Cosmetics: What Women Buy, How They Buy It and Why

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I love makeup. That's a hard admission to make as a middle-aged professional working on a postgraduate degree. When I found myself doggedly searching the Internet recently for Alpha Lipoic Acid Lip Plumper from N.V. Perricone, M.D., Cosmeceuticals, I decided it was time to investigate my fondness for cosmetics and the excitement I get from pursuing them.

My makeup cache consists of six bases (some "barely there"; some, like Ultima II Wonderwear, you can't pry off without special solvent), four powders (ranging in shades from Lancome's Bronze Delicat bronzer for fair skin to Chanel's Perfecting Powder in amethyst purple), one perfect Clinique "pink blush," three mascaras (from cheap to the luscious Lancome Definicils), one eyebrow pencil, three lip pencils, one concealer, eight lipsticks, four glosses, eight eye shadows, six eye pencils, two eyeliners and one lip plumper — on good days, I'm positive it works — and then some.

Most of the women I interviewed regarding their makeup collection owned 15 to 25 products, though my friend Robin Hagey of Los Angeles admitted to having 114 ("I never throw anything out! A lot of them are free samples!") and my hairdresser estimated her stash at "Oh my God, over 100 pieces, maybe even 200."

Most of us bought our products in department stores, although we hate those painted-up clerks who prey on women's insecurities. Many of us picked up makeup at drugstores, especially mascara (Maybelline Great Lash and 2000 Calorie).

The experts say we get a lot of our ideas from magazines. My favorite is Harper's Bazaar, which recently sent me out looking for Max Factor Red Passion lipstick. After all, designer Jeremy Scott hand-picked it as "the perfect red." I also recently hunted down Lancome's Photogenic base — one of the new light-reflecting cosmetics (Prescriptives has several) that Vogue promises makes your skin appear "as faultless as an airbrushed pinup's."

Makeup and Culture

The Internet is also a great way to find products. The experts recommend gloss.com and sephora.com. I've shopped them all and I can prove I'm not alone in my pursuits. Remember when a dewy-lipped Monica Lewinsky talked to Barbara Walters? "Glaze," the Club Monaco lipstick she wore, sold out all over the world.

But counting my makeup was something I put off for days. My friends complained, too. One group of suburban Washington, D.C., moms was reluctant to talk about the whole subject. Women in this complex era are conflicted when it comes to makeup.

"Can you be a brain and a babe at the same time? That's the dichotomy," says Dr. Debbie Then, author of the study Redefining Vanity. "Cosmetic use is an important reflection of who you are."

No one mentions it, of course, but what it may come down to is men.

"We have to be able to signal the differences in gender. Society demands it," says Dr. Ellyn Kaschak of San Jose State University. "Most of the weight of that is placed on women, and cosmetics is a big part of it."

But many women see their relationship with cosmetics resulting from tradition, regional influences and just plain habit.

My oldest friend, free-lance nutrition writer Dr. Denise Webb, a Louisiana native, sits alone at her desk at home each day in makeup and earrings. "Is it my Southern upbringing? I'm sure of it. When my mother was sick and dying, she had makeup on."

Other women see cosmetics as a tool for expressing themselves.

"You can do anything with makeup. It's amazing," says Sharle, a makeup artist at Art & Chemistry Hair in Rockville, Md., who only uses M.A.C. products.

Dr. Then agrees. "Studies show that cosmetic use does wonders for women. It is psychologically healthy to have a reasonable amount of concern about your presentation of self."

Almost everyone judged women who wore too much makeup, especially older women, as pitiable or too self-absorbed. But many admitted that once they got "hooked" on makeup, it became "expected" and they had to wear it.

Most were willing to go at least partly out of their way to get something they wanted.

CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson liked a new makeup the professionals used on her at work. She wrote to the designer, Joe Blasco. "He actually called me back. He said, 'This is Joe. I got your letter.'" She scored the makeup. Interested? Try JoeBlasco.com.

Or you can adopt my friend Anne Saker's philosophy: "Before age 25, makeup is play. Before 35 it's maintenance. After 55, it's unnecessary. If you ain't beautiful on the inside by then, sister, no amount of (Clinique) Moonglow is gonna get you there."

 

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