Thursday, June 28, 2007

Speaking of Shame: Beauty Regimens Reach For the Gold Standard - News from LA

A friend in Los Angeles aptly described the city as “more for the mediocre” and this was long before people famous just for driving without a license were receiving astronomical amounts for an interview or women who hadn't yet even gotten their real estate licenses were handing over $3,000 for a handbag. An article in today’s “New York Times” tells us there are women on that other coast who see nothing extraordinary in devoting ten hours and $1,000 a week to their looks. And many consider that to be minimal.

They're not ashamed that they spend vast amounts of time and money on eyebrow waxing, thigh treatments, hair care, facials and massages, skin tightening, the delivery of Zone Diet meals, make-up, personal trainers and cosmetic surgery. To give credit where it’s due, these women must be incredible money managers as they afford all that while managing to fill the tanks of their Mercedes and lunch at the Ivy. I wish the writer had come across my friend, Marilyn, one of the few hold-outs in LA who does nothing but wash her face with a regular bar of soap yet looks thirty years younger than she is. Genetics, authenticity, energy and an inner spark can do more for staying youthful than all of their efforts.

I’m not New York-centric enough to make the claim that women here are more stoic about aging. Some of us are vain but we're not given to such excess. It may be that our smaller medicine chests don't allow us to stockpile moisturizers, foundations and concealing creams. There are, to be sure, plastic surgeons and the women who love them in New York. I’ll admit I hang onto the annual “New York” magazine that lists the names.

I’m no purist. I color my hair, have had things pumped into my facial crevices and occasionally enjoy a massage. In the late 70’s I shocked myself by spending $750 for boots, an unprecedented extravagance. $350 had come from the sale of my ’63 V.W., which I'd never anticipated would be a down payment for boots. The rationalization that allowed this impulsive and outrageous expense was that the move from LA to NY would turn walking into a mode of transportation and that shoemakers are cheaper than mechanics.

I have misgivings. For me, misgivings go a long way. Though not totally redemptive, I count on them to feel slightly less narcissistic and shallow when doing something shabby, such as having Sculptra injections. I'm prouder of the shame than I am of getting the shots. I make sure each employee at the cosmetics center knows I’m socially conscious enough to feel uneasy that the money going into my cheeks would be better spent on wells in Cambodia or to support an AIDS clinic in Africa. My husband asked me why I did it. "I don't know," I admitted. I saw a video and the woman in it looked a lot better afterwards.

"I like when you say, 'I don't know', he said, which made no sense to me but I liked hearing it.

On top of my ongoing misgivings, we went to Asia last year, where we were exposed to families living in huts, sleeping on wood floors, struggling to come up with a meal. It was sobering and added to my misgiving, making it now impossible to buy another meaningless vase, scarf or bracelet. In a recent conversation, a friend said she'd lost all interest in acquiring, adding, "I now ask myself if I need it or just want it”. We agreed that hauling things off to a thrift shop is far more satisfying than going to Bergdorf's and that unloading is the new shopping.

To balance my emotional budget and reconcile spending on self-indulgences vs. taking care of others, I came up with a formula: I won’t spend more to restore facial contours I had as a teenager than I do to restore homes of Katrina victims. If only those women in LA would adopt my policy, New Orleans could kiss off FEMA.

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