The Masks We Wear
Martha Stewart is an easy target. She seems to have no idea how ridiculous she comes across in her ivory tower of affluence, kind of like Effie Trinket from the Capitol in The Hunger Games. I haven’t paid close attention to Martha since she was convicted of lying in 2004. I’ve been aware that she has managed to have continued and impressive business and media success post-jail-time. I certainly believe in redemption and that people should be allowed second (and maybe even third) chances. Whether Martha has redeemed herself is debatable. Truly I don’t know her, other than the masked persona she presents to the public. I should not pass judgment.
I did admire Martha during her heyday in the 90’s. Her approach to keeping a beautiful home and her emphasis on the importance of gracious entertaining was completely foreign to me and my upbringing where it was a miracle that Chicken and Potatoes (or some variation thereof) appeared at the kitchen counter for dinner every evening from 6:30-6:40 pm with two introverted working scientist parents who were clueless about how to host a party and so they didn’t. I wanted to cook delicious food, have friends over for elegant dinner parties, and fantasized about being as organized as Martha. Her calendar, published every month in her magazine, amazed me. She was the tastemaker of the day (and an extraordinary business woman). When I got engaged, I begged my mother for her book, Weddings, to inspire my planning. My mother scoffed, as she scoffed at my desire for a wedding dress, but I wanted my one and only big party of my then-young life to be happy, tasteful, beautiful, and I did not trust myself to plan it without Martha’s guiding aesthetic.
Since then, my values have shifted and my Martha aspirations have faded, betrayed by her jail stint. So, it was with mild curiosity that an article in Thursday’s NYT caught my eye. (The print edition, of course. Where else would you have the joy of discovering and reading about topics that you might not see otherwise?) The article profiled Martha describing her beauty routine. Wow. The serums and potions, the variety of high end products used, in conjunction with daily, weekly, monthly sessions with a retinue of beauty service providers, like her facialist. There was not a speck of humility or irony in this article. No acknowledgement that she is incredibly lucky to have the time and money to live such a luxurious lifestyle and that most of us could never afford the products and services she uses. And perhaps most of us would not choose to spend our money and time this way even if we could. Though, wouldn’t it be nice to have the opportunity?
As I quickly jumped to judging Martha scornfully as ridiculous and irrelevant, I paused and backed up, asking why is the New York Times featuring this article anyway? They must think there is an audience of women readers who will want to know what are the best skincare and beauty products we should all be using, according to Martha? (Note to the New York Times, if you are interested in providing truly useful beauty service journalism, then a summary of the products mentioned would have been helpful.) If Martha gets up hours before she needs to leave the house in order to slather creams on her face and body, should we all be doing that? Just because my beauty regime consists of a shower and an occasional swipe of lipstick doesn’t mean all women are minimalists. And maybe my ascetic and controlling minimalism is the flip side of the same coin.
Now, I am the first to acknowledge that appearances matter. Plenty of studies have shown that attractive people are judged to be more competent and are more successful in life. I’ve spent many days in my younger years panicking that I didn’t look “right.” At this stage, I am a bit defiant about freeing myself from the constraints of time-consuming and money-consuming beauty regimes. I would rather spend my money on healthy food, yoga and vacations with my family. The article did make me wonder about the New York City audience that the NYT serves (myself included). We take great pains to care about those less fortunate while we are thoroughly caught up in the striving, the effortful and materialistic striving to be on top. Like Panem’s Capitol we are curiously bubbled, out of step with how the rest of the world lives. Isn’t this the same newspaper that featured the plight of homeless children in a bid for reader attention and sympathy? And now we are slavishly looking to Martha for beauty regimen how-tos? Does the left hand know what the right hand is doing?
Women and society need to have the confidence that beauty comes from within and from how you behave. It is more important to figure out how to look and feel your best so that you can be your best self and contribute the best of yourself to your world without getting caught up in being beholden to a public persona, a mask, that requires so much upkeep. Imagine how much good we could do if we devoted the money and time we spend on beauty products and our effortful and materialistic striving to helping someone else, to making a meaningful and productive contribution to our community?