Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Alienation of Mary Kay

Karl is wearing TimeWise® Firming Eye Cream, .5 oz., $30, marykay.com or your nearest Mary Kay lady

Near the top of the dry erase board where I keep a running list of fragmented ideas—nose job thing, Miss Piggy, story about yogurt (all in due time, my friends, all in due time!)—there’s long been an item that makes me laugh every time I see it, because of its sheer grandiosity. Is beauty inherently capitalist??? it reads, question marks included. I have no idea where my line of thinking was at the time I scrawled it; certainly now the question doesn’t make much sense, unless one is willing to look at beauty as inherently being a good, which I’m not. The best I can come up with is that I meant is the beauty industry inherently capitalist, which, duh, yes, as are all industries, right?

Reading “The Pink Pyramid” by Virginia Sole-Smith in this month’s Harper’s, however, it seems my overblown, half-baked question has a stark answer. Specifically, I’m wondering if one arm of the beauty industry—Mary Kay and its masquerade of empowerment through direct sales—might not actually be a classic case study of why our economic system works the way it does, exemplifying certain aspects of capitalism, specifically the ways our own labor alienates us from our fuller selves. (The piece isn’t fully available online, but Sole-Smith has written about it at her blog and in these ungated pieces, and the piece is definitely worth picking up a copy of the magazine.) I’d always found Mary Kay old-fashioned and fussy, sure, but I rather liked the idea of women being able to work on their own schedule—the original flextime!—building upon a business founded by a woman, catering to women, being unabashedly feminine and celebrating the small joys of beauty.

The picture Sole-Smith skillfully paints with her investigative reporting dismantles any protofeminist notions: Mary Kay makes its money not so much from the sales parties conducted by its team members (a.k.a. Mary Kay ladies), but rather in roping in more and more people to become team members. For in order to successfully sell Mary Kay, it’s best to have lots of inventory—inventory purchased wholesale by team members from their “sales directors” (i.e. the next rung up on the pyramid), who receive a cut of the inventory sales before any client has actually purchased a thing. (And hey, if need be, Mary Kay saleswomen can just charge their inventory to their Chase Mary Kay Rewards Visa card.) With frequently shifting inventory and the tendency for potential sales party attendees to back out at the last minute (does anybody really enjoy going to those parties?), team members are stuck with thousands of dollars worth of inventory they can’t sell. The higher up the pyramid, the sweeter your deal. But hey—you don’t have to buy inventory in order to be a Mary Kay lady; you can just have your clients place orders and they’ll get their products in a few weeks—so it’s not technically a pyramid scheme. So technically, it’s not illegal.

In other words, it’s genius. Not only are Mary Kay participants basically jumping into a pyramid scheme, which preys upon hope, but the way Mary Kay evades being an actual pyramid scheme is the very thing that made me view the company as charming, even vaguely empowering: sisterhood. If you’ve ever been to a Mary Kay party or its ilk (I haven’t, but an ex-boyfriend’s mother once invited me to a “Passion Party,” and people-pleasing me actually went), you know what I’m talking about: an “it’s just us girls” tone that hits midway between no-nonsense big-sisterly advice and ostensibly pro-woman nudges to buy more products. (“You really are helping a friend and yourself,” says a sales director in the article’s opening scene. “That’s how Mary Kay works.”) If beauty talk serves as a portal for the kinds of conversations we’re actually hungry to have with other women, Mary Kay charges by the word.

That’s insidious enough, particularly because it puts a dollar value on the sort of tentative connections I see women try to make with one another all the time—proof that the catfight imagery that dominates depictions of female friendship is a divide-and-conquer technique that masks the vulnerability that’s so often laid bare in those relationships. But I’m just as intrigued by the way this dependence upon our wish to connect translates into dollars.

I lay zero claim to be a Marx scholar, or even to have seriously read Marx, so excuse me if this is beyond rudimentary. But as I understand it, a principal theme of Marxism is alienation from various aspects of labor—alienation from the product of one’s labor, the act of production, and human potential. This alienation is an inevitable outcome of a stratified class society—a social pyramid, you might say—in which people are only privy to their particular cog in the wheel that makes society go ’round. Lurking throughout the process of alienation is mystification, or the ways the market conceals the hierarchies and class relations that set the stage for alienation.

Mary Kay could hardly be more literal in its manifestation of alienation and marketplace mystification. Team members (the bottom of the pyramid) depend upon sales directors, (the next rung up) to supply their products and help build their clientele; a saleswoman’s interaction with Mary Kay proper seems nil (alienation from production). The company tracks wholesale numbers only—that is, what saleswomen purchase to sell, not what customers actually buy—so while a saleswoman has the illusion of complete control over her own labor, in fact she’s playing a crucial role in marketplace mystification, which serves to keep workers alienated from the true results of their own labor. It’s a strategic refusal on Mary Kay’s part, since it allows for the myth of team members’ potential to become the stuff of legend. The pink Cadillacs are only part of it; the brochure Sole-Smith was given in her first meeting with her sales director cited $17,040 as a reasonable outcome for holding just one skin-care class per week. (In her three years of research, of course, Sole-Smith didn’t find women who made anywhere near that amount.) The workers themselves seem to hesitantly accept the mystification to the point of superstition; legend has it that to have a successful Mary Kay career, you need to have your picture taken while standing in Mary Kay Ash’s heart-shaped bathtub. “I think most people were a little torn about doing this, because the line was so long, and it was all so campy,” said a sales director whose precarious Mary Kay-related finances played a role in her eventual divorce. “But at the same time, there’s this huge tradition that you can only be successful if you take the picture in the tub. So nobody was willing to forgo that step.” That is, the workers were afraid to pay attention to their own instincts that were whispering This is ridiculous, because the promise of earnings loomed so large. The alienation was complete.

When I interviewed Sole-Smith for The Beheld last year, she talked about what she calls “beauty gaps.” The gap between a customer paying $50 for a salon service and the worker receiving a fraction of that to perform outsourced “dirty work” (and, indeed, the overall gap between what women spend on beauty and what women earn when they become beauty workers); the gap between what a buyer is promised with a beauty product and what she actually receives; the gap our culture has created between being the smart girl and the pretty one.

This piece examines another beauty gap: the gap between the true actualization of human potential and the reality of the lives of the story’s subjects. Mary Kay talks a good talk about encouraging its workers to fulfill their greatest potential (“How can I help u achieve your dreams?!” the local sales director texts Sole-Smith at one point). But in truth, what Mary Kay workers hope will be flexibility turns out to be precarity—the very thing that prevents many of us from “fulfilling our dreams” or “reaching for the stars” or any of the bootstraps-happy talk we’re led to believe is the key to success. (Which, as Sole-Smith points out in a companion piece to "The Pink Pyramid," is particularly troublesome when our national conversation about women is still centered around the question of “having it all.”) Most of the women who do wind up making money from selling Mary Kay earn minimum wage. And some who lose money on their first attempt keep coming back, certain it’s not the system that’s at fault but rather their own lack of expertise that’s holding them back.

But hey, even if it’s a pyramid scheme, well, these women are going in with their eyes open, right? This is more about bad business, not about the beauty industry per se, right? Well, not really, and not only because Mary Kay talks a good (and misleading) talk. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Mary Kay is built upon the same idea as the Tupperware party plan—popular in the 1950s, the height of the “feminine mystique” era that put a hard sell on the idea that women should be wholly fulfilled by homemaking and child-reading alone. Today, in a world where the valorization of housewifery has been displaced by a combination of the beauty myth and superwoman, is it any surprise it’s a beauty company that has taken hold? And is it any surprise that in a world where it’s hard enough for regular consumers to manage their own combustible insecurities of appearance and money, some workers within the industry might fall prey to that same toxic combination?


  1. Okay, I'm going to have to suck it up and buy a copy of this, because I really want to read it. My mom was super into Mary Kay when I was growing up - as a consumer, not a contractor - and so it's fascinating to see a little bit about what was behind the scenes with all those pale pink makeup cases.

    While I was reading this, I also thought about how I was raised in an LDS family, and how a lot of reporting has come out lately that has found LDS adults tend to be very involved in Mary Kay-like businesses - the whole multi-level marketing deal - and how I know so many women who have either taken part in similar schemes (everything from candles to B.U.M. sweatshirts to baskets) on all ends of the transactions. Like you mentioned, the business model capitalizes on the social bonds the women have already done a lot of work to build, while also promising them financial stability without the constraints of a 9-to-5 job. However, the end result is that a lot of the participants find themselves worse off in the end, but rather than saying "hey, this system is totally rigged" they tend to blame themselves for not hustling hard enough.

    Anyway, great post, as always. And mad props for working some Marxist analysis into this.

  2. I can not even read that font it is so tny and heavy to eye

  3. This was excellent. I wanted extra income so I signed up with Mary Kay without any real investigating into how it all worked. I was heavily encouraged to "stock up" on inventory. I flat out refused because I could see no way that I would benefit from being stuck with bad lipstick colors no one bought from me. But I watched many other woman hear all of the (confusing to me) reasons it made so much sense and get stuck with a huge loss.

    The downside is...because so many consultants buy stock, when you tell someone to wait since you are ordering it they would rather move on to someone who has it. It's a bad circle and it effects both consultants poorly. I quit immediately.

    Anyways I found this article fascinating. Great topic choice and very well put.

  4. Thanks for this. I sometimes feel disloyal when I don't support friends by attending their "parties" where they sell goods, but I just remind myself that I already have more than enough overpriced candles and plastic household storage units and kitchen gadgets than I can use. I have always questioned the reported incomes of people at the next level up, but even if they are accurate, I still feel a revulsion toward the cheerleader approach to sales - either your product is high quality at a competitive price, or it isn't, and if it is, that should be the focus - not "sisterhood" and certainly not guilt.

    I do understand why people would engage in multi-level marketing when they want flexibility, but anybody who decides to do this should be aware that, at best, she can make some pin money, and she might, in the end, wind up making nothing. If you want steady income, go into a steady profession; if you want to pick and choose when to work, know that you won't make as much unless you are very, very lucky and the product or service you offer is unique. I guess the bit that is most bothersome is that it is women who are the most likely to engage in these often unprofitable pursuits because they are the ones most desperate for flexibility in this society, and they buy the notion that if they fail, it's their fault and not the fault of a flawed business model. Still, it's hard for me to see the victimization part of a person choosing something that sounds too good to be true - naivete has a price, and we all have to learn this at some time.

  5. About 10 years ago I read a fantastic blog post I can no longer find that termed these neighborhood home party businesses, "Suburban Extortion." It is EXACTLY what they are.

    Women DO want to connect and spend time just hanging out. Let's choose to do it without any sales involved!

    Ever since doing Mary Kay TWICE, I absolutely despise these home parties. EVERY time I am invited (which is rarely these days since I'm so vocal about them), I write the hostess back my "why" I will never, ever go.

    If I'm invited via evite or FB event, I post my response. Not in a bitchy way, just an informative one... It is nearly ALWAYS immediately deleted, least some other women might see the truth.

    ~ Dazzling Diva Dana
    Dana Dominey Campbell

  6. I was a sales director in Mary Kay for over 10 years, and I will tell you that the reality of the financial pressures in that "business" have driven women into grinding depression, astonishing debt and ruined marriages (thank God, not mine). I was considered to be one of the successful ones, consistently driving Mary Kay cars, winning national sales awards, etc. Yet, my best annual "executive income" (which is highly touted to new prospects) was around $31,000.

    Most women truly believe that they can be the ones to make the big money in Mary Kay, although it's statistically impossible, especially with market saturation and super-discounted products on eBay and Craigslist.

    The truth is that if you're going to make any money at all in this business, you have to recruit at a feverish pace every single month. Even then, you end up making less around minimum wage.

    In addition, by being an independent contractor, you will forgo Social Security credit, 401(k)investment income and pension vesting (not to mention health and life insurance, paid vacations and other benefits of a legitimate job).

    I urge anyone who is considering getting into Mary Kay to head over to www.pinktruth.com and check out the stories of thousands of women whose lives were damaged by that company.

    - So Thankful To Be Out

  7. You only have one part wrong in this. The IBC does not buy her products from her Sales Director. Her products are purchased directly thru Mary Kay Corporate.

    1. Ah, thank you for the clarification! Much appreciated.

  8. Many valid points in here, but I think it's irresponsible to paint all direct sales companies with such a broad brush. It can be a legitimate business structure for selling product AND empowering women to have a flexible worklife. I never thought I would consider direct sales, I already have a business I love, but I took the leap with another "beauty" direct sales organization six months ago, and I have not had a single regret. Before I invested in the company I am with (and btw I did earn my investment back in 45 days), I researched many other direct sales opportunities across various product types in order to comparison shop and make sure I was making an educated decision. I took a brief look at MK and discarded it as an option for many of the reasons you cite. There ARE direct sales companies who don't encourage home parties (passe) and don't require inventory (suspicious). But there are also lots of women "sheople" out there who will jump at the first shiny object, who are looking for an easy out, who are hoping for a get rich quick plan. No legitimate business opportunity offers these things. If you decide to join a direct sales company, you will have to work. I tell people it IS simple, but it's not easy. I won't plug my company here, but I don't mind answering questions if someone has them. paradiseSLAUGHTER@gmail.com

  9. The original article by Sole-Smith was a hatchet job from the very first sentence. The words and "quotation marks" she uses signal her distaste for the company and her distrust of everyone involved. So it's all well and good for this "investigative" piece to be printed and circulated as independent "journalism" — but just as the caveat goes with any business, when absorbing what someone else writes it should be "Reader Beware."