Ali, Beauty Editor, New York City

In her 10-plus years as a beauty journalist, Ali has worked at some of the biggest ladymags out there—bridal, teen, lifestyle, more—and is now department head at a major publication (trust me, you’ve seen it). But I’ve worked with dozens of beauty editors; what made me track down Ali for an interview was that we’d joked before about “girls like us”: curious, intelligent women who always wanted to dig a little deeper. I assumed that we’d share the same healthy skepticism of the beauty industry, so I found her healthy—but not entirely skeptical—take on the beauty industry compelling and illuminating. In good ol’ service magazine fashion, I’ll be posting her inside-scoop beauty advice later (first up: toner is a scam); here, she talks about raising her eyebrow at the green beauty movement, why we shouldn’t blame the industry for our self-esteem woes, and the survival of the prettiest. In her own words:

On Evolutionary Theory
I think cosmetics make people feel good about themselves, not bad. It's healthy to want to look beautiful. Mental patients don't brush their hair or wash their face; they don't care about what they look like. Evolutionarily, we're meant to peacock around and look good to attract a mate, and these companies assist in that. You could say, Okay, but they're preying on women's insecurities. They are, in a way, but they're also creating an industry that does some beneficial things. I almost think that fashion companies prey on women's insecurities more than the beauty industry. That's an industry making a fortune off women feeling bad about themselves—those Victoria's Secret models? Compared to beauty ads, the ideal they present is even more unattainable. Then again, Victoria’s Secret models do have those beautiful lips and gorgeous hair. I don't know.

In college I did my thesis on the theory that there is a universal standard for beauty, and it was largely influenced by Nancy Etcoff's writings; her book, Survival of the Prettiest, touches upon how it's healthy to want to be pretty. And that, weirdly, the same things people think are pretty in the Unites States are pretty across borders. Lipstick deepens the red color of lips in the same way lips darken during arousal; when you're in love, your pupils dilate, and mascara gives you the same look. It's a part of our process—I don't think it's unnatural. A lot of women take it to this whole other crazy plastic surgery level, but mascara and lipstick? It's just part of being a woman. They used kohl on their eyes in ancient Egypt; we use eyeliner. The same things make women attractive, and there are evolutionary reasons for it.

Nefertiti to Cleopatra: Really, it's just a matter of time before we all look like Liz Taylor, right?

On Feminism and Self-Esteem Crises
I remember a study about aging that we did at a magazine where I used to work. Using objective measures, experts estimate about 10% of the population looks younger than they are. But when we asked people about themselves, 80% of them think they look younger than they are. Eighty percent! And when I worked at a teen magazine we did a survey; one of the questions was whether the girls thought they were above average in appearance. The majority said they were! And that’s the teen years, when there are supposed to be all these problems with self-esteem.

But it’s not going to make news if you say, “Oh, girls are happy with themselves.” What kind of headline is that? And what makes news is what we gather around. But I feel like people sometimes use the big bad beauty companies and their advertisements and quote-unquote unnececessary products as an excuse for why they feel bad. You don’t want to feel bad for no reason; you want to latch onto a reason for these insecurities we all have, so you don’t feel crazy, so you don’t feel like you’re unbalanced or negative. There are people who just don’t feel right inside, and it’s easy for them—and I don’t blame them—to say it’s because, “Oh, I’ve been looking at these attractive women.” But I think you have to abandon those external forces and look inside and be like, "Really, why aren’t I happy?" It’s not because you don’t look like some ad. If we excavated each woman’s insecurities, like they do on a Hoarders episode, there would be deeper things going on.

We’re not meant to sit in front of computers and go to offices; we’re meant to be hunting and gathering, so obviously our brains are misfiring in some ways. I’m sure some feminists would be like, “No, I’m totally normal—it’s society that’s wrong.” But I don’t know. I think some feminists might resist talking about beauty because they think the minute they open that discussion, it belittles their bigger points. But the fact that more feminists aren’t really talking about beauty and our insecurities about how we look in that way is part of why some of these things are still going on. It’s at the heart of what they’re trying to get across.

Some of my friends from college are journalists who really delve into current events and these intellectual topics, but they still e-mail me all, “Where do I get this beauty procedure done?” I’m like, “You see? You still need beauty advice even though you’re these smart feminist girls!” I guess that’s what I struggle with about this industry, personally—I feel like what I’m doing is not nearly as important as what they’re doing, like they’re “real” writers, and I’m a selling machine. But then I try to remind myself that people really like reading this. When a reader writes in about having large pores, she feels a whole lot better after I write to her with some tips or do an article with advice. Still, I don’t feel that intellectual legitimacy. But it’s funny that some people look down upon a journalist like me who’s in women’s service magazines. I may or may not want to know about the third reich of blah blah blah, but they always want to know what lipstick to buy!

On Trendsetting
The source of the best trends, if you really trace it back, it always starts with that person who isn’t necessarily physically attractive but is wearing something all balls-to-the-wall, I’m-awesome, look at me. And if you want what she has, you look at what she’s wearing and you copy it. Sometimes you meet these women and they have this aura about them, like electricity comes out of them. I’ve interviewed plenty of celebrities, and they have that. Like, Megan Fox has that. She’s also beautiful—I can’t even look at her, she’s so pretty—but it’s not just about that. People like her, who are so secure, so comfortable with themselves, they put you in a comfortable place and you feel better just being around them. So you look at someone who has that quality and you’re like, What does she have that I can get? And if it's black nail polish, then at least you can get the black nail polish.

But it isn’t always a person who starts beauty trends. You know how all of a sudden the same color is everywhere, like seafoam green? In Paris there’s this color show where they do textile and color trends. I swear to God, I think it’s one person who decides it all!  All these beauty companies send their product development people to the same forecasting companies and conventions, and then spring rolls around, and Orly, OPI, Revlon, you see their nail polish collections and it’s all seafoam green, coral, yellow, and gray. Same exact colors. I don’t think it works that way for fashion—there really are some artistic innovators in that industry who everyone knocks off, like Miuccia Prada. But these beauty companies aren’t reacting to anything in the zeitgeist—right now they’re developing products for 2013. They’re creating the zeitgeist.

On Green Beauty and Big Business
You could go to the Environmental Working Group and they’ll take any ingredient in a beauty product and tell you it’s going to kill you based on one study done 500 years ago on a rat in China. But I walk around New York every day breathing in carcinogens and eating red meat, and I just think no matter how careful I am about the beauty products I use, there’s no getting around exposure to harmful chemicals. You'd have to live in a bubble to get back to having a clean slate and then use natural products. There are people who have sensitivities to phthalates or parabens, but you could be just as sensitive to an all-natural essential oil. But people are into being green. That’s fine, except when you’re dealing with companies that lie. A lot of the big companies do that, just putting bilberry extract in their products—except it’s way down the ingredients list—and slapping a leaf on the package.

Some of the great, small brands that are green get bought up by the big ones. That doesn’t mean they’re going to change the products and make them shitty—a lot of times it’s better because now you have this huge R&D machine to work with. Clorox bought Burt’s Bees, and when I went to the Burt’s Bees factory and asked about it, they were like, “It’s the greatest thing ever—they let us continue doing what we were doing, but we have an infusion of cash so we can do more.” Not all acquiring companies do that. Some of the big companies treat lipstick the same as diapers; they move their CEOs around and it’s always some dude who has the MBA calling the shots and treating all the products the same. But other companies—Avon, for example—have strong female leaders and I think you can see that in the way they respect their customers.

On “Does It Work?”
There are some companies that can back up their claims, but if you were a regular consumer you'd never know. That’s because if these companies actually made the claims they technically could, their products could be considered a drug. For example, Olay: Their anti-aging creams do reduce wrinkles—better than some prescriptions—but if they claimed it that way on the box the FDA would investigate and they'd have to turn it into a drug, and then they lose money. But companies that can show me in-house studies—independently performed, double-blind—they're legit.

I think what makes it “work,” though, is if it makes you feel better. In a way, who cares if it’s going to make your skin look a certain way? Results are nice, but sometimes it just feels good to put on expensive face cream. If you’re spending $300 on your cream, of course you’re going to think it’s working better than your friend’s $30 cream—even though it might not really be. It’s like the confirmation bias in psychology: If you put money into something, you’re going to see any type of evidence supporting your belief that it’s working. It’s the placebo effect half the time. If you just shelled out $300 for a cream, your brain is in this mode of, This is going to work. You have that optimism that can actually make you radiant. If you’re thinking, Oh, I just got this $5 bojangle cream, I don’t give a shit—then no, it doesn’t work. If you squirt on a cheap, drugstore face lotion and you squeeze on an expensive department store one, you’ll notice a difference. One’s silkier and has a nice fragrance, even if they both do the same things to your skin. You want to believe in the dream.