Sun, 13 Mar 2005

Purgatory of modern-day Fountains of Youth

Maybe life begins at 40, but it's not quite clear who gets the benefits.

The women in this age group (one increasingly finds out firsthand) are among the most highly prized guinea pigs of the segmented market of over-the-counter beauty products. It is no longer so easy to zap in and zap out of the drugstore.

For the past decade or so, the stores have been selling "health products" that guarantee you'll walk in and presto! -- walk out as an attractively appareled young woman with perfect skin, body and face.

Unlike bookstores where you desperately seek attendants, at the drugstore they immediately share with a woman customer an entire thesis on beauty and health tips -- including what would happen if you ignored them, which sounds more terrifying than the fires of hell described through the loudspeakers of a mosque.

"Ma'am," says the salesperson, please try the new anti-aging cream with vitamin E and its complementary night cream, the whitening moisturizer with UV-blocker, alpha-blocker, PH-5, SPF" -- and with her clever and lighting-quick close study of my skin -- "the facial mask to minimize gaping pores, the multivitamins and ..." -- with another close look -- "eye gel, and Ma'am, a breast lifting cream, a skin firming lotion, cellulite eraser, all on sale! Bu!

Lovely offerings of magic potions, along with that new oxygenated mineral water, all vital necessities, or so we're told. And to fight those free radicals who or which might attack you for some unimaginable reason, you don't call in the men with tear gas or batons but you use anti-oxidants -- and you're shown the better (more costly) ones the minute you decide you can afford one of those attractively designed bottles in pastel hues.

When one day it dawns that your hair can no longer survive without blissful cream bath treatments, it's "Ma'am, you must use hair vitamins, and this one is a hair mask, hair repair cream, hair spa, protein hair gel". Etcetera, etcetera.

Refuse all that in the name of "I'll just age gracefully, stick to my swimming and eat lots of veggies", and you walk away feeling guilty that perhaps you've denied a young woman her one chance at a sizable commission, besides wondering whether not investing in a pot promising to fight wrinkles is sinful neglect (all right, it is, so I bought one).

While there seems to be a recurring cycle of bashing Western products and culture here, beauty products unite us all regardless of any territorial spats. The glossy commercials featuring (white-skinned, usually mixed-race) beauties and page after page of ads for a cornucopia of treatment and cosmetic products support some of our traditional values that instill in women a vital need to stay pretty, trim and young.

It's just that now we have greater choices apart from the smelly jamu tonics that mothers used to force on their daughters every single day.

The message intoned by childhood jamu training and the botox and cosmetic surgery clinics is the same: Stay pretty, trim and young -- or else. Oh -- and yes, it's healthy, too: excess tummies lead to all sorts of ailments and as the spa ads say, your inner beauty glows when you're relaxed and refreshed following the right measure of self-indulgence.

So relax. Leading a life less stressful these days means giving in to aggressive marketing. Let go of the principle of "going grey naturally" unless you have 30 extra minutes to insist on seeing the manager to interrogate her on why you should be forced to buy a whitening moisturizer, just because there's aisles and aisles of them and you don't have the time to hunt for a non-whitening one.

(My kids insist I need to be "whitened", but the fine print on the bottles do not say you might get blotchy a la Michael Jackson if you use them too long. This ignorant consumer obviously did not get the commercials' message: white in three weeks, so of course that's the recommended period of use! Drop class action idea...)

Besides, going natural is not socially acceptable. A colleague steps up and snaps: "Hey, Granny, get your hair dyed!" Now, is that rude or what. It's true, that's what it is. Mother Nature selects according to her whim, some can afford to age gracefully (and most of us are not Catherine Deneuve) and most feel they're fighting a lost fight.

But one thing's for sure. As long as us "mature" women prefer flattery while trying forever to be young and beautiful, legions of "health product" manufacturers and their advertisers (who are not all pretty, trim and young, by the way) and the good Samaritan drugstore attendants will forever be after you and your wallet. -- Ati Nurbaiti