Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Beauty Backfire and the Placebo Effect

That's me on the left.

Apologies for the spotty appearances as of late. I have a feeling that I’ll be beginning many a blog post with variations on that line until my book deadline this spring. In this case, however, there have been two factors that have complicated my blogging schedule even more than authorship: 1) I’m moving (apartments, not cities or even neighborhoods), and 2) a recent vacation spurred by the destination wedding of a dear friend (and faithful reader! Mazel tov, C!).

It’s item #2 that was on my mind beautywise much of last week (I’ll get around to the moving-and-beauty post soon enough, and yes, there’s much to say there). Not only was it a wedding and therefore already an occasion that calls for looking one’s best, it was also a wedding at which A) my boyfriend, the bride’s brother, was one of the groomsmen, so B) I’d therefore be meeting other members of my boyfriend’s family for the first time—plus, C) he’d be looking damn good and I wanted to “match," and D) a handful of college friends I hadn’t seen in years would be in attendance. So yeah, I wanted to amplify the effort I’d normally put into my appearance for any wedding.

(At this point I could loftily say something about how weddings are one of the last cultural rites we formally observe in American society, and how therefore a certain degree of effort isn’t just self-enhancing but actually serves as a sign of respect to the happy couple—indeed, a sign of respect to the tradition of marriage itself. And I’d be accurate in pointing this out, both generally and as far as how I treated the occasion, but I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that until the week before the wedding I’d mistakenly believed that The College Ex I Shed A Small River of Tears Over would be in attendance, and while that was literally half a lifetime ago, does it ever hurt to look your most smoldering in such a situation? No, it does not. As you were.)

Of course, even at my most high-maintenance I’m not that high-maintenance (though nobody ever thinks they’re high-maintenance, right?), so my extra effort basically meant that I was more careful than usual about what I ate beforehand so I wasn’t bloated, got a new dress for the occasion, and allotted plenty of time to make a nice updo. But I also engaged in two bits of beauty service I don’t normally do: I got a facial, and a gel manicure. And boy, did they backfire.

I mean, maybe backfire isn’t exactly the right word: My skin did indeed look particularly good two days after the facial as promised, and the gel manicure stayed neat and shiny longer than the manicurist had told me it would. Nor is it that I was expecting miracles; I knew that though my skin might look better than usual once it had healed from the extractions, no facial would turn me into Helen of Troy. But as for the facial, not only did I look hideous for 48 hours afterward—though this was to be expected, as whenever someone takes a lancet to your pores to get out all the goop there is to get, you’re going to look like hell for a bit—but I quickly broke out with an enormous zit right on my nose. True, I didn’t make it any better by fiddling with it to the point where it basically turned into an open wound. (The bride herself came to my rescue with a great beauty tip: Once it gets to that point, you should actually treat it like an open wound and use Neosporin on it. Worked like a charm!) And as far as the gel manicure, the nail polish bonded to the nail so thoroughly that when it caught a snag, the upper quarter-inch of the entire nail ripped. It didn’t tear off completely, thankfully—that is, thankfully for my “ick” threshold, not simply for vanity, as I wound up accessorizing my manicure with a waterproof Band-Aid—but it was troublesome for days, and it was nearly a week before the nail had grown out enough where I could safely clip it. (It still looks bad, but at least I’m not making myself shudder anymore.)

It all worked out fine in the end, in the sense that by the time the wedding rolled around I was able to cover the scar on my nose, and my torn fingernail failed to halt any of the festivities. (Not to mention the far more important sense of it working out fine: I was there to support the happy couple, so minor points aside, as long as I didn’t show up wearing a T-shirt with “ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE” scribbled across it, the way I looked at their wedding didn’t really matter.) But the fact that I’d considered both of these beauty services special treats—and the ways in which they each led to appearance kerfuffles that I wouldn’t have had had I not “treated” myself to them—made me wonder what was actually in it for me. 

I’m embarrassed to admit how much the facial and its associated services (microdermabrasion, take-home glycolic acid treatment, tips for the facialist and her assistant) cost, but suffice to say it was about as much as the plane ticket to the actual wedding. (I figured if I was going to get a facial for the first time in a decade, I may as well go to the best—for research purposes only—so I went all fancy-lady and went to somewhere I read about in fancy-lady mag W when I freelanced there for a minute and a half a few years ago.) This is hardly a claim that I was somehow ripped off, though; nobody needs a facial, or a gel manicure. When it comes to extravagant services like a facial, it’s the ultimate placebo effect: You only get out of it what you think you’ll get out of it. Yeah, my skin looked great after it healed, but I expected it to look great; it’s wholly possible that the facial itself had nada to do with it, my hopes alone providing whatever glow I believe I saw.

But the placebo line of thinking makes me wonder whether there’s a part of me that was looking for some sort of backfiring, even punishment, for having been so extravagant in the first place. I mean, I don’t think I subconsciously made myself get a pimple or rip my fingernail. (Wouldn’t that be a great beauty article, though? “Think yourself into a breakout? Now think your way out!”) It’s just that as much as I argue for beauty work as a stand-in for so many other things—self-care, articulation of emotions and desires, creation of a public persona—there’s forever a part of me that feels a good deal of guilt about doing much appearance-wise beyond a basic clean-and-moisturize routine. There’s child starvation and obstetric fistula and Roe v. Wade is basically null in much of the United States and domestic violence and Syria and people rolling around limblessly on skateboards in Vietnam because of Agent Orange and I’m getting a fucking facial? Bitch, please. I’m descended from Puritans—many of us are in this country, if not literally—and though the strict moralism of that time has faded, its framework has proven sturdy enough to survive. Perhaps our collective fascination with and disdain of shamelessly vain people—the socialites who get those fancy-lady facials all the time and think nothing of it, the Kardashians of the world—is less about the vain part of the equation and more about the shameless part of it. Maybe I could only let myself indulge so heartily in the first place if I made some sort of connection—valid or not—between my indulgences and the fable-like postscripts I’ve attached to each.

In the end, I wound up laughing about the whole thing, and it is sort of funny in a moral-of-the-story kind of way: I’ve been skipping my monthly massages since May in order to pay for this one stupid facial, telling myself that I could exchange one form of self-care for another, when I full well knew better. A massage is truly therapeutic; a facial...well, I mean, I’ve had one before, and while it was nice, I also knew the its benefits wouldn’t equal what I receive from a massage. And as for the gel manicure, I’m still paying the price in the form of ridiculously dried-out nails from the acetone removal. (Why are gel manicures popular? They lead to ruin, I tell you! Ruin!) I don’t have any grand pronouncement here, other than to admit that I fell into the consumerist trap of believing that if I just spent the right amount of money and did the right amount of research and took the right amount of effort, something I don’t actually believe is worth the time/money/effort would somehow become worth the time/money/effort. I’d forgotten that the placebo effect only works if you believe it will. A sugar pill won’t get rid of your toothache if you know it’s a Tic-Tac all along.


  1. The placebo effect associated with beauty is really interesting.

    It immediately reminded me of the HuffPo talk we did (ages ago it feels), where the woman asked me if I would ever consider wearing make-up as an experiment. (In retrospect, I should've been angrier since I dislike the implication that people only dislike something if they haven't experienced it and in order to truly dislike something we have to have done it for a long time. But I digress...).

    But, anyway - I wonder if make-up and dressing up is a placebo effect. Is the make-up actually lovely or am I conditioned to think your make-up looks nice because I've been taught what is tasteful and what is gaudy? And it makes me think of how many [women] necessitate [body] confidence when it comes to make-up and beauty work in general. If you're confident, then that makes you more attractive.

    It comes back to the cultural narrative around what's considered fashionable and appropriate (ie: dressing for your body type). And are we confident because we think we look nice or are we confidence because we don't fall into the camp of people who "can't dress" ?

    Admittedly, I often feel TEN times more comfortable with what I'm doing to/with my body when I think what I'm doing places me in a better position to NOT get teased or harassed by another person. (And I wonder if that's where a lot of body and fashion confidence comes from - a feeling that you'll be emotionally untouched by criticism to your outfit).

    That's probably just my own neuroses since I have been teased on and off for much of my life, and it's made me nervous.

    I've never been to a wedding before, but I'm fascinated by the push to look nice so as to be respectful of the couple. Also, I'm glad your finger is better. :] Those sorts of things frighten me. When I've allowed my nails to grow long, sometimes they get caught on things and get bent backwards which is soo painful. Immediately, I cut them and routinely keep them short out of that fear. I also love super super short nails.

  2. I don't know much about gel manicures, but any decent dermatologist will tell you that facials are unnecessary and have scant proof of beneficial effects on the skin. In particular, extractions are actually quite bad for the skin.

    At best, you get a rigorous exfoliation and face massage, and you're lucky if you don't get any negative skin issues in the following days, or cumulatively if you get facials often. Why get a facial when there are so many dermatology treatments with actual proven results and science behind them?

  3. Tatiana's comment reminds me of that phenomenon where someone will say I look nice but what I realize they mean is: I'm wearing makeup...whether it looks nice or not. So they(at least my interpretation is, on some of these occasions) are responding to the FACT of the makeup rather than/regardless of how it actually looks (which I sometimes think, on those days when it's not going my way, or a few hours in when it's going to pieces, is worse than if I hadn't worn any).

    Anyway, I think this is a great commentary on the subject of beauty treatments (extending to fashion and basically everything aesthetic) and the complex set of expectations surrounding them. Just what is it that we think these things can do for us...and why do we always fall prey to the hope inherent in them, even though we should have learned better by now not to expect more than we pay for.

  4. I think it goes beyond the placebo effect. I think socioeconomics play a huge part. Beyond results it comes down to the cold, hard, cash. I have only had a handful of fancy facials in my life. 2 to be precise. Neither of them improved my skin to the point of notching me up the looks scale but the one I paid for was more of a disappointment than the one that was gifted to me. I think that when you are not of the facial elite that it's insulting to wake up and realize you just deprived yourself a plane ticket to look pretty much exactly the same. When you have money to burn it's no big thang. It's like treating yourself to a coffee out instead of home brew.

    That being said, I would not turn down another free fancy facial! And I will probably at some point spring for one on my own. I love the placebo effect!

    Also I should note to all other readers: The author looked STUNNING at my wedding. She wore a gorgeous dress and her skin was flawless and she more than matched my bro she gave him a run for his money. Also noted that the jerkstore ex college BF didn't even have the etiquette to RSVP so....

  5. I've felt the same way about certain beauty treats (especially manicures, since I've had maybe three in my life where I didn't smudge my nails) where the failure of beautification made me feel guilty and stupid for spending the money. After all, I know I'm a hands-in-first creative person, so why did I just do this again?

    Over my time as a makeup artist, I've seen a few skilled estheticians work wonders with seriously troubled complexions - but it takes time (a lengthy series of visits over several months), talent, and of course, money. But when I go for my once-in-a-blue-moon facial? Not much difference!

  6. Last month, I got together with some old college-era friends I hadn't seen in years (including, of course, an ex - similar to your situation, I felt like the presence of the ex "heightened the stakes"). So of course I wanted to look Awesome.

    I spent months mulling over what I'd do, what I'd wear to make sure I looked Extra Awesome. I thought about doing several beauty treatments I don't regularly do (considered getting a facial, teeth whitening, getting contacts again when I've been wearing just glasses for the past few years). In the end, I was too lazy/cheap and felt like it would be too much (too fake?) to do a lot of what I considered, but I sort of had fun thinking about it.

    One thing I did do was get my brows professionally shaped before this outing, going to an extra special place and paying too much for it, and *knowing* at the time that a lot of the reason I was doing it was for a placebo effect. I knew if I did this ritual, I'd feel confident about the way I looked. Ditto for the couple of other small things I did. Having gone to those troubles and expense, I knew I'd feel great, and I did -- I really felt freaking fabulous and confident that weekend.

    But here's an interesting thing: when I look at photos of me from that weekend, I don't really look any extra-special-different. They're not close-ups, and just not great quality photos, but they don't show me looking extraordinarily "Whoa, is that S? She looks FABULOUS!" glamorous or anything. But somehow I *felt* that way. So though I know there's placebo effect going on, I kind of enjoy doing this stuff every now and then; I feel like I get a little high off of doing these extra little things, sometimes.

  7. Amazing post! I concur--don't trade the massage for the facial. It's not nearly as good.

    I think this is how the beauty industry must trap people. There's tons of women out there who claim you need a good facialist (is that a real word?). And not only that but you need to get a facial at least once a month. You're right--it becomes worth the money because you need it.

    At the end of the day, the only one looking at your blackheads is you, anyway.

  8. I bet you looked stunning because you are. And you're funny; the best defense against old college boyfriends. I also gave up on facials ages ago and go for something that makes me feel beautiful - full body and face massage. I'm sure the effects last longer than taking sand paper and a torch to the skin.

  9. Autumn, I have spent the past two days re-reading your entire blog. No regrets!

  10. Thanks for this. I've been thinking/working on self-care and body practices more as of late, and a question that could be folded into this is _who_ is doing the labor here? In New York, where I live, it's often women of color and immigrant women who are providing manicures/pedicures/etc. How decolonial can the pedicure-as-self-care idea be if we don't also pair it with perspectives on labor/capitalism? To add, I've been returning to yoga as a way of taking "care" or myself and feel embodied, but I wrestle with the culturally appropriative history of yoga practiced in America. So many times, we see "eat pray love" or more recently "Maasai warrior" narratives told as ways for women to "re-access" and in some way, "liberate" themselves from patriarchal forces. H/W, it seems to me that the many methods sold ("sold" word choice intentional) require a continued subjugation of people/women of color. Decolonize self-care?

    1. I love your thoughts here, thanks for posting! I agree that this is a problem, and for me right now, it's also all tied up with waste production, my other big beauty bugaboo.

      I'm on a small island now, learning and helping others learn about the environment here while addressing ways to conserve the resources. One of the most persistent problems I see is the use of non-recycled plastics; they break smaller but don't break down, so they eventually end up in the sea for basically forever (min. 400 years). Class, race, efficiency/prioritization, and environmental issues are intertwined.

      ...I don't have a lot of luxury here, but (and?) sometimes a layer of lipstick feels like the barrier between handling another day and succumbing to the stress, anger, disappointment, etc. So how much can I (a foreigner with advanced education) ask others to reduce their plastics consumption when I have 3 tubes of lipstick at home?

      I mean, I've reduced my waste, just not to zero. I don't ask others to give up everything, and certainly not what I wouldn't give up. But it can be tricky to figure out what range on that continuum is acceptable. Is one vice acceptable? three? just not all of them?

      Now I'm all fired up. :) Thanks Autumn and anon!


  11. This was a very interesting read.
    Just today I went to the mall with my boyfriend but as I was feeling a bit down and am having some medical issues at the moment I couldn't be bothered with make up. I thought about how I feel while not wearing make up in public which I don't to very often. (Only to the shops around the corner or to take out the trash.)
    I came to the conclusion that I think make up makes me less conspicuous and less invisible: somehow I have it in my head that shop assistants will see me as shoplifter as I don't look "presentable" or like a prospective customer. Also I find myself very plain without make up (I am very light skinned with light eyes and lashes and blond hair, so everything is just one light, bland surface). With make up I imagine myself to be this smouldering looking, sexy kitten.
    But deep down I have this uneasy feeling that maybe I DON'T really go from plain to sexy or from shoplifter to possible customer but just stay the same in other people's eyes. Possibly my make up is a placebo and I am always plain and shoplifting or always sexy and a respectable customer. Quite probably I'm the first or somewhat inbetween but the confidence I get from wearing this placebo on my face makes the difference for me, and quite likely only me.
    So many people are concerned with themselves they most likely won't notice my cat-flick eyeliner enhanced eyes and highlighted cheekbones just like I don't notice theirs because I am too concerned about my own presentation to the world.
    Hm, that was a bit rambling and don't really have a conclusion to this yet.
    So I'll just leave it at that.

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