The beauty industry may exploit a potent mix of hope and desperation, but we should always want women to want more.
THREE and a half years ago, I bought a popular anti-aging cream that purported to give “noticeable results in just one week.” I’d just begun my beauty blog and thought, Hell, I’ll do them one better—I’ll give ’em a month, but I’ll only use it on half my face, and then we’ll see exactly how “noticeable” the results are. The experiment’s results are here if you’re interested; essentially, the cream did do a little something, but we’re talking a little something. The difference was truly minuscule.
I bought the cream again.
“Hope in a jar,” or at least the way the phrase is used, seems to imply its own opposite. It screams of hopeless, desperate women willing to throw enormous resources into an industry that promises us perfection that will always be out of reach. It preys upon our weaknesses, it’s a gross exploitation of the beauty imperative, it’s snake oil with a steep price tag. Which is to say, it abuses the thing that makes sick people well, drives much of western development, and for the billions of people who believe in a Christian god, allows you to believe in salvation: the exquisite human capacity for hope.
Let’s start with what hope is not. Hope is not trust, which is a reasonable assumption that something is reliable. You trust that your apartment will not burn down in your absence, that the cafe down the street will have hot coffee, and that you will wake up in the morning and not have the flu, even though you know full well that buildings catch fire, that coffee pots break, and that sometimes people get the flu (and that sometimes they don’t wake up at all). Hope is not faith, a belief in something even when there isn’t a verifiable reason for that belief: You might have faith in astrology, in Jesus, in the existence of your soulmate, or that someday soon he’ll quit drinking. Faith might be fierce, but it is also difficult to grasp for those who don’t share it (which is part of what makes it either foolish or admirable, depending on your perspective). Nor is hope desire, which is the mere want of an outcome. Hope is less verifiable than trust, more purpose-driven than faith, and more practical than desire. To have hope, you need three things: a goal (or, yes, desire), a route toward that goal, and a possibility—but, crucially, not a certainty—of getting there. Hope is an action as much as a feeling, a decision to advance.
Enter the purchase of “hope in a jar.” There’s your action, that funnel for your desire, your route toward the end goal—presumably looking “refreshed” or “renewed”, or maybe “preserved,” for those whose jarred hopes lie in the direction of anti-aging creams. The term has its roots in mythology—Pandora’s pithos, her vessel that released the ills of the world and left only hope at the bottom of the jar. When the term was introduced at midcentury, it was used by the beauty industry as an example of what it didn’t peddle. Revlon’s Charles Busta said it of his company’s new multitasking products in 1996 (“Until now, the industry has been selling hope in a jar”), Leonard Lauder said it the same year of Estee Lauder’s growing research department (“We’ll begin to free ourselves from that hope in a jar reputation”)—never mind that a spokesperson said the same thing of a different Estee Lauder cream in 1989
And it is a “her”—men don’t place their hopes in a jar; women do. Worse, they’re silly enough to spend $58 billion on it each year—this from the pocketbooks that famously contain a mere 74 cents to a man’s dollar! Surely, say those who do not hope, it’s not hope that’s being peddled or bought. It’s something else, some combination of self-loathing, penance, and desperation.
There are two mythologies of womanhood that relate to hope—one, that women are flighty, vain, desirous creatures; the other, that women are unforgivingly practical home economists who aren’t going to waste time or money on something unless there’s a good chance it will work. The first activates the desire of hope; the second, the penchant for plotting a route. Hope requires optimism, and women have had to be more optimistic than men in order to survive. Women have also had to be more practical than men in order to devise workarounds to the patriarchy; beauty work has been used as one of those workarounds, with varying degrees of efficacy, for enough of history that we can consider beauty work not cunning but practical. Marry all of that with women’s social precarity and it’s not hard to see why only women are named Hope.
The trouble is that the same act may be both hopeful and desperate. Some nights, smoothing on my prescription retinoid cream makes me feel like I’m taking good care of myself; others, like I’m chasing something I lost the moment I turned 35. When I slide toward desperation, I think of the sort of self-hatred we presume women have in relation to beauty, and the remedies we’ve come up with for it—the morning-talk-show “body image tips you can use!” that tell us to “love your body,” the sad-sack campaigns from Dove, the you-go-girl memes about Marilyn Monroe wearing a size 12. Hope is a different animal, one that cannot survive under conditions of self-hatred, and that is the feeling I reach for. Hope requires a goal, which requires optimism, which requires that women not hate themselves. In fact, it requires that women see themselves as worthy of the investment that hope inspires. The number-one thing I hear from women when I ask about their reasons for performing beauty work is not that they want to change how they look, but that they want to look like their best selves. It may be human to dream of transformation, but it is practical to dream of simply looking all the time the way we do when we’re rested, fed, watered, well-sexed, and nicely groomed. In other words, the reason we perform beauty work is because we are engaged in chronic hope. Allow me to pass judgment here: This is a good thing.
I long to see a greater embrace of hope. Not necessarily the creams and potions and, yes, the jars; those are incidental to the essence of hope, and if those don’t feel hopeful to you, they have no place in your life. I’ve been bashful about the role of hope in my life, afraid to tell you that I am full of it, afraid that it would make me seem foolish for having it, particularly in the times when my hopes fall flat (which, if you have enough hope, it will at least a few times). I’ve opted to present myself as possessing other qualities: taste, restraint, practicality, thoughtfulness. I’ll let naïfs be hopeful; let me play the adult.
I have long championed beauty work as a portal to more important lands: dignity, self-respect, joy, connection, compassion. I wonder, though, whether what I’ve been championing all along is hope. The desirousness of a goal, the clear-eyed surety of a route, the delicious state of knowing something is possible but not at all certain: Each arm of hope requires a sort of muscular resilience, a resilience I’d call innocence, except that the uncertainty of hope requires an understanding that hope might fail. That resilience is echoed in the manifestations of beauty that are easiest to mock: the strobed and highlighted girls teetering in packs in wobbly heels, the person whose first public declaration of genderqueer identity is eyeliner paired with a muscle shirt, the old woman who overdraws her lip line even as that line has become puckered with age. Each of hope’s bearers also bears risk of mockery, risk of disappointment, risk of failure. That risk is what gives each agent of hope dignity—what gives hope itself a dignity beyond the pathos of hope in a jar. Beauty is a familiar of hope, its talismanic embodiment. The highlighting, the eyeliner, the overdrawn lip? A hard-sided vessel for desire.