Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Review, "Free Gift With Purchase"

I love to read, but last semester I had this misfortune of choosing courses that featured some of the most notoriously boring, difficult and even incomprehensible books ever written. So when I finished my finals, I was dying for a quick, fun read that wouldn't require a library of supplementary texts to understand. Thanks to Amazon, I had Jean Godfrey-June's Free Gift With Purchase waiting for me when I got to my parents house.

Godfrey-June is the beauty editor of my favorite fashion magazine, Lucky. I expected a juicy tell-all (a la Devil Wears Prada) about the backbiting and betrayal behind the scenes at Vogue and Elle (where the author was previously employed). Who doesn't love all the fun details of celebrity parties and top fashion shows? Not to mention those mythic closets that all fashion magazines have, filled with every piece, product and accessory shown in each issue, that employees are often allowed to borrow from.

If this is what you're looking for, the second half of the book describes all of these things in wonderful detail. But I was pleasantly surprised to find the first half of the book was more memoir/social commentary than gossipy expose, chronicling Godfrey-June's childhood as the daughter of two pop-culture ignorant Berkeley biologists and her unlikely career writing about beauty products for top fashion magazines. She tells wonderful stories about her awkward elementary and middle school experience and desire to fit in with the '"normal", glamorous others', along with her eventual transformation from social outcast to acceptably cool girl. This will speak to any woman who once believed that the application of Watermelon Lip Smackers made her instantly sexier and more sophisticated.

But my favorite part of the book, and the part that has been ignored in every review I've read and interview she's done, are the chapters that discuss the power beauty products hold over women. She writes, "Everybody loves beauty products. Even if you think you know nothing about them, or even if you think you hate them, you actually know plenty about them and, in fact, have several of them that you love. You have major opinions that lie barely beneath the surface. Woman who modestly/moralistically claim to "never use all that beauty stuff" are big Clinique ladies, usually with a healthy helping of Neutrogena to go with. I know this because I've seen their bags and I've seen what they lunge for at beauty giveaways."

And she's totally right. Women (and in increasing numbers, men) have a strong relationship to beauty products that is greater than any statistic about the multi-billion dollar beauty industry, or any misogynistic argument about women and vanity. She points out the thriving black markets for cosmetics in war-torn countries, and the importance of makeup and skin products to women with terminal illnesses as two small examples of this. The reason that Godfrey-June has a job, and that there are entire magazines (as well as hundreds of blogs) devoted solely to news and reviews of beauty products, is because of this relationship.

She discusses the way that beauty products fulfill an instinctual passion for perfection, the potential women have for exploring multiple identities simply by doing their hair and makeup differently. And without a doubt, products have the power to boost a woman's confidence (more about this later). The idea of "hope in a jar" is a particularly strong one, as products today reflect a huge variety of hopes and dreams that women hold, and one can't deny the power of the marketing behind these hope-filled jars.

I should mention that while Godfrey-June repeatedly refuses to take her job seriously (at least once she mentions her guilt for not pursuing a profession that benefits society is greater ways than helping women find the perfect red lipcolor), there's no question that the marketing and consumption of beauty products is a subject ripe for analysis.

I strongly recommend "Free Gift With Purchase" as a fun, light read for any self-described beauty addict. In tomorrow's post, I'm going to continue this discussion about the relationship women have to beauty products, so don't forget to check back!

1 comment:

Beauty Bug said...

I'm in the middle of this book right now and I couldn't agree with you more. She's insightful, funny, and clearly she has the best job in the world. I can't wait to finish it!