Counter Argument


in Archive


I was strolling through a department store recently, killing time before meeting a friend, when I became lost in the maze of cosmetic counters. I was not literally lost, of course. I could make my way past the makeup into the shoe department blindfolded. The problem is when I’m not blindfolded. That’s when my head gets turned. Although I know, intellectually, that the makeup sold in this labyrinthine space is the same as what I can buy in the drugstore for a fraction of the price, I am unable to resist the fancy packaging and the placards advertising free gifts and special enzyme action. I am seduced into believing that these products will make me, in the immortal words of Oprah, “as cute as I can be.”

So there I was, loitering among the age-defying moisturizers, when a young woman in a white smock smiled seductively in my direction. The come-hither look of a cosmetic saleswoman could mean only one thing: She wanted to make me over.

The term “makeover,” as used here, would take a flight of feminists to unpack, so I won’t even try. Suffice it to say that it entails, first, that you climb onto a very high stool so that your legs dangle foolishly. Once perched on said stool, you then succumb to the ministrations of the white-smocked saleswoman — the white smock providing a vaguely medical aura to the proceedings — who will daub and brush your face for the purpose of making you look as unlike yourself as possible. This dubious disguise will last all of about 20 minutes, a window during which you will be sold a truckload of products you don’t need.

I knew all this, but still, it is the nature of the cosmetic counter to erase memory, not to mention logic and common sense.  So there I was, perched on the stool, as the cosmologist (OK, cosmetologist) took out the products in her line. I had not bothered to notice what line this was, and now fearfully glanced over to see. Fortunately, it wasn’t one of the European lines with austere packaging (the more austere, the more expensive) that would bankrupt me with the purchase of a lip gloss. It was instead one of the fun, wannabe lines that would bankrupt me more slowly. I thus relaxed into the experience.

The products had now been aligned in military formation on the counter, awaiting deployment on my face. As anyone who has visited a cosmetic counter knows, these products constitute an intricately interlocking system: buy one and the others must follow as the night cream the day cream. I have to tip my hat to the marketing genius who came up with the cosmetic system; it not only helps the company’s bottom line, it also helps its female consumers live in hope. If in purchasing the foundation and the pressed powder, you still don’t look like Halle Berry or Gwyneth Paltrow, you can always rationalize this by the fact that you did not buy the moisturizer or the blush. Elaborate the system enough and there’s always something you haven’t got. As new products get added or changed, flawless beauty always remains an under-eye cream or pore-minimizer away. Makeup, in this regard, is a metaphor for desire. It keeps us women convinced, as we grow old and decrepit, that we can still look like supermodels.

But to return to my makeover. The saleswoman who had smiled at me a few minutes earlier now grew stern as she peered at my face. Having been made over before, I was ready for what was coming: the ritual of trashing my current appearance to prime me for a massive investment in something new.

“I see you don’t wear makeup,” said the white-smocked saleswoman, as though I were a hillbilly lost in the big city.

“Well, actually…”  I stumbled.  Of course I wore makeup. I had spent at least half an hour that morning slathering it onto my skin. But the tack among makeover saleswomen is to pretend you have nothing on your face, thereby suggesting that you are wasting your time with your old system. I knew this ploy, but knowing doesn’t help. If you’re insecure about how you look (and who isn’t?) you’re still going to be suckered.

The white-smocked cosmologist (sic) now continued, sensing her advantage: “Do you take care of your skin?”

This was a trick question. Or rather, a question in which the answer was already implied.  If she thought I took care of my skin, would she ask? No, she would say: “What lovely skin you have. You must take good care of it.” Which would in turn imply: “Why in hell would you want to mar your lovely skin with this product line that will cost you an arm and a leg?”  Needless to say, this was not the reasoning she was after, especially in a recession.

The fact is that she’d hit on a sore point with me. I’m self-conscious about my skin. Ever since suffering from mild acne in the seventh grade, I have spent a lot of time scrubbing my face, and I know that those in the skin care business do not consider scrubbing a good technique. You are supposed to dab lightly in the way you would in cleaning an Old Master painting.

Knowing that I had been remiss in my curatorial duties, I murmured apologetically. But the saleswoman was not interested in what I had to say. She was engrossed in cleaning off my face, occasionally looking down in disgust at the engrimed wipe so as to reinforce the notion that whatever I’d been doing before had been wrong. She then began to coat me with the various emoluments displayed before her, until Voila!, she tilted the mirror in my direction to reveal my new appearance. I squinted at the reflection. The effect, if not exactly prepossessing, was colorful. My cheeks, for example, were very rosy, as though I’d just been climbing a mountain on a windy day. Although climbing a mountain is not my thing, it’s nice to know that I can look as though I climbed one.

“You see how I’ve erased the laugh lines and minimized the jowls,” the saleswoman pointed out (jowls, I assume, are something one needs at all costs to minimize). It was true: My face looked as though it has been covered with spackle.

“And look at how your eyes pop,” she added. This was true, too. My eyes, which are small and deep-set, now looked like those of a mildly crazed beetle. I gazed at my sparkling little eyes in wonder and some fright.

“And you see what the right gloss will do for the lips.”  (Please note how cosmetic marketers dissect the face into self-standing parts that can thus be evaluated as though they belong to someone else. This allows them to sell you an entire system devoted to a singular part: the eyes or the mouth — or, once these major sites have been taken care of, lesser ones like the neck or the eyebrows.)

I inspected my lips, which, bathed in a sticky substance, looked like ripe plums. (The question, of course, is whether one wants one’s lips to look like ripe plums.)

“The lips are fabulous!” exclaimed the white-smocked saleswoman, putting an end to doubt. “Bodacious berry is definitely your color.”

I was not sure about any of this, but the high stool, the lights on the little mirror, and the white-smocked expert’s air of authority all combined to cloud my brain. I was under a spell, my will entirely obliterated so that I purchased $100 worth of products. It’s a good bite (though far from all) in the product line, for which I was rewarded with a cartload of free samples so as to entice me to buy more.

When I got home, my daughter said I looked like a clown and my husband said I looked the way I always do — two extremes that, opposed though they are, suggested that the system I had just purchased might not be worth it. As it happened, I was allergic to the foundation, thereby toppling the product system of which the foundation was, literally speaking, the foundation. I was relieved that the store was willing to refund my money — the red patches on my face possibly convincing them that a lawsuit would not be worth the trouble. But I did keep the lip gloss. It turns out I like having lips like ripe plums. Bodacious berry is definitely my color. • 17 June 2010


Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English and Dean of the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is the author of 12 books, including six scholarly/nonfiction works on literature and film, and six novels, some spin-offs on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, and a thriller involving the James family and Jack the Ripper. She is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The Yale Review, and The American Scholar, a co-editor of jml: Journal of Modern Literature, and the host of the nationally distributed television interview show, The Civil Discourse (formerly The Drexel InterView). Her book, Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation will be published by Princeton UP in February.