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.
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.