Kathy Peiss’ history of American beauty culture tells much the same story as Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s vastly superior “The Body Project,” though with an entirely different spin. “The Body Project” was largely about how our culture’s increasing emphasis on physical beauty created new anxieties for women. “Hope in a Jar” is about how beauty culture created new freedoms. Though there are traces of ambivalence in the book, mostly Peiss takes the same tack as contemporary postfeminist ‘zines like Maxi, arguing that consumer culture has been a valuable source of female bonding and self-expression.
Peiss explains how women working in the beauty industry — especially African-American women — developed mail order, door-to-door sales and multilevel marketing schemes because most commercial outlets were closed to them. “Although unrecognized by business historians, women entrepreneurs were in the vanguard of modern franchising methods that would take off more generally after World War II,” she writes. She also details the arguments in black communities over hair straightening and skin bleaching, and the idea that beauty would lead to racial progress. An ad for hair pomade, Peiss reports, exhorted, “Look your best … you owe it to your race.”
Other sections of “Hope in a Jar” resemble Tom Frank’s “The Conquest of Cool,” a book about how ad men in the 1960s conflated consumerism and political liberation. Peiss quotes ’20s beauty writer Nell Vinick, “Cosmetics were merely the symbols of the social revolution that has gone on; the spiritual and mental forces that women have used to break away from conventions and to forward the cause of women’s freedom.”
Unfortunately, Peiss is herself prey to that argument. It’s a popular strategy among Cultural Studies academics to read subversion into mainstream patterns of consumption, but Peiss does so even more than most. Take this bit of analysis: “By promoting the idea of improving nature, women entrepreneurs validated beauty culture for a broad range of women. ‘Women may be divided into two classes, those who have good complexions and those who have not,’ Madame Yale observed with her usual aplomb, capsizing a social structure based on wealth, occupation and ethnicity.” Who but someone drowning in theory could see a bold statement of democracy in such a bald sales pitch? In another chapter, Peiss celebrates working women’s revolutionary use of powder: “In the workplace as well, women powdered their noses through the day, halting the company’s work to indulge momentarily their desire for beauty and, doubtless, to take a break. As they put on a feminine face, these women briefly claimed a public space, stopping the action, in a sense, by making a spectacle of themselves.”
She gives us pages of utterly obvious observations told in the detached, fascinated tone of an anthropologist studying an exotic new culture. Hundreds of words are used explaining that poor women were less likely to use expensive brands than were rich women. Or, as Peiss puts it, women “engaged consumer culture selectively.” Another paragraph informs us that many women didn’t wear makeup while doing housework, instead putting it on to go shopping or socializing.
What’s most frustrating is that when Peiss does include provocative information, she fails to really grapple with it. For instance, she tells us that “Guidance counselors at Smith College routinely noted graduating students’ ‘attractiveness’ in their records,” then drops the issue, never telling us what effect such scrutiny had on young women. What makes “The Body Project” such a superior book is that Brumberg used real women’s diaries in her research, while Peiss relies on a shallow semiotic analysis of advertisements and magazine articles. For all her statistics and critical maneuvering, “Hope in a Jar” ultimately only goes skin-deep.