Would YOU hire this woman, OR this one?
BLOW-DRIES, MANICURES, EYEBROW THREADING… THESE USED TO BE LUXURIES, NOT THINGS WOMEN CONSIDERED ESSENTIAL TO GET NOTICED. A SELF-CONFESSED EXTREME GROOMER INVESTIGATES ‘PULCHRONOMICS’ AND TRIES GOING COLD TURKEY
as personal milestones go, my first blow-dry is up there with graduating from university and getting married. It was 1983, I was 14 and my hairdresser had just discovered the paddle brush. Until then my black hair grew up and out instead of down. ‘Let me try something new,’ she said and went on to blowdry my hair straight (albeit with a few mid1980s flicks). Suddenly in the mirror I saw a girl with hair that swished. Later that day, when a friend called me pretty, I was hooked. For the next 26 years I blow-dried it daily, spending hours before school, then later work, and even before 6am flights.
Over the next two decades I discovered more ways to expend time and money on making myself pretty, from concealer to Brazilians. Whether I was going to work or meeting a friend in the park, the daily hour-and-a-quarter ritual was the same: blow-drying my hair to silky straightness, then applying serum, moisturizer, primer, concealer, foundation, powder, rouge, eyeliner, eye shadow, mascara, lip liner, lipstick, highlighter and more powder.
I must have been an early adopter, because such ‘extreme grooming’ is now the norm for many professional women of my generation and younger. One friend, who runs a medicalresearch company, has her hair blow-dried
professionally before every big meeting (two to three times a week). Another is a property lawyer, who recently confessed to spending £300 (over R5 400) on hair products every two months. That’s on top of the £450 (over R8 000) she pays every four weeks for her colour, highlights and cut, the £75 (over R1 300) per fortnight she spends on gel nails and the £60 (over R1 000) per week that goes on eyebrow threading.
Why is it that increasing numbers of women are spending more time and money than ever before on their appearance? For our mothers – many of whom were active in the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s and are dyedin-the-wool feminists – this turn of events will be deeply shocking. After all, aren’t we supposed to have left behind the idea that a woman should be judged on her looks?
Ten years ago, the blow-dry salons and nail bars on every street corner in New York would have seemed alien to British eyes. But now they are popping up everywhere in the UK. The
‘We’ve tested it over and over again and beauty is one of those recessionproof markets’
three years and is set to continue growing. Last year alone, we spent a record £1,3 billion (over R235 billion) on beauty in Britain, according to the market analysts Mintel. So much for us all cutting back because of austerity!
Some people even claim the upsurge is an indirect result of the downturn. ‘We’ve tested it over and over again and beauty is one of those recession-proof markets,’ says Kelly Ramsay, the head of marketing at BABTAC. ‘People will find the money to buy themselves a new lipstick, to get themselves a facial. These aren’t seen as luxuries any more but necessities, because there is a real push for people to look a certain way – polished – to compete in a tough market, especially in professional spheres.’ The biggest increases, Ramsay says, are the expensive procedures – eyelash extensions, semi-permanent make-up for eyebrows and false nails.
Yet, as I have become older, my extreme beauty regime has ceased to feel like the delicious self-transformation it once did. It has Hershesons chain of hair salons has four blowdry bars in London, while Nick Robertson, the founder of ASOS, has just bankrolled Blow, a chain of ‘fast’ beauty bars, open from 7am to 9pm, where women can have a blow-dry and their make-up and nails done all in 30 minutes. The number of nail bars has grown by 20 per cent in the past year. No wonder, perhaps, when the average woman aged between 20 and 45 now spends £450 (over R8 000) a year just on her nails.
According to the British Association of Beauty Therapy & Cosmetology (BABTAC), the beauty market has grown by 120 per cent in the past become exhausting. Terrifying as the idea was, I decided to go bare-faced in the interests of ‘research’. Would my choice to present myself differently to the world affect how that world saw me – or how I saw myself?
On the first day, as I sat on the tube with wet hair and a face free of make-up, with only a slather of serum and sunscreen between me and the world, I became convinced a woman was staring at me, wondering if I’d forgotten to finish getting ready. As the week progressed I noticed a surprising number of women staring at me on public transport or as I looked up in meetings.
The aims of my grooming have changed with each passing decade.In my twenties, it was about bold lipstick, big hair, having Brazilians and looking ‘hot’ for men, mostly. From my thirties, the intention was to look professional, like someone who should be paid a decent salary. Now I’m 44, I walk a fine line between not wanting to ‘look my age’ and projecting the right image as an accomplished career woman. For me, ensuring I look glossy and groomed equals competent, professional, together. It is a look I trust on other women. This may sound shocking to some, but looking groomed gives me more confidence than any degree, promotion or pay rise ever could.And this isn’t just my imagination working overtime. A study by Boston University and Procter & Gamble found that people perceive women to be more likeable, trustworthy and, yes, competent when they are wearing make-up (as long as it isn’t too much – then they are considered less trustworthy).
One morning, while conducting this barefaced experiment, I surveyed myself in a fulllength mirror. My grey, blotchy skin and frizzy hair seemed to mock the smart pussy-bow blouse, cigarette pants and wedges I was wearing. I was mismatched. Later that day, in a meeting, my business partner looked worriedly at my face and asked, ‘Are you okay?’ (A recent study by the online beauty shop Escentual.com found that more than two-thirds of bosses would take a dim view of women not wearing make-up to key meetings, although they would say that!)
According to the sociologist and author Dr Catherine Hakim, women who invest in the right make-up, clothes, fitness regime and hairstyle put themselves at an advantage at home, in social relations and in the workplace by increasing what she terms their ‘erotic capital’, even if they’re not necessarily natural beauties. In her book, Honey Money: Why Attractiveness is the Key to Success, Hakim cites studies that show this bias is present in six-month-old babies, who prefer to look at the same relatively attractive faces that adults do. Another reason, then, to maximize your visual appeal. ‘People who don’t make efforts to look well and groomed are ignored,’ says Hakim. ‘It’s nothing to do with fairness – it’s the real world and most of the behaviour is unconscious. There have even been laboratory studies that show people, such as trained psychologists, who are absolutely clear in their own minds that they never pay attention to other people’s appearance, behave the same way as everyone else and focus more on attractive people. Looks matter.’
Grooming affects not only perceptions of women but their earning power, too, says Professor Daniel S. Hamermesh, an economist at the University of Texas. In his recent book, Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful, he coins the phrase ‘pulchronomics’ to describe the link between salary and beauty, and points to compelling evidence showing that attractive, well-turned-out people earn significantly more than their homely colleagues.
As my week without grooming wore on, I found myself mesmerized by other women and their make-up. One morning, I watched as a woman, already sporting false eyelashes, applied three different foundations, two concealers, two blushers, two eye shadows and two lip products, and then stencilled in her brows using pencil and powder. All this on the tube. In my mother’s day, this level of grooming would have been expected only of beauty queens.
Dr Debra Ferreday, a senior lecturer at the Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies at Lancaster University, says that ‘hyper-feminine identity performance’ – looking like the most traditionally feminine version of ourselves possible – is now key to competing at work, and points to female contestants on The Apprentice to argue her case.‘ The Apprentice winner was not only the most super-groomed of all, but someone who set out to create a set of clinics in which you can have Botox in your lunch hour, ’Ferreday says. ‘That’s indicative of a rising theme in which wearing very,very high heels and lots of make-up and being perfectly groomed has become the professional image expected in the workplace.’
In an increasingly competitive job market, our bodies and faces have become our brands, she adds. ‘Work is more uncertain and the reality for many women is short-term contracts, freelance work and precarious labour.We have to compete more aggressively with one another, and one way we do this is through extreme personal grooming.’
Worryingly, this is not only the preserve of adults, it seems. Witness the rising popularity of female ‘pamper parties’, featuring professional manicures, pedicures and make-up to celebrate our friends’ birthdays and other such occasions.
The Disney Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique recently opened in Harrods, where you can spend up to £1 000 (over R18 000) on a full Princess makeover, which includes make-up, a ‘Princess hairstyle’, nail painting, a ball gown and a tiara. A Mintel survey of 6 000 children found that six out of 10 girls, aged seven, wore lipstick and two in five wore eye shadow. ‘Therapists phone us up worried that they have been asked to perform beauty treatments such as waxing, electrolysis and eyebrow plucking on 10-year-olds, ’says Kelly Ramsay. ‘Personally, I have a big issue with little girls having beauty treatments. I have a daughter who is three, and I wouldn’t want her, at the age of 10 or 11,made to feel she has to look a certain way – it’s too young.’
Perhaps the clearest illustration of the pressure grown women face is the hysteria Hillary Clinton encountered when she dared turn up to press events in India in 2012 wearing barely any make-up, save for a slick of lipstick – a cursory Google search throws up 25 million hits on the topic. Clinton’s riposte to her critics? ‘I don’t have time to worry about make-up. If others want to worry about it, let them do the worrying for a change.’
She’s not wrong about the time thing. By not doing my hair or make-up in the morning I find I have an extra hour and 15 minutes on my hands. I feel lighter and breezier about life, not having to worry about whether my lipstick is flaking or if my hair is going frizzy in the rain.The extra energy, not to mention time spared, makes me more productive. And yet the irony – as became clear from a number of comments that week – is that the world saw me as someone who wasn’t competent simply because I didn’t look it. No matter how much better I felt inside, I still cared about not looking right on the outside.
In the end, it was a meeting with a group of female colleagues that ended my experiment. ‘You look… different,’ said one, in a way that suggested she meant ‘tired’ or ‘dishevelled’. Their incredulity, when I told them I was deliberately going without make-up, said it all. ‘But don’t you feel unfinished?’ asked one.That’s when I decided to head straight to the nearest mirror to put on some slap.
‘Grooming affects not only perceptions of women, but their earning power, too’