Confessions from Within the Beauty Industrial Complex

When I first moved to New York some 15 months ago, I had $800 in my checking account and no job prospects. I did, however, have a cheap apartment in the depths of Brooklyn and the type of wide-eyed idealism that California origins breed. Two weeks in I found a job at a ritzy salon in the upper regions of Fifth Avenue. I was looking for non-profit gender work, but damn, I had to pay for my Brooklyn digs, somehow.

Tube of red lipstick
Image credit: Andrea Austoni


Do you remember that opening scene of The Devil Wears Prada? Where she walks in and all the models scatter and people think she smells like onion bagels? As I walked out of the elevator on February 14th, 2012, I walked into that same exact scene. Marble everything, blonde goddesses, flowers to the ceiling and techno beats wafting from the salon. The only other sound was screaming into cell phones, and the click clack of very high heels on the glistening floors. I went to the front desk and the hostess literally rolled her eyes when I told her I was there for an interview. I sat on the impossibly hard rouge couch with my obligatory Diet Coke and Glamour magazine, waiting to be called. Despite the terrifying woman that interviewed me, I got the job and started immediately. I was instructed to wear all black, preferably dresses or skirts, heels, and always, always makeup. Always.

On my first day, I stood for eight hours in four-inch heels trying not to cry at the irony of it all. I had left San Francisco to get a “real job” with my Gender Studies degree and was working at a place that advocated complete immersion into the world of high-priced, packaged femininity. All day I stood and stared at the quote, “To be beautiful is the birthright of every woman,” and worked to suppress my eye-roll. I told myself that standing in those shoes, getting up hours earlier to look feminine “enough” was a test of stamina, a testament to my dedication at making it in New York.

What I began to realize, working in the trenches of the beauty industry, was that I could spend hours straightening my hair, waxing, glossing, scrubbing, and polishing every inch of my body and I would still never be like the women around me. There was always something to be altered. Often with me, it was many things. Working in a beauty salon of the Fifth Avenue variety meant anyone at anytime felt it was their job to criticize you on your skirt, accessories, hair or nail color. They felt they were doing you a favor; they were helping you improve. The relentless male gaze that women live with everyday in the world was magnified to a level of laughable proportions. Within my first week I had a new cut, highlights, and eyebrows by someone who charged $125 for eyebrow shaping. That was just so I could work in the dark abyss of the reservations department. It was ridiculous, and yet I was assured it was absolutely necessary.

When I began working my way up in this corporate spa gig, I was still not up to the standards they demanded. I was smart and efficient, but despite my best efforts, my makeup was too “natural,” my hair was too wild and my style was not quite polished enough. Despite my feminist upbringing and proud academic background, I began to feel the impact of  the constant “helpful hints” and suggestions about my looks. I began to feel the same shame I felt in my youth, the smallness that tells you you’re not pretty enough and therefore less valuable. It was mildly traumatic, reverting back to a stage I thought I had long passed. I revolted out of desperation. I started working my way up in the company, becoming a lead, manager, and representative for new business.

In this solid dedication to hustle past all the bullshit, I saw things clearly for the first time. The women I was comparing myself to, the very rich, very thin, very blonde, wildly demanding women that yelled at the spa “help” for any reason, were absolutely and positively miserable. Keeping up with the never-ending list of demands to keep themselves “beautiful” – the hours of highlighting, Botox, and waxing – left them fucking exhausted. When valuing oneself against the rising expectations of the BIC, you really can’t win. The obsessive demands on our bodies do not end when we comply or when we invest. They evolve and deepen and demand more money, more time, and more energy until you forget what it was like to not need all the extras. It makes you forget how to feel beautiful without all of that. No wonder they were in such misery.

Seeing this firsthand gave me a sense of compassion for these very wealthy women. At the end of the day, we are all confined by patriarchal categories and expectations. The beauty industrial complex thrives off insecurity and, operating in a capitalist society, demands there is never enough. We were trained at the spa to convince women that an extra $90 chemical peel was their right, they deserved it – living as a woman in this world was hard, and we were their oasis. But obviously, there is no oasis in the constant manipulation of ourselves. There is no freedom in a goddamn chemical peel that someone talked you into after preying on your insecurities about your age, skin tone, or acne.

The next time a stylist tries to convince you to re-dye your roots that don’t bother you or wax an additional part of your body you prefer hairy, don’t let them bully you into it. While working in the depths of the industry (hustling Botox was the final straw), I concluded that obsessively chasing the beauty industry to “belong” is damn near as painful as forgoing the beauty industry chase entirely. Don’t be convinced that you are less valuable if you don’t adhere to the gender performance well enough, or fuck ’em – not at all. As far as the beauty industrial complex is concerned, not even the women that are seemingly pulling it off do it well enough.

12 replies on “Confessions from Within the Beauty Industrial Complex”

Sounds like a bad experience, but it’s good that you learned something from it. I often get annoyed by the double-standard for women on their looks. When you are too busy with your looks, you get ridiculed, when you don’t do enough, you are considered sloppy or ”unfeminine”.

I haven’t found this to be my experience at all. My experience at salons and spas has been more about the experience than the result. I’ve had stylists tell me not to stress out about my gray hairs, since they’re still fairly well-hidden, I’ve been encouraged to grow out my eyebrows so they’re more low-maintenance, and the focus always seems to be on getting me to feel better, rather than look better. I’ve been in the beauty industry in various roles for almost 20 years, and I guess I’m very lucky that my experiences haven’t matched yours. Much of that is likely based on location, though.

I’ve got to say, I’m also in New York, and the employees at the salon I go to (which is pretty high-end and owned by someone well known) don’t seem to act like this at all. The stylists and receptionists are all different shapes, sizes, colors, and genders, and they all dress in varying styles, and are really kind and supportive. I’ve never been “bullied” into anything or heard disparaging comments about appearance. It’s a really positive place. I’m sorry you worked somewhere toxic, but it should be said that not everywhere is like that.

You are absolutely right. I have worked in about 5 other spas, in various cities and most were not like that. This was my first experience working in a high end beauty salon however, and there was a pressure and a demand on adhering to their standard of beauty that was undeniable. That being said, apologies if I made it sound like ALL salons are like that. This was just my experience in this particular environment and my observations from working within it.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have roaring insecurities (about my weight, about my hair, about my personality, about my competence) but I am absolutely glad that I don’t use said insecurities as an excuse to be a bitch to others.

“When valuing oneself against the rising expectations of the BIC, you really can’t win. The obsessive demands on our bodies do not end when we comply or when we invest. They evolve and deepen and demand more money, more time, and more energy until you forget what it was like to not need all the extras. ”

THIS! Perfectly put. How very exhausting.

I think Caitlin Moran made the follow-on point as well in How to be a Woman – imagine how much else women could do if we didn’t (have to) spend so much time and energy on BIC shite. (I wish I could find the quote but google has failed me so far).

The societal response to those molten barbies is fascinating…Not caring about looks at all isn’t allowed and caring so much that manipulation is endless, is also ridiculed. Just realizing that there is no way to win, hopefully allows us to draw our own lines instead of always responding to others.

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