The Alienation of Mary Kay

Karl is wearing TimeWise® Firming Eye Cream, .5 oz., $30, marykay.com or your nearest Mary Kay lady

Near the top of the dry erase board where I keep a running list of fragmented ideas—nose job thing, Miss Piggy, story about yogurt (all in due time, my friends, all in due time!)—there’s long been an item that makes me laugh every time I see it, because of its sheer grandiosity. Is beauty inherently capitalist??? it reads, question marks included. I have no idea where my line of thinking was at the time I scrawled it; certainly now the question doesn’t make much sense, unless one is willing to look at beauty as inherently being a good, which I’m not. The best I can come up with is that I meant is the beauty industry inherently capitalist, which, duh, yes, as are all industries, right?

Reading “The Pink Pyramid” by Virginia Sole-Smith in this month’s Harper’s, however, it seems my overblown, half-baked question has a stark answer. Specifically, I’m wondering if one arm of the beauty industry—Mary Kay and its masquerade of empowerment through direct sales—might not actually be a classic case study of why our economic system works the way it does, exemplifying certain aspects of capitalism, specifically the ways our own labor alienates us from our fuller selves. (The piece isn’t fully available online, but Sole-Smith has written about it at her blog and in these ungated pieces, and the piece is definitely worth picking up a copy of the magazine.) I’d always found Mary Kay old-fashioned and fussy, sure, but I rather liked the idea of women being able to work on their own schedule—the original flextime!—building upon a business founded by a woman, catering to women, being unabashedly feminine and celebrating the small joys of beauty.

The picture Sole-Smith skillfully paints with her investigative reporting dismantles any protofeminist notions: Mary Kay makes its money not so much from the sales parties conducted by its team members (a.k.a. Mary Kay ladies), but rather in roping in more and more people to become team members. For in order to successfully sell Mary Kay, it’s best to have lots of inventory—inventory purchased wholesale by team members from their “sales directors” (i.e. the next rung up on the pyramid), who receive a cut of the inventory sales before any client has actually purchased a thing. (And hey, if need be, Mary Kay saleswomen can just charge their inventory to their Chase Mary Kay Rewards Visa card.) With frequently shifting inventory and the tendency for potential sales party attendees to back out at the last minute (does anybody really enjoy going to those parties?), team members are stuck with thousands of dollars worth of inventory they can’t sell. The higher up the pyramid, the sweeter your deal. But hey—you don’t have to buy inventory in order to be a Mary Kay lady; you can just have your clients place orders and they’ll get their products in a few weeks—so it’s not technically a pyramid scheme. So technically, it’s not illegal.

In other words, it’s genius. Not only are Mary Kay participants basically jumping into a pyramid scheme, which preys upon hope, but the way Mary Kay evades being an actual pyramid scheme is the very thing that made me view the company as charming, even vaguely empowering: sisterhood. If you’ve ever been to a Mary Kay party or its ilk (I haven’t, but an ex-boyfriend’s mother once invited me to a “Passion Party,” and people-pleasing me actually went), you know what I’m talking about: an “it’s just us girls” tone that hits midway between no-nonsense big-sisterly advice and ostensibly pro-woman nudges to buy more products. (“You really are helping a friend and yourself,” says a sales director in the article’s opening scene. “That’s how Mary Kay works.”) If beauty talk serves as a portal for the kinds of conversations we’re actually hungry to have with other women, Mary Kay charges by the word.

That’s insidious enough, particularly because it puts a dollar value on the sort of tentative connections I see women try to make with one another all the time—proof that the catfight imagery that dominates depictions of female friendship is a divide-and-conquer technique that masks the vulnerability that’s so often laid bare in those relationships. But I’m just as intrigued by the way this dependence upon our wish to connect translates into dollars.

I lay zero claim to be a Marx scholar, or even to have seriously read Marx, so excuse me if this is beyond rudimentary. But as I understand it, a principal theme of Marxism is alienation from various aspects of labor—alienation from the product of one’s labor, the act of production, and human potential. This alienation is an inevitable outcome of a stratified class society—a social pyramid, you might say—in which people are only privy to their particular cog in the wheel that makes society go ’round. Lurking throughout the process of alienation is mystification, or the ways the market conceals the hierarchies and class relations that set the stage for alienation.

Mary Kay could hardly be more literal in its manifestation of alienation and marketplace mystification. Team members (the bottom of the pyramid) depend upon sales directors, (the next rung up) to supply their products and help build their clientele; a saleswoman’s interaction with Mary Kay proper seems nil (alienation from production). The company tracks wholesale numbers only—that is, what saleswomen purchase to sell, not what customers actually buy—so while a saleswoman has the illusion of complete control over her own labor, in fact she’s playing a crucial role in marketplace mystification, which serves to keep workers alienated from the true results of their own labor. It’s a strategic refusal on Mary Kay’s part, since it allows for the myth of team members’ potential to become the stuff of legend. The pink Cadillacs are only part of it; the brochure Sole-Smith was given in her first meeting with her sales director cited $17,040 as a reasonable outcome for holding just one skin-care class per week. (In her three years of research, of course, Sole-Smith didn’t find women who made anywhere near that amount.) The workers themselves seem to hesitantly accept the mystification to the point of superstition; legend has it that to have a successful Mary Kay career, you need to have your picture taken while standing in Mary Kay Ash’s heart-shaped bathtub. “I think most people were a little torn about doing this, because the line was so long, and it was all so campy,” said a sales director whose precarious Mary Kay-related finances played a role in her eventual divorce. “But at the same time, there’s this huge tradition that you can only be successful if you take the picture in the tub. So nobody was willing to forgo that step.” That is, the workers were afraid to pay attention to their own instincts that were whispering This is ridiculous, because the promise of earnings loomed so large. The alienation was complete.

When I interviewed Sole-Smith for The Beheld last year, she talked about what she calls “beauty gaps.” The gap between a customer paying $50 for a salon service and the worker receiving a fraction of that to perform outsourced “dirty work” (and, indeed, the overall gap between what women spend on beauty and what women earn when they become beauty workers); the gap between what a buyer is promised with a beauty product and what she actually receives; the gap our culture has created between being the smart girl and the pretty one.

This piece examines another beauty gap: the gap between the true actualization of human potential and the reality of the lives of the story’s subjects. Mary Kay talks a good talk about encouraging its workers to fulfill their greatest potential (“How can I help u achieve your dreams?!” the local sales director texts Sole-Smith at one point). But in truth, what Mary Kay workers hope will be flexibility turns out to be precarity—the very thing that prevents many of us from “fulfilling our dreams” or “reaching for the stars” or any of the bootstraps-happy talk we’re led to believe is the key to success. (Which, as Sole-Smith points out in a companion piece to “The Pink Pyramid,” is particularly troublesome when our national conversation about women is still centered around the question of “having it all.”) Most of the women who do wind up making money from selling Mary Kay earn minimum wage. And some who lose money on their first attempt keep coming back, certain it’s not the system that’s at fault but rather their own lack of expertise that’s holding them back.

But hey, even if it’s a pyramid scheme, well, these women are going in with their eyes open, right? This is more about bad business, not about the beauty industry per se, right? Well, not really, and not only because Mary Kay talks a good (and misleading) talk. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Mary Kay is built upon the same idea as the Tupperware party plan—popular in the 1950s, the height of the “feminine mystique” era that put a hard sell on the idea that women should be wholly fulfilled by homemaking and child-reading alone. Today, in a world where the valorization of housewifery has been displaced by a combination of the beauty myth and superwoman, is it any surprise it’s a beauty company that has taken hold? And is it any surprise that in a world where it’s hard enough for regular consumers to manage their own combustible insecurities of appearance and money, some workers within the industry might fall prey to that same toxic combination?