Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The medicalization of everything

In Paris, the divide between beauty products and medicines can be ambiguous. Yes, in NY, lipstick is sold at Duane Reade, and yes, Kiehls looks like an old pharmacy, but in general, no one's confusing Sephora for a health clinic. But in Paris, the establishment where one gets a pedicure is also a podiatrist's office. Beauty products not only make health claims - for sensitive, delicate skin, etc. - but are packaged and marketed in a way that suggests all these seemingly indistinguishable bottles of clear liquid are medical necessities. Brands like La Roche-Posay - which makes a mean nail polish - sell a seemingly endless array of products that go beyond the kind of creams that gosh darn get things done (sunscreens, antibiotic or anti-fungal ointments, cortisol creams, moisturizers, acne washes), liquid makeup (foundation, concealer), or even that classic cream-that-does-nothing, the anti-aging cream. There's this whole array of products to be applied before, after, or in lieu of makeup that, even understanding the words on the label, I cannot figure out. Soap is frowned upon, but there are 1,001 products sold in Paris, I'm sure of it, just to remove eye makeup. All that's missing is, pardon the "Seinfeld" reference, a Julliard-trained dermatologist to prescribe the stuff.

All of this, I should explain, exists separately, and is sold apart from, what we Americans refer to as "makeup." Monoprix will sell makeup in one area, regular shampoo, conditioner, and soap in the other, but then in this special area, called a "parapharmacie," exists the world of tonics, washes, gels, creams, lotions, and balms, through which women presumably sort to find the one product that truly expresses the particularities of their skin. (Gwyneth Paltrow, on the aptly-named GOOP, does a thorough round-up.) Where the US is holistic with college admissions, France seems to be with women's skincare products.

There are also free-standing parapharmacies, which are a great place to get overwhelmed. I popped into one today - the spectacular one on Monge that seems like a discount store but isn't all that cheap - and it was just aisle after aisle of products that are neither medicine nor makeup nor soap, yet obviously incredibly necessary for being the kind of woman who has a rockin' sex life at 80. I wouldn't know where to begin with these products, what complaints I'm supposed to have about my skin that wouldn't be fixable with makeup or soap, or serious enough to require actual medicine. All I could think was that it would be easy to drop hundreds of euros on products that look nice in a cabinet but do absolutely nothing.

What, then, does it all mean? Is it that I'm just so American in my thinking that a real dermatologist, as opposed to a tonic in a minimalist container, should deal with issues having to do with the skin that are significant enough to spend money on, and that if you're going to buy something non-medical, how about eyeliner? Am I too suspicious of not-quite-as-Western medicine? It's not that I'm inherently suspicious of beauty products - I will pay more for the better shampoo and conditioner, and I only know they're better from having tried a whole bunch at different price points. But here, there are things that are put into hair that I can't begin to fathom, products meant to be left in the hair, virtually all of which are intended for a European hair type that, unlike mine, could be wash-and-go without startling people, and does not even have frizz to contend with.


Oh the Well blog. First we learned how the holiday season stresses out youngsters. The new-old stressor in their lives is slumber parties. A part of me almost agrees - it was at such a party that I saw, as a 10-year-old, "The Silence of the Lambs." Big mistake, and I'm still scared of moths. But is this really something pediatricians need to get involved with, advising children to take "a prophylactic nap" beforehand? Yes, sleepovers mean losing sleep, yes one friend's mother showed us all a sex book or movie, I forget, far too young, and yes, I got to see how it goes in a family where the parents do have enzymes for copious alcohol consumption. (We, however, may have even eaten some simple carbohydrates and trans-fats.)

Yes, also, Kids Can Be So Cruel. But if they weren't a little cruel, we'd all have the annoying tendencies that sleepovers and the like socialized us out of, making it harder for us to behave at cocktail parties, dates, job interviews, and so forth. I was a pretty odd kid; I owe the fact that I'm only a mildly odd adult to my parents having allowed me to go on sleepovers and such. What does it mean to call the sleepover "a step toward mock independence and at the same time an intense exposure to peer standards and pressures"? It's a step toward real independence, which involves navigating the world of people outside your immediate family.


Amber said...

You got me to read Goop. And I liked it. You're so dead to me, Phoebe.

PG said...

Soap is frowned upon

Mad Men accuracy +1.

Flavia said...

I've come around to eye-maker remover. But at least in this country, they all seem the same--the only difference being price and scent.

Clearly, I'm insufficiently informed.

Anonymous said...

Is "Clinque" much of a presence in Paris? An interesting medical-sounding name. I buy their lipstick; my only regular makeup. The last dermatologist I saw, had brochures advertising Botox. My opthamologist had a sign for Latisse (the eyelash promoting serum). And dentists all push those teeth whitening procedures. Super-cosmetics all.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Gwyneth is a women's mag unto herself - why wouldn't Goop be entertaining?


Never seen Mad Men - do the sexy women of the show not wear soap?


What's the advantage to eye makeup remover over soap? I come at this from the perspective of, I remove eye makeup with soap if I've worn mascara or eye shadow, but eyeliner and concealer only will just come off when I shower next.


The medical-sounding cosmetics world certainly exists in the US, and Clinique and dermatology are both fine examples. What doesn't seem to exist in the US is the world of clear liquids meant to do something, although it's unclear precisely what, to improve appearance.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


*not use soap. Not sure what it would mean to wear the stuff.

kei said...

I wonder if a lot of is just getting really into a ritual to take care of your skin rather than finding specific functions and uses in the products. Especially if it is becoming inevitable that you have to deal with problems that are inextricably linked with age. There's also probably some kind of self-care mentality, like this is all a part of taking care of me and this effort to take good care of myself will manifest in my face and body. (Maybe like working out? But I wouldn't really know...) I also think most women tend to believe when they're told that if they take care of their skin, they will look at least passable when they're older, if not wonderful like all those French women or whoever, so the focus ends up being more on skincare rather than makeup. So maybe it's like a spiritual and financial investment in skin, where there's supposed to be some kind of payoff in the future.

I have to say that as I get older, I do become more intrigued by the options available to me for pre-makeup skincare, and they somehow feel more relevant. Part of me is still like, 'who has time or money for all of this?!' but then I am also so so curious as to whether Creme de la Mer really is worth $100 per pot or whatever.

Britta said...

I bought cold cream, which I hear is an inexpensive way to remove eye makeup. I've also heard olive oil works as well, but that just seems messy. I mostly just leave my eyeliner on until I shower as well (once every 2 days), though I am worried that it might eventually make my eyelashes fall out, or something. I don't really wear much eyeliner, and I don't wear any other eye makeup.
I have no idea what you'd do with lots of skin products though. I personally believe that beyond a fairly minimal point, the more product you use, the more it actually ages your skin at a point, so then you feel compelled to use more, in some sort of vicious cycle, kind of like putting stuff in your hair makes it less healthy, so you have to put more stuff in to try and make it look healthier, etc. But considering I have never bought a skin care product that was not under 5$ at a drug store, I really don't know what I'm talking about.

Flavia said...

It may be a function of getting older, but my skin gets much dryer now, esp. in the winter. So I use eye-makeup remover instead of any kind of soap or cleanser (even just warm water is drying).

I don't bother in the summer.

I use the cheap stuff from Target, which runs about $2.99. But as Britta notes, cold cream (or Vaseline or anything oily) also works.

And in re: Kei's & Britta's queries about what all this stuff DOES, Paula Begoun's website and books are a really great breakdown of which ingredients actually matter in products, what they do, and how to find them cheaply (she sells stuff now, but started out as a consumer advocate/educator; the "learn" tab is the one you want).

PG said...


Never seen Mad Men - do the sexy women of the show not wear soap?

Just one in particular. The main character Don Draper's secretary (and now fiancee) Megan is of French descent. In season 4, episode 4 ("The Rejected"), during an office secretarial focus group for Pond's cold cream, she explains how her French mother never uses soap on her face because it's bad for the skin.