When Virginia Sole-Smith was assigned to write a 200-word piece about whether nail polish was safe for pregnant women, she immediately wondered whether it was safe for salon workers who, pregnant or not, inhale polish fumes all day. It spurred her to investigate further, leading to an exposé in The Nation about conditions that are tantamount to sweatshop labor. Her desire to help shape our culture’s conversation about beauty didn’t end there: She spent 600 hours learning to excavate pores, apply makeup, and join “the sisterhood of the Brazilian” in hope of finding some answers about the price we pay for pretty. She blogs about “Beauty U” at Beauty Schooled and on body image at iVillage’s Never Say Diet; her work has also appeared in Nylon, Marie Claire, Slate, and dozens of other publications. We talked about the false delineation of feminism and beauty, the “beauty gaps” that drove her to follow the beauty beat, and the intimacies—false and poignantly real—of salon work. In her own words:
Photo by Jason Falchook
On "Beauty Gaps"
I think of beauty gaps as all the ways the fantasy of the beauty industry doesn’t match the reality. There’s this huge gap between any woman going into a salon for a treatment, and the person working on her. You don't know much about that person—you often don't even know her name. She’s there to focus on you and work on you in really intimate ways. A lot of customers don't make eye contact when you're giving them a Brazilian. It doesn't make you feel great as the worker when you're up to your elbows in this business and dealing with these sort of unsavory things. You're taking that on, and they don't even want to look at you—they just slide you a couple of wadded-up dollars at the end. It's so intimate, but between worker and customer it can be a fake intimacy. There's an especially large gap in New York, where there's a come-and-go immigrant workforce, and there's language gaps and socioeconomic gaps between worker and consumer.
Another beauty gap happens between what the consumer thinks she's going to get out of a treatment and what she actually gets. Think about when you brought in a picture from a magazine and you're like, "I want that haircut." They give you that haircut, and even if you look great, it's never quite that haircut. There’s always a gap between, This is what I'm promised and This is what I actually look like. There's also the environmental gap between the messages of health and wellness the industry is selling while using all these sketchy chemicals, impacting women's health in all these different ways.
Then there is another beauty gap that took me some time to come to terms with. In school I became close to women who love beauty in a different way than I do—they were signing on to do it professionally, and they weren’t always giving it the same scrutiny. If I’d talk about things like why women shave their legs, a lot of them wouldn’t look at that as a topic that begged that question. That was eye-opening to me—these were smart, interesting, funny women who were just really in love with beauty. Once I was out of school and was going back to my regular life, I had a weird transition period and started putting the puzzle pieces together.
I realized this was the key beauty gap: We’re presented with this choice, that you either have to be smart and reject the beauty myth, or buy into the beauty myth and then you’re stupid and a bad feminist. That’s not a real choice and it’s not an easy place to be.
I’ve had a hard time giving myself enough freedom with the beauty side—I was raised more like, What are you going to be when you grow up, what are you going to do to change the world? Your identity is bound up in what you do—which is what we want for women. You certainly don’t want women to feel like their whole identity is how they look. But if you feel like it’s only about how smart you are, it can be hard to embrace the other side. I mean, obviously I’m fascinated enough with beauty to go to school for a whole year! So it was something I felt deeply about and love talking about endlessly, yet I felt the need to sort of act like I didn’t want to buy into that. It was a little vain on my part. The worker-consumer beauty gap was the more obvious gap to me, but this gap is right here in my own brain. I realized that I needed to work on closing it.
Read the hilarious background on the Glamour Shots-style pic that made it onto Virginia's esthetics license.
Before I went to beauty school, I thought I had rejected a lot of stuff. Like bikini waxes; I’d do the minimal once a year, and otherwise I’d do nothing, which is fairly unusual for women my age. And I thought that showed how evolved I was, how much of a feminist I was. At the same time, I have more clothes than God—seriously, I have a wall of shoes in my house. And it’s unhelpful when women do exactly what I did, drawing these lines: I’ll do X, but I won’t do Y. We need to understand that the distinction is different for every woman based on how old she is, or her socioeconomic class—there are thousands of different factors playing into why you would or would not do any particular beauty work.
For example, right now I don’t think I would ever get plastic surgery—but I don’t know how I’ll feel in 20 years. These procedures are becoming easier, more affordable, and more commonplace, so we don’t know what “normal” is going to look like. To decide something is evil because it seems extreme to you is doing a disservice to all women. It means we’re at each other’s throats all the time when we could be getting other stuff done. You don’t have to buy into anything you don’t want—you can pick and choose. But we have to respect women who pick and choose differently.
A lot of feminists now in their 50s and 60s have spent all this time fighting for a rejection of the beauty myth to become an accepted position, so they feel let down when feminists our age are like, “Yeah, I’m gonna wear lipstick and dye my hair.” But simply rejecting the beauty myth hasn’t worked. We’ve seen lots of research showing how for all the strides women have made on equal rights issues, women are held back time and time again by appearance-related issues. Some feminists want to focus on issues like equal pay and abortion rights and don’t want to see how discourse on beauty is a part of that same conversation. It has a huge economic impact on us and it bleeds into all of these other things that feminists want to say. We have to stop assuming that the only way to make progress is through a wholesale rejection, and instead start figuring out how women engage with the beauty industry in positive ways. There has to be a way we can do all these things without just buying into unhealthy standards.
On the Intimacy of Beauty Work
When you’re working on a client, it’s your job to deal with the zits, the excess hair, the fat—everything this woman hates about her body, she's handing it off and making it your problem. It isn’t always degrading, but there is a degrading element where you are literally dealing with the body parts people hate the most. If a client says, "Oh my god, my thighs," as the worker you're like, Okay, now I have to work around that. You're trying to make her feel better about all of that, but at the same time in order to make the sale, you have to be like, "We can totally take care of that for you," or "Well, have you tried our cellulite wrap?" It's ridiculous.
At beauty school, there's also an intimacy from the other students. We were perpetuating these intense beauty standards, like, “You should remove that hair, you should do this and that.” It could be anti-woman in that sense, but it was also very bonding. When we would bikini wax each other, it was like a sisterhood—a sisterhood of the Brazilian! You feel this closeness to other women through beauty, and I don’t think that’s fake. I think that’s something some feminists reject. It’s important that this can be seen as an opportunity for female bonding, as a chance for women to relate to one another. I think there are times when the level of connection you can have with other women over beauty work outweighs its negative standards. There’s a way of reclaiming the whole thing.
Beauty can become very competitive, and we’re often trained not to trust pretty women, so any time women actually support one another in beauty work, I think that’s fantastic. Any time you can make it not about competition and instead about a communal experience, that’s a good thing.
On the Business of Beauty Writing
I feel guilty when I’m unhappy with my looks because I feel like I’m letting everybody down. I think I’m supposed to represent feeling good about yourself no matter what. But, I mean, I gained 20 pounds in beauty school. I didn’t want to admit how much it was bothering me—I thought, “that’s the price of reporting,” no big deal. But I was unhappy about it, and I didn’t like that I didn’t like how I looked at that size! Finally my best friend was like, “The whole point of writing about this stuff is to be honest.” It’s not about being the poster child for self-esteem; it’s about sussing out why we feel the way we feel. But there’s definitely a degree of pressure—a lot of the body image community has recovered from or are dealing with eating disorders, and I’m highly aware of not triggering somebody. The last thing you want to do is feed into that machine, so it’s a tricky balance.
I loved women’s magazines in high school and college—I always thought, this is where we as feminists could do so much good work. This is what millions of women read—this is our media. And it should be our media. I always wanted to be in this world. It was eye-opening to realize it was all very well and good to want to create change, but that it’s hard to actually do it.
I wrote a story about labor conditions in nail salons that was originally commissioned by Jane magazine, and they were super-excited about it. I was thrilled because Jane and Sassy were feminist women’s magazines that were supposed to revolutionize everything—I thought it was amazing that I got to do this story for them. They were the ones who sent me to California to do the reporting in nail salons. I wrote it, revised it a thousand times, got it through fact-check, got it through copy edit, got it ready to ship to the printers—and the publisher killed it because of advertising concerns. That was like—okay, if that happened at Jane f*cking magazine, that’s going to happen everywhere. I was devastated. When I got it into The Nation—which was great—everyone was like, “Oh, it’s so much better here than in a women’s magazine.” But though The Nation does amazing things, I would have loved for the story to be in a women’s magazine, because that’s where it needed to be told. Those readers are the women who go to nail salons.