January 20, 2012

Vanity Fair

This is ME, NOT Kim. And every time I look in the
mirror, I have my more-than-fair-share of emerging
wiry and squirrely grey hairs that will likely remain undyed
 for a long while. I guess it just doesn't seem that
important to me yet.

 I have this acquaintance. Let's call her Kim. She is gorgeous. Tall, blond, thin and curvy (each in all the right places) with lovely, lovely skin surrounding perfect, white teeth. Which no one sees. She cannot smile very well due to very regular Botox injections, which she laughs about, sans the smiling part.

Yes, she might be all about her appearance, but she makes jokes about her vanity frequently. Then, she always turns a little serious. She makes no bones about her lifestyle. She usually finishes one of her self-deprecating remarks with, "So what? I don't want to look old. Ever." No body fat and no nonsense. I like her.

My friend takes her nearly-Death-Becomes-Her lifestyle very seriously and even is embarking on a personal business venture in an effort to convert the rest of us Northwesterners to her way of thinking. She has started a skin care business in her home where she provides clients with medical grade chemical peels, microdermabrasion and other age-defying services. She has been very smart and safe and uses a medical team--of sorts--to help her in her endeavor. And she has gone to school to learn all the necessary procedures and precautions. In addition to her services, she has decided recently to add a line of upscale products to her business, promoting skin care.  For this part, she needed a third party vendor.

Enter the woman from Santa Barbara, California. Let's call her S.B.

The S.B. woman has made a very lucrative career in the Los Angeles area, providing exotic, effective products for individuals, day spas and other businesses like Kim's. She sounds to me like a Mary Kay-like deity from some sun worshipping religion, but, S.B. came highly recommended and Kim hired her upon their first meeting.

S.B. had recently moved from southern California to the Pacific Northwest in order to escape what she called the "rat race" and the hoards of people. She wanted a slower life for a while, a change of pace. She probably saw, no doubt, some print ads for Oregon containing enticing photos, probably promising sun, sand, mountains, skiing, desert, lakes ... we have it all! Right?

Little did she know the truth about Portland, Oregon. It rains here. A lot. All winter. And the clouds are grey for months on end sometimes. Many a Californian has moved here, only to turn tail and run back to the sun soon after the first winter is over. Many of the more optimistic ones make it through one rainy summer, too, but few remain long-term.

The weather truly was a problem for S.B. But it was compounded by what, for her, were much bigger issues.

S.B. was here for only a handful of months--only partially steeped in the Northwest culture--before she exclaimed to Kim one damp day in utter disgust, "What is wrong with these people? Why don't they take care of themselves? This place is full of ugly, fat, dumpy people." Within a year, she was gone.

It is true that within the single year she was here, the take home portion of her sales went from $800K in Santa Barbara to just $125K here in Portland, but that really wasn't her true problem with our city. Her dramatic statement reveals much more than a frustration at the loss of income.

After all, one can live here just fine on $125K per year. In fact, much better than fine.

S.B. was upset. Not about her salary, as I say, but at the morality of it all--what it means in her idea of the bigger picture. To her, decent people would just naturally care so much about their appearances that they would go to great length and expense to preserve it. They would spend a lot of time thinking about it, planning for beauty treatments and diets and maybe even cosmetic surgery. To her, these things are just part of "taking care of" oneself. In short, she was offended at the smaller market here for such things because she thinks it means that we must not care about anything.

Little did she seem to know that many people here, undyed hair and all, would take offense to her statement. Some might even say that her and her usual L.A. clientel are shallow, vain and a bunch of you-know-whats. Some Portlanders might say that we'd rather spend our money on more meaningful things than appearance alone, like education or charitable causes. (After all, it has been said that we are overeducated, underworked coffee drinkers, and by kinder people. So we laugh at that one. It's charming.)

And we take care of ourselves, too. We enjoy organic and whole foods, and we not only exercise in our great outdoors, but we pride ourselves on our ability to stay outside no matter what the weather. It seems that hiking, kayaking, hunting and fishing might compromise our appearances, according to S.B.

But are we really that unattractive? I will admit that on any given ordinary day, I typically look more like the before picture in a Merle Norman makeover ad than a bathing beauty. But I still think we Northwest types can look quite well, au naturel faces and all.

And could it conversely be true that all the people in California are hollow, vain movie star wannabes who spend every waking moment (and dollar) planning their next tummy tuck or face lift? Of course not. That is ridiculous.

Finally, who the heck am I to even raise such questions? Do I even have any answers? No. I am no more an expert on social groups and norms than Mr. Green Jeans from "Captain Kangaroo." And this situation is far, far too complicated to explore completely here; I did not set out to write a research paper. The brutal honesty of S.B. was just too rare to keep to myself.

And isn't perspective an interesting thing?

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