Beauty Backfire

That’s me on the left.

Apologies for the spotty appearances as of late. I have a feeling that I’ll be beginning many a blog post with variations on that line until my book deadline this spring. In this case, however, there have been two factors that have complicated my blogging schedule even more than authorship: 1) I’m moving (apartments, not cities or even neighborhoods), and 2) a recent vacation spurred by the destination wedding of a dear friend (and faithful reader! Mazel tov, C!).

It’s item #2 that was on my mind beautywise much of last week (I’ll get around to the moving-and-beauty post soon enough, and yes, there’s much to say there). Not only was it a wedding and therefore already an occasion that calls for looking one’s best, it was also a wedding at which A) my boyfriend, the bride’s brother, was one of the groomsmen, so B) I’d therefore be meeting other members of my boyfriend’s family for the first time—plus, C) he’d be looking damn good and I wanted to “match,” and D) a handful of college friends I hadn’t seen in years would be in attendance. So yeah, I wanted to amplify the effort I’d normally put into my appearance for any wedding.

(At this point I could loftily say something about how weddings are one of the last cultural rites we formally observe in American society, and how therefore a certain degree of effort isn’t just self-enhancing but actually serves as a sign of respect to the happy couple—indeed, a sign of respect to the tradition of marriage itself. And I’d be accurate in pointing this out, both generally and as far as how I treated the occasion, but I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that until the week before the wedding I’d mistakenly believed that The College Ex I Shed A Small River of Tears Over would be in attendance, and while that was literally half a lifetime ago, does it ever hurt to look your most smoldering in such a situation? No, it does not. As you were.)

Of course, even at my most high-maintenance I’m not that high-maintenance (though nobody ever thinks they’re high-maintenance, right?), so my extra effort basically meant that I was more careful than usual about what I ate beforehand so I wasn’t bloated, got a new dress for the occasion, and allotted plenty of time to make a nice updo. But I also engaged in two bits of beauty service I don’t normally do: I got a facial, and a gel manicure. And boy, did they backfire.

I mean, maybe backfire isn’t exactly the right word: My skin did indeed look particularly good two days after the facial as promised, and the gel manicure stayed neat and shiny longer than the manicurist had told me it would. Nor is it that I was expecting miracles; I knew that though my skin might look better than usual once it had healed from the extractions, no facial would turn me into Helen of Troy. But as for the facial, not only did I look hideous for 48 hours afterward—though this was to be expected, as whenever someone takes a lancet to your pores to get out all the goop there is to get, you’re going to look like hell for a bit—but I quickly broke out with an enormous zit right on my nose. True, I didn’t make it any better by fiddling with it to the point where it basically turned into an open wound. (The bride herself came to my rescue with a great beauty tip: Once it gets to that point, you should actually treat it like an open wound and use Neosporin on it. Worked like a charm!) And as far as the gel manicure, the nail polish bonded to the nail so thoroughly that when it caught a snag, the upper quarter-inch of the entire nail ripped. It didn’t tear off completely, thankfully—that is, thankfully for my “ick” threshold, not simply for vanity, as I wound up accessorizing my manicure with a waterproof Band-Aid—but it was troublesome for days, and it was nearly a week before the nail had grown out enough where I could safely clip it. (It still looks bad, but at least I’m not making myself shudder anymore.)

It all worked out fine in the end, in the sense that by the time the wedding rolled around I was able to cover the scar on my nose, and my torn fingernail failed to halt any of the festivities. (Not to mention the far more important sense of it working out fine: I was there to support the happy couple, so minor points aside, as long as I didn’t show up wearing a T-shirt with “ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE” scribbled across it, the way I looked at their wedding didn’t really matter.) But the fact that I’d considered both of these beauty services special treats—and the ways in which they each led to appearance kerfuffles that I wouldn’t have had had I not “treated” myself to them—made me wonder what was actually in it for me. 

I’m embarrassed to admit how much the facial and its associated services (microdermabrasion, take-home glycolic acid treatment, tips for the facialist and her assistant) cost, but suffice to say it was about as much as the plane ticket to the actual wedding. (I figured if I was going to get a facial for the first time in a decade, I may as well go to the best—for research purposes only—so I went all fancy-lady and went to somewhere I read about in fancy-lady mag when I freelanced there for a minute and a half a few years ago.) This is hardly a claim that I was somehow ripped off, though; nobody needs a facial, or a gel manicure. When it comes to extravagant services like a facial, it’s the ultimate placebo effect: You only get out of it what you think you’ll get out of it. Yeah, my skin looked great after it healed, but I expected it to look great; it’s wholly possible that the facial itself had nada to do with it, my hopes alone providing whatever glow I believe I saw.

But the placebo line of thinking makes me wonder whether there’s a part of me that was looking for some sort of backfiring, even punishment, for having been so extravagant in the first place. I mean, I don’t think I subconsciously made myself get a pimple or rip my fingernail. (Wouldn’t that be a great beauty article, though? “Think yourself into a breakout? Now think your way out!”) It’s just that as much as I argue for beauty work as a stand-in for so many other things—self-care, articulation of emotions and desires, creation of a public persona—there’s forever a part of me that feels a good deal of guilt about doing much appearance-wise beyond a basic clean-and-moisturize routine. There’s child starvation and obstetric fistula and Roe v. Wade is basically null in much of the United States and domestic violence and Syria and people rolling around limblessly on skateboards in Vietnam because of Agent Orange and I’m getting a fucking facial? Bitch, please. I’m descended from Puritans—many of us are in this country, if not literally—and though the strict moralism of that time has faded, its framework has proven sturdy enough to survive. Perhaps our collective fascination with and disdain of shamelessly vain people—the socialites who get those fancy-lady facials all the time and think nothing of it, the Kardashians of the world—is less about the vain part of the equation and more about the shameless part of it. Maybe I could only let myself indulge so heartily in the first place if I made some sort of connection—valid or not—between my indulgences and the fable-like postscripts I’ve attached to each.

In the end, I wound up laughing about the whole thing, and it is sort of funny in a moral-of-the-story kind of way: I’ve been skipping my monthly massages since May in order to pay for this one stupid facial, telling myself that I could exchange one form of self-care for another, when I full well knew better. A massage is truly therapeutic; a facial…well, I mean, I’ve had one before, and while it was nice, I also knew the its benefits wouldn’t equal what I receive from a massage. And as for the gel manicure, I’m still paying the price in the form of ridiculously dried-out nails from the acetone removal. (Why are gel manicures popular? They lead to ruin, I tell you! Ruin!) I don’t have any grand pronouncement here, other than to admit that I fell into the consumerist trap of believing that if I just spent the right amount of money and did the right amount of research and took the right amount of effort, something I don’t actually believe is worth the time/money/effort would somehow become worth the time/money/effort. I’d forgotten that the placebo effect only works if you believe it will. A sugar pill won’t get rid of your toothache if you know it’s a Tic-Tac all along.