There are certain unpleasant life experiences that are not palliated by the fact that you know that they’re meaningless. I am speaking here of something specific: the particular horror of being pressured into spending money on things you know you do not want.
When I was seventeen and had to go to the prom with a senior in my homeroom, my mom and I went to Nordstrom so I could buy some simple makeup. Neither of us wore any. My mom entrusted me with a credit card, went to do something else, and came back an hour later to find me miserable, clown-like, clutching a tiny bag and having spent a hundred dollars, then an astronomical sum. And somehow it was very hard to explain to her that the saleswoman had had a wooden leg, and I’d felt unable to deny her anything. I used the lipstick for six years, to justify it, even though the color looked very strange, and it was quickly caked with sand and grit.
Seventeen years later, I decided to get a “makeup lesson” at a local beauty store. “Don’t bother,” said the girl behind the counter, Lauren, in an undertone. “They’ll just make you buy a lot of products. Hire me to come do your makeup before your wedding; it’ll be cheaper.” She gave me her card. But the only thing that sounded worse than having to endure a makeup lesson was having someone show up at my house and poke at my face before I left for City Hall, and besides: teach a man to fish. So I flouted her advice, came back the next day, and made an appointment.
The makeup lesson was, of course, an ordeal. The woman daubed my face with an ever-increasing number of primers and unguents and creams. Each, she explained, was essential. Look at how this made things glide! Look at how that made things stay! When I use this cream and these twelve powders, your skin is like porcelain! I dutifully imitated her motions, swooping and swiping and making the shapes of different letters on my face, willing the experience to be over, knowing I’d never be able to interpret the elaborate hieroglyphs on the paper chart. Did I have this brush? And this one, and that? Fan and kabuki and blending? And what luck: today I could have all these makeups in this grotesque case for a merely excessive price rather than an exorbitant one. I could feel tears gathering behind my expertly contoured eyes.
For many of us, beauty is scary. It’s a daily small failure and then the occasional big failure. It is not fun; it is not pleasurable. We know it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t help.
When I got to the register, it was to find Lauren. She read me a total. I blanched under my foundation, bronzer, and blush. I swayed. “I told you,” she said with malicious satisfaction. “You could have paid me seventy-five bucks. And will you be able to remember any of this?”
“No,” I whispered. I was tearing up in earnest. “No. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
She softened slightly. “Brushes cost a lot,” she said, “and you’ll have those forever. And we can probably get rid of these”—she removed a series of miniscule vials—“which takes off a few hundred dollars. And,” she said as I turned to leave, “you can return anything.”
“Thank you,” I said humbly, giving her the card to charge the money I couldn’t afford on things I didn’t want. It is a horrible feeling. It is a feeling that some people probably never know. You despise yourself, and for good reason. You are capitalism, but not in a triumphant way—in a scared, sad, desperate way. This is not to be confused with the euphoria some people describe when spending money; I felt no euphoria. I had not fooled myself for a moment into thinking I was anything but miserable.
I stumbled into the daylight in my shorts and T-shirt and full makeup, and burst into tears. I felt sick. Perspective in such cases does not make you feel better.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.