Glamour Gals: Makeover Do-Gooding

There’s an interesting discussion over at Beauty Schooled about Glamour Gals, a nonprofit founded by an ambitious young woman in 2000. The idea of Glamour Gals is that small armies of young women—mostly high school students, though there are college chapters as well—go into nursing homes and give female residents makeovers.

I was inclined initially to feel as Virginia first wrote:
OK, I am a mean horrible person and Oprah loves them. But if you want to volunteer with old folk, can’t you just spend time with them? Do you have to put makeup on them like they five, instead of grown-ass women who have been deciding what looks good on them all by themselves for oh, decades now?

But the comments made me (and the writer) rethink:
It seems kind of, pointless, maybe, BUT – many women, especially older women, really really enjoy getting made up and being made to feel “pretty.” Living in a hospital or assisted living facility can obviously be very, very dreary. Even if it doesn’t actually DO anything, maybe it can make an elderly woman (who maybe can’t do her makeup as well anymore) FEEL happier and better, a little like she did when she was young; and isn’t that worth SOMETHING?
It’s not easy for everyone to interact with people but doing hair and makeup has given me a platform to being more extroverted. Sure, it would be just as valuable if I went to sit and read with the elderly, but this is fun too. I know what I was doing at 17 and it wasn’t nearly this productive.

You’ll see my comment at the bottom there; I was sort of grumbling before I’d had my coffee and that’s not exactly my problem with it (even if I do think that breast cancer activism can take on a faux feminist sheen at times; see Barbara Ehrenreich, who says it much better than I do). So what is my problem with Glamour Girls? I mean, I’ve documented on this very blog how unexpectedly engaged I felt by getting a makeover. Besides the reflections (and lipstick purchases!) it prompted, it also just plain felt nice to sit there and let Eden tend to my face; I can only imagine that feeling would increase tenfold if I were living in an assisted living home, widowed, with few visitors, as is the case with many of the Glamour Gals. I mean, when was the last time you touched your own grandmother’s face? When was the last time you touched anyone’s face but a child’s or a lover’s? (Am I the only one who gets bashful when I brush a fallen eyelash from a friend’s cheek?)

But you know what? This is all conjecture: I wouldn’t know how it feels for the makeover recipients, because they’re invisible on the Glamour Gals site. There are bios and journal entries from volunteers (“Victoria’s First Makeover”—Victoria is the volunteer, not her elderly counterpart), internal and external news tidbits ranging from press to updates on its volunteers (“Marisa Parrotta, chapter president of our Bolton Central School a finalist for the NYC teen pageant”), and clips from The Glammys, the organization’s annual awards event. We hear from the Glammys host (style expert Robert Verdi), from the founder, from volunteers, from Oprah. Nowhere do we hear from the senior citizens who are getting services from Glamour Gals. Their voices are literally mute, only static, smiling photographs giving us an illusion of what the senior set might actually feel.

Buried in the site’s “Our Story” section, I did find a news clip from the Metro Channel—that is, something not produced by Glamour Gals itself (though it had a promotional feel to it so perhaps it was a joint project; I don’t know)—in which some of the makeover recipients get a chance to speak. Or, in one case, to wheel over at the volunteer’s prodding to her bureau in order to fetch a Polaroid of the two together. “Do you still have my pictures?” the volunteer chirps.

I suppose it’s really this that bothers me: “my pictures.” I understand that in order to stay afloat, nonprofits need to emphasize their achievements—and upsetting and counterproductive to the group’s goals as it may be—a bevy of fresh-faced 17-year-olds in candy striper aprons may be more palatable to potential donors than elderly women sporting lip stain. And Glamour Girls is vocal about its mission being a two-way street: elderly women receive sorely lacking personal care; young women strengthen their leadership skills. But on page after page, I saw only the volunteer’s voices and nada from the other side of the supposedly mutual exchange. I suspect that Virginia was onto something when she initially pinned it as the “best college application padding activity I’ve seen in a while”—and, criminy, I remember the terror of college applications back in 1994, when it wasn’t as competitive as it is now. I get it. And it’s worth noting that Glamour Gals has been noted by an organization devoted to eldercare: the American Health Care Association named it Group Volunteer of the Year in 2004. That’s encouraging; it shows that there is a real response to the group’s efforts, which isn’t surprising.

The group also deserves props for taking this kind of stuff seriously. When I first heard of this group, I was working at CosmoGirl magazine, which honored Glamour Gals founder Rachel Doyle as its first-ever “CosmoGirl of the Year.” (I’ve never met Rachel but remember that the staff at the time was supportive of her efforts and admired her outreach, marketing, and PR skills, which are remarkable now and certainly were when she was a teen.) I groan-laughed on the inside at the time, because it just seemed so damned appropriate, a teenage girl volunteering by putting makeup on old women, snapping some photos, and gathering a scrapbook. Who could ask for a cuter, sunnier, more winsome story? And, c’mon, the polar ice caps are melting and there’s bride burning and you, Teenage Girl, have very limited access to contraception—but, sure, let’s put makeup on old women and call it a day, okay? But I see that was shortsighted and cynical of me: Beauty is a major concern to a lot of women, and that doesn’t just stop once one’s hair turns gray. For a young woman to grasp that and turn her attention not toward herself and the beauty woes that go along with being a teenage girl, but to an under-served population who could benefit from the simple, human act of course—that’s prescient and gracious, and Doyle’s dedication and ambition have helped perform a small healing for more than 10,000 women. There’s a guileless earnesty here that I regret having rolled my eyes at years ago; Doyle saw something that I’m only now beginning to give credence to.

The founder of the group is now, by my calculations, 27 years old, so I don’t feel like a total Scrooge for mentioning my concerns (let’s think of them as suggestions!) here. If it were still the brainchild of a 17-year-old girl who was looking for a creative way to honor her grandmother and maybe come up with something to put on your college app as a nice side bonus, I’d keep my trap shut. And, again, I don’t have a problem with what they’re actually doing, even if I’d like to see it broaden out a bit (if the group can harness its resources to put on the hot-pink-carpet Glammy Awards, maybe it could also find volunteers versed in, say, massage therapy or senior yoga, which has as many mental health benefits as lipstick. And yes, I know I’m nitpicking here). I’d also love to see the group expand its nascent attempts to have a larger dialogue about beauty: The group partnered with photographer Annie Levy for “Conversations in Beauty,” a 2010 photo exhibit at a New York nursing home documenting the group’s work and exploring intergenerational ideas of beauty.
But I think that a resourceful group of young women who have managed to find a unique niche way to help the community can also find ways to truly frame it as a more mutual experience. The site says, “Our teen volunteers become the voices for these women writing about their experiences in GlamourGals journals, school essays or college applications.” And of course teens are web-savvy and are the ones who have broader access to public mouthpieces, not the older women. But I’ll keep my eyebrow a tad raised about this idea that a teenager—even an intelligent, kind one—can appropriately "become the voice" of a woman with decades more life experience, and that a college application is the best place for that voice to take center stage.