Thursday, December 1, 2011

On Trust

I cleaned out my bathroom cabinets last weekend, prompting yesterday’s post with the absurd list of products I’ve been hanging onto even though I haven’t touched them in months—or years. (Okay, a decade in some cases. Did I ever look good in glitter eye pencil?) The impetus came from this study claiming that women wasted £964 million on products they never used, and I immediately recognized myself among the one in seven who had products up to three years old. But it wasn’t the money angle that interested me so much as the reasoning for hanging onto them in the first place. I moved apartments last year and got rid of loads of products—yet these products, soap scraps and all, managed to survive. These, my friends, were the survivors.

There’s the expected reasons, of course, namely buying into promises I don’t actually believe, and allowing my insecurities to get the better of me. But given basic principles of marketing, that's hardly a surprise. What surprised me more was to learn how little I trust myself. There were a good number of products I held onto despite not particularly liking them, because I kept thinking some version of It’s not you, it’s me. I didn’t like the smell of the body mist, and I didn’t like how it made my skin feel, but I held onto it because it sounded so luxurious and I really thought maybe I just didn’t “get” it, that it was an acquired taste like whiskey. The L’Oréal Touch-On Color didn’t do anything for me—you literally could not tell that it was on my skin—but I kept thinking that surely I would learn how to use it correctly someday, even though it lived in a makeup pouch at the bottom of my cabinet. I kept waiting to feel “detoxified” with the Galenic Elancyl Corps Ultra Hydrating Detoxifying Cream, to no avail, and it took me a couple of weeks of regularly shaving my legs with the horrible Target razors before I finally admitted it was the razors, not some new flaw in the way I was shaving—even though my first thought when I noticed my leg rash was that I’d tried a new razor.

And listen, people, I’m pretty careful about this stuff—I really don’t buy tons of products, and I don’t usually fall for gimmicks (as the “anonymous” commenter pointed out in comments yesterday, the detox foot pads were a stocking stuffer, and I am an ingrate of a daughter SORRY MOM). And still: The doubt, even when it’s not experienced as insecurity per se, can win so easily. It reminds me of the time a story crossed my desk at a women’s magazine, with the headline “How to Wash Your Face,” and the story was to wash your face. As in, “then splash with warm water.” The beauty editor was horrified that she had to write this piece of junk, but there it was: We were telling readers that they needed our guidance to learn how to wash their face. I laughed when I learned that colleges used to have entire class sessions devoted to face-washing within a credited course on grooming—but that’s just a formalized version of the lack of trust I had in not tossing the body mist the minute I realized the smell grossed me out.

We’re not exactly encouraged to trust ourselves when it comes to evaluating any product, and the premise of beauty products means that our trust as consumers is doubly negated: Because we have such a hard time truly seeing ourselves, it can be near-impossible to tell if a product really “works.” (Arguably this is less true with color cosmetics; as beauty editor Ali once told me, "It's easy to tell if mascara works; are your lashes darker? Yes? It works.” But some of the products I held onto were colors I knew didn’t do me any favors, and yet I still told myself they’d come in handy—as if makeup that doesn’t make me look good could ever come in handy.) The whole idea of the placebo effect is that you have such faith in the product that it will spur the desired outcome even if it it has no actual effect—perhaps even if you know it has no actual effect. Remember, I did a month-long experiment designed to test if wrinkle creams “really” worked, and concluded they sort of did, barely, a little; a skin specialist told me it was causing irritation and suggested I stop using the cream. But not only did I keep on using it, I bought two additional brands with a similar formula. I absolutely knew better than to spend my money on them, and bought them anyway—not because of the minimal effect they’d been proven to have on my fine lines. I bought them because I thought, Maybe this one will do the trick.

Trust as described by sociologists can involve what’s known as “expert systems,” or technological or professional systems that organize specific areas that experts are best posed to establish. “Abstract systems” are, well, abstract—we have faith in the system itself, even when we ourselves don’t exactly have access to the workings of the system. For that access we depend on certain experts who can interpret expert abstract systems to let us know what’s what: A good auto mechanic can let us know what’s wrong with our car even if we went into the shop not knowing what a carburetor does. We don’t need to know the abstract system of the engine; we can just trust the translator.

When we’re talking about products designed to make us prettier, we still rely on translators: magazine beauty editors, salespeople, even makeup artists who can tell us what shade works best on us even if they don’t tell us exactly why, knowing that our knowledge of color wheels is pretty minimal and that’s why we’re wearing the “wrong” lipstick in the first place. But at a certain point, we abandon the translation and simply have faith in the abstract system. This is necessary when we're talking about expert systems like, say, mammograph, as Norwegian public health expert Marit Solbjor found in her study of the development of women's trust in effective mammography processes. "Trust in abstract systems takes shape as faceless obligation when knowledge of that system is unknown by lay participants yet faith in the knowledge system is maintained,” she writes in Researching Trust and Health. It applies to face cream as well: I'm giving faceless obligation to the knowledge system, continuing to give it my faith even when I don't exactly know how it works. And this isn’t some personal failing; it’s how systems work: “The modern human being lives with the duality where...we respect and trust systems, and...we feel a certain skepticism,” writes Lars Bo Kaspersen in his introduction to the work of sociologist Anthony Giddens. “We seldom give up the entire system, but instead choose a new system representative.” That new “system representative,” as it turns out, was CVS Advanced Deep-Set Wrinkle Therapy. Even that “How to Wash Your Face” piece was a ladymag attempt at becoming a layperson in an instance when none was needed. If you make yourself an expert convincingly enough, people will eventually outsource their trust to you.

I’m not entirely sure how to shift the balance of trust to make the expert system a little less powerful. The sociological idea is that in modern societies, we come to trust abstract systems more because our personal trust systems—our families, our communities, our intimates—are more and more dispersed, more and more fragmented. It makes sense, then, that part of the solution would lay in changing that balance rather than trying to force myself to become my own “expert”—which I’ve tried, and which one can’t do merely by deciding to do so. I’m not sure if the route to not buying more face cream is to join a bowling league/sewing circle/call my grandparents, but perhaps it’s the route to try.

What do you think? Have you had trouble trusting your authentic reactions to beauty products? What do you do to maintain your level of trust in the people you want to trust instead of outsourcing trust to “expert systems”?

*Had to verify w/cool friend that Pitchfork Media was cool.


  1. When I am shopping for beauty products, I am very reluctant to trust the representatives of the 'expert system', i.e. makeup artists, sales advisers, colour specialists, etc, because they too have a stake in the abstract trust system. They have to make sales and therefore are not unbiased experts.

    I agree with the conceptualisation of a certain type of trust as a trust in the abstract body of knowledge, be it medical, engineering and so on, and that sometimes the dealings with representatives of that group should be met with scepticism as each representative surely has their own incentives behind them that bias their advice.

    However, I don't buy into the whole breakdown of family values is causing us to wholeheartedly trust in abstract systems, and I think Giddens also recognised that while we had moved away from a traditional trust in elders to trust in an abstract system, that this was a part of a reflexive modernity in which people don't just accept the status quo.

  2. Solbjor is using 'lay person' correctly, but you are using it as the exact opposite of what it means:
    'a person who DOES NOT have specialized or professional knowledge of a subject'.

  3. Auroralapetite, I've wondered about the role of skepticism in expert systems in all this. I think most of us *are* pretty skeptical (who blindly goes ahead and swallows what she's told?) but it still comes out as a certain form of faith. Your comment makes me want to read Giddens (I have only a passing knowledge of his work) to learn more about the idea of modernity here--thank you!

    Anonymous, you're absolutely correct. I had it in my head that a layperson in this context was more of a cultural translator. I've edited to make that clearer. Thank you for the correction!

  4. Nude lipstick.

    My lips are a sort of warm pinkish color; I've often been asked what lipstick I'm wearing when I'm not wearing anything. But because my lips are so pigmented, nude lipsticks look a bit... horrifying and plastic if not chalky. Most nude lipsticks are made for white women, and they just wash me out with my olive skintone.

    I've found a couple that work really well for me (Revlon's Coca Craving was an amazing discovery), but I don't use them. I much, MUCH prefer red lipstick. I always viewed nude lipstick as sort of pointless anyway... why would I pay for lipstick to look like I'm not wearing lipstick?

    And yet I insisted on buying it even though it was against my makeup philosophy, because everyone else seemed so happy with it, it was such a BASIC in their collections, I thought that certainly the problem was ME. There was something I didn't understand, either about what was really "objectively" appealing or I thought--like you did with the mist--that it was an acquired taste and I just hadn't grasped it. I knew that if that were true, I didn't even want to grasp it, but it didn't stop me from thinking there was something I couldn't see.

  5. I want to do a post like this now because there's so much I buy and then use randomly or not at all.

    I hate buying on a whim. I rarely do it anymore.

  6. This post was especially timely for me, as just yesterday I purchased lotion that was on sale from a brand that I don't typically buy. This brand projects a sexy, luxurious image, and that's basically why I bought the lotion, even though I've never been pleased with their lotions in the past. Sure enough, I hated the texture and the smell, and just as I remembered, it didn't sink into my skin well. It certainly didn't make me feel sexy or luxuriant- more like I had to take a shower.
    I was frustrated with myself- even though I knew better, I still spent my money needlessly. I know very well that I feel sexier when I use natural oils on my skin, but I let the brand tell me what was sexy instead.

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