Ulta, though, is a celebration of cosmetic possibility. For example, thirty or forty different blow dryers are set up to try, for example, running from $20 to $200.
There is nothing at Ulta that you can’t live without. Nobody really needs a choice between thousands of lip colours. Humans exist for millennia without commercial beauty products, without the kind of marketing that worked to convince us that unless we met social expectations about fashion they were failures as women.
Women have always felt ambiguous about beauty. Is it fair that pretty girls have so much more power than plain ones? Does anyone feel good about dress codes that demand high heels? Shouldn’t people be valued for more than just appearance? Being forced to be primped and packaged, objectified to satisfy the male gaze isn’t a strong and liberating political position.
No matter how much we want to be free from the requirements to put on a face, though, we melt a bit when people we find attractive find us attractive. There are definitely people who we want to see us as being beautiful, whatever that means.
Expressing beauty, feeling that we are showing our beauty in a way that people can engage and respond to, well, that’s not something that women can easily be denied.
What this means is that, for a woman what counts when buying beauty or fashion is our motive in the purchase.
Are we buying because we are slaves to imposed and oppressive standards of appearance, like the expectations of men?
Are we buying because we are desperately trying to assuage our own feelings of inadequacy and prop up a broken self image?
Are we buying to raise our status in a way that negates solidarity and supports marginalization of other women?
Are we feeding our own narcissism, our own inflated sense of self?
There are so many reasons why buying beauty products is just evil, from our conceited illusions to our low consciousness of the possibilities of liberated women.
That means there are so many reasons to make excuses for using beauty products, for choosing fashion, for asserting our own beauty. Shouldn’t we always be modest, shy and demure about our own appearance, playing along with other women to be appropriate and compliant with community standards? Isn’t claiming our beauty just conceited and anti-social, pushing others away?
Marketers have had to navigate this challenge for years.
When Clairol first started marketing hair colour, their tagline was “Only her hairdresser knows for sure!” Sure, you may be vain and shallow, but other people won’t have the goods on you!
“If I have only one life, let me live it as a blonde!” It takes a brassy gal to sign up for that, especially because that’s how the early preparations used to look.
L’Oreal had to make space in the market, though, so they needed something new. They decided to go with a premium price product, and the slogan 23 year old Ilon Specht came up with in 1973 still lives today:
“Because, I’m worth it.”
If your motive for purchasing beauty products has to be politically correct, beyond the reproach of a world of catty women, what better justification than affirming your own intrinsic self worth?
Does this mean that the more you spend at Ulta, the more you are worth? Is your value bound up in the exclusivity of the beauty products you use? Does this convert gender angst into class angst, because nobody is a gender climber but social climbing happens all the time?
I’m not sure about any of that, but I am sure that making people display reductive modesty rather than owning their own beauty and power is not really a good thing. Apologizing or rationalizing our grace just isn’t something we can do: we are who we are, and the only choice we have is in how much we feel safe revealing that within the symbols & styles of the culture we live in.
I was taught very early that I was not worth it, that the beauty I could embody in the world was just corrupt and perverted.
Today, I know in my mind that isn’t true. I work very hard to affirm the beauty of others, encouraging them to sparkle in the world. Offering a reflection of the inner beauty that I see, supporting growing confidence is vital to me.
My heart, though, has trouble believing that all the beauty products in the world will make much of a difference for me anymore. My flowering days feel like they are behind me and the way that I was viciously pinched back, starved of light and nutrients, stunted is the outcome of my external beauty.
My internal beauty may be amazing, but like so many transwomen before me, I understand how what I offer triggers people more than it engages them, bringing up stuff they want me to heal rather than doing their own work.
Over the years, “Because I’m Worth It” has morphed some.
First it became “Because You’re Worth It,” trying to make the point that feeling beautiful was for the viewer, not just for the gorgeous, high-paid model purring on the screen, a woman selected for her stunning looks and vibrant presence.
Now it is “Because We’re Worth It,” tapping into not a personal possibility to be beautiful which carries the personal responsibility to go with it, but rather with a fuzzy group identity. All women are worth it and you are a woman, so your being beautiful is just part of what you do for the tribe of women, a politically correct surrender to the group.
Being part of a “we” isn’t something that comes easy to me, an eccentric iconoclast who had to walk beyond family identity, no matter how “Stupid” that seemed to my parents, and then had to walk beyond assigned gender identity to claim a very individual expression. There are no groups that hold me.
I know that I am worth much in the vision of my creator, but in the vision of the world, my value is opaque, polluted.
Will any amount of beauty products really change that, even if I buy them with clean, earnest, sincere and respectful intentions?