Friday, June 29, 2007

Prompted by a pal’s remarks in a private journal, I read this article yesterday in the NYT about women who have rather time- and money- intensive personal-care routines. Nice to read about how relatively low-maintenance I am. Lord knows I feel like I spend more time than I really should having various beauty-type things done to me.

Articles like this arouse conflicting emotions in me. What I am clearly supposed to think when I read this is “Wow, those women are ridiculously vain, self-indulgent and shallow, and their priorities are terribly skewed.” Indeed, they might be. I don’t know those women. But I dislike feeling that they’ve been hand-picked and set up by the NYT for me to simultaneously envy and loathe.

And maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think some of what they do is that excessive. I get my hair done every three weeks, and my eyebrows waxed, and I have an amazing dermatologist who takes care of my skin. So, a thousand bucks a week? No way. But not because I disapprove of the idea of cosmetic self-improvement. (I wonder if that hyperbaric oxygen chamber thing really works?)

In the matter of the lead interview subject, Ms. Grace: I do think that two different physical trainers seems odd. But don’t you love how they’re lumping physical fitness in with manicures? Rather different things, I would have said. Regardless of why you want a buff body, the long-term benefits of having one are greater than the benefits of perfectly buffed toes. So I think that’s cheating.

What also interests me is how while the Times delights in detailing exactly how much all these things cost the interview subjects, they don’t tell us what percentage of these women’s income those fees make up. If Ms Grace makes, say, four hundred thousand dollars a year in her job as a realtor and she feels that looking a certain way helps her make that money, then a thousand dollars a week to maintain her looks is not that unreasonable.

Okay, maybe it’s a little high. And if she makes $150,000 dollars a year, then a thousand a week begins to seem out of balance. But in fact, it’s her money. Would the Times approve of her more if she spent it on fine wines, or sports cars, or antique art? Because I have seen articles in the Times detailing the joys of all those things, with nary a suggestion that it wasn’t the best and highest use of someone’s money.

And I love this snarky little injection about how if a woman invested the money she spends on manicures she’d have a fortune when she’s 65. The implication is that women in general should never get manicures, because it’s frivolous, and that seems both condescending and unfair. It also suggests – without actually saying so - that these particular women are managing their money badly, something I doubt the Times really knows.

Now, do I think young women should save and invest money? Hell yes - I wish I’d started younger. But to present it as an either/or is overly simplistic. You could make the same comparison about damn near anything. If you gave up the non-essential pleasures in life that cost money and saved the cash, yes, you’d have it when you were old. But what about having some enjoyment in life while you’re living it? How many things do we all do just because it’s nice and we enjoy it, even if the pleasure is fleeting?

I also completely agree with these women – looking good helps you in the world. There is not a shadow of a doubt about it. And looking good has as much to do with one’s perception of oneself as it does with how other people react to you. I myself have had beauty things done where I thought, “The only person who’s noticing this is me.” But I was noticing, and it was driving me nuts, so, I dealt with it, and I was happier. So I definitely don't think that looking good must involve spending lots of money, but if you've got it and you think it helps, go ahead.

But this article is manipulative journalism, and I think it's manipulating women in a way that's not pretty. We’re supposed to shake our heads at these women, but we’re also being subtly encouraged to consider our own beauty routine, whatever that is. Does it need upgrading? Could we find more ways to spend time and money on it, perhaps even within the NYT’s very own advertisers? Because there are plenty of ads for beauty products and services within those very pages.

You can call it foolish to set such store by appearance, but it’s a trait of human nature and it always will be. And in a capitalist culture, people are going to sell things designed to appeal to that. People have to make their own decisions about what they want to buy. But I think a newspaper like the NYT should be above using editorial space to stir up resentment of other women’s choices and using that emotion to make money for it’s advertisers.

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