editors, and marketers, and beauty/fashion is what we all converge upon. I remember working in a restaurant for a while and being surprised at how little anyone talked about that stuff--when of course magazines are the exception here! (In fact, in the kitchen it was a point of pride to look grubby--showed you were a diehard cook. Which, of course, I was NOT.)

  9. Very interesting – but also funny to realise how differently I perceive beauty copy etc. Never even occurred to me that readers might be lured in with the beauty pages; I just sort of thought they were there for the sake of the advertisers and everyone just quietly put up with it... I do wear make-up; not a lot, but I love my lipstick, and have recently had a couple of conversations about blusher and mascara. Yes, this was novel enough to stand out and be remembered. It made me feel like I was 14 again.

    As it happens I was at one of these beauty sales once (a smaller version though, since it was a highbrow Sunday newspaper rather than a ladymag), and walked out without anything. There was nothing I wanted enough to scrum for. Even practically for free.

  10. Woollythinker, it does sort of cut both ways. Some of the pages are all about pleasing advertisers (like pretty much any product roundup, you know, the beautifully shot close-ups of lipstick smears, etc., though perhaps visual types have a greater appreciation of those?), but how-to pieces do very well with readers.

    And it sounds as though you are blissfully free of the beauty-greed that such sales can incite! I was SHOCKED to see how my impulse to grab anything I could came out--it died pretty quickly and now I just grab a few essentials, but it was definitely binge-shopping for me at first.

  11. Not so much lack of greed I think, more very deep-rooted loathing of scrummage/rummage sale environments! Plus, I was the new girl, I couldn't see easily how it worked, who to pay, etc and just didn't want anything enough to find out. (Not even the yarn. Yes, weirdly, there was some knitting yarn there. Normally that's one thing I'd be willing to make an effort for, but no.)

  12. Woollythinker, to be honest I think that's part of why they've lost the allure for me--I don't like to rummage, unless I can do so in peace, which you generally don't find in rummage environments! Alas.

  13. Love this post, Autumn - it sums up beautifully the power beauty products have over women. At the same time, as you say, they are a conduit for communication between women - if I don't have conversations with others about the products, I have conversations about how.we DON'T use them. Like the point about the emotional responses they can inspire; for me the most heartbreaking one is hope...but maybe I'm bitter because I've never found my perfect moisturiser!!!!

  14. Mrs. Bossa, thank you! And that's a great point about how products can prompt conversations about their lack of use.

    And your perfect moisturizer is out there. I will be your beacon of hope!

  15. This is a really great post! I don't think that beauty products are necessarily evil- as you said, they can be a form of communication and there's something to be said for beauty rituals like getting ready with friends before going out. I also have experience working at a fashion magazine and I was pleasantly surprised by how many of the women were smart and feminist or had feminist views even if they didn't want to be called that.

  16. Thanks, Simone! Yeah, imagine my surprise when I walked into my first ladymag job fresh out of college with my women's studies minor, all ready to "change things from the inside," only to find...a bunch of feminists or not-a-feminist-buts.

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