It all started when my friend “won” a free Mary Kay pampering party through David’s Bridal. I accepted the invitation without hesitation, figuring it would be fun to enjoy a free mini-makeover with friends.
Our Mary Kay consultant’s name was Maci. She was 25 years old, smiled a lot, and wore a full face of thick, glimmery makeup. She stood in my friend’s living room and launched straight into a marketing pitch about how Mary Kay is the ultimate female empowerment opportunity. You can make a six-figure income just by making friends and having fun! You can be your own boss! You can set your own hours! You can help other women and really make a difference!
I am very sensitive to pyramid scheme language, because it stole my boyfriend away from me in high school. He was just a normal, down-to-earth dude until an older co-worker started taking him to Amway meetings, at which point he transformed into a tiresome droid with big, green dollar signs where his head and heart used to be. He lost money, and I lost him; that kind of brainwashing really changes people.
Ever since, I’ve have PTPSD—post-traumatic pyramid scheme disorder. Just hearing the phrase “six-figure income” gives me a dull ache in my heart. Also: gas.
“You can even earn a free car!” Maci squealed, pulling me out of my flashbacks. She was holding up a large poster with pictures of six different cars. The infamous pink Cadillac was featured front and center—an atrocious Barbie fantasy you could not pay me to drive. “Now let’s go around, and each of you tell me which one you would choose!”
I felt knots tighten in my stomach as the first woman pointed to the BMW.
There’s an overpowering social pressure that we, as women, feel to be polite. We frequently stifle our thoughts and feelings to avoid causing a stir or making situations awkward. Mary Kay and other “multi-level marketing” schemes that target women know this, and they exploit the hell out of it.
So when the question came around to me, of course I didn’t say what I was really thinking (“This is tacky as hell and I want no part of it”) and instead found myself saying, “Um, maybe the Chevy?”
Next, she made us go around and say what we would do with an extra $600 each month.
It was like being a kid again, the way we were expected to grab at prizes being dangled over our heads. When I was seven, my mom gave me a Barbie sticker every time I didn’t wet the bed. When I racked up ten stickers, I got to go to the pet store and watch the fish. (That was way more fun than this.)
Next came the exfoliation and makeup demonstration, which seemed like somewhat of an afterthought. Maci gave vague instructions on how to apply each product as she continued to spout off benefits of the Mary Kay life and make semi-sexist comments like, “Every girl loves a good deal!”
“Now let’s go around again,” she said once our faces were all pink and polished. “And tell me what impresses you most about this business.”
Resentment burned on my cheeks beneath my blush. What I wanted to say was this: “I’m impressed that anyone older than twelve could be gullible enough to fall for this bullshit. I’m impressed that an organization that claims to be Christian is so unapologetically materialistic. I’m impressed that people like you were so easily able to lure away the first boy I ever loved.”
But being a lady means saying none of these things. “I don’t know,” I sighed when it was my turn. “I guess it’s cool that you guys get cars.” Maci’s face lit up as tiny pink Cadillacs danced in her eyes; it was exactly what she wanted to hear.
“Let’s end with a game!” she clapped. She gave us each a piece of paper, asked us to number it 1-15, and told us to get our phones. “Now write down the names and numbers of fifteen of your friends who I can talk to about these great products!” The prize for whorring out our friends’ private information? A one-time use lipstick sample.
How amazing would it have been, right then, if we’d collectively revolted? If one of us had boldly stood up and said, “I’m sorry, but this is fucked up,” as the rest of us applauded in unity?
Mary Kay knows that women won’t do that.
As I looked around at the others nervously scrolling through their phones, I realized I had no choice; I filled my paper with fifteen fake names and numbers. Then I collected my one-time use lipstick sample, and promptly lost it between two couch cushions.
Before she left, Maci insisted on having a one-on-one consultation with each of us. I went last, watching on as all the polite women got talked into overpriced exfoliation packages they would later say they regretted. (“It’s not a good idea to buy just one product,” Maci explained, “Because we can’t guarantee that the chemicals will mix well with other brands.”)
“Which package appeals to you most?” she asked when my moment was upon me, presenting me with a list ranging in price from $100 – $450.
“I have to pass,” I said. “I’m trying to save money.”
She nodded. “I’d be happy to set you up with a payment plan.”
I had to stifle laughter as I declined. Payment plans are for cars—not facial creams.
“When can we schedule your follow-up?” she asked, not missing a beat as she smiled at me hopefully from across her open appointment book.
It was then that I realized exactly how well-trained she was. It was so subtle and skillful, the way she skipped right over “Do you want to?” and went straight for “When can we?” Even on a linguistic level, it was difficult to escape her traps.
I told her I had a lot going on, but that if my schedule opened up in the future I’d give her a call. (Later I would regret this—why did I feel inclined to lie about possible future interest to save her from feeling embarrassed?)
“Maybe we could schedule your own party,” she suggested as I started to walk away. “I noticed you wrote down a lot of numbers.”
It was the first time I felt kind of bad. Even though Maci was a predator, she was also, of course, the biggest victim in the room.
Later that night, I discovered Pink Truth—a web site where former MK consultants have confirmed everything I suspected. Consultants have to buy all the products they sell and are often encouraged to start out by going thousands of dollars into debt on a Mary Kay credit card. If they don’t meet certain sales expectations, they are pressured to compensate by purchasing more products themselves. As much as 99% of consultants lose money. And the cars are not gifts at all—unless you keep recruiting new women and selling more products at a rate that is virtually impossible, you have to make payments. If you leave the company, you lose your car.
Two days later, I received a postcard from Maci that was every bit as cheesy and alienating as the party itself. A border of lipstick kisses surrounded three typed sentences of gratitude, ending with the line “One of my favorite parts of doing this is getting to add new friends to my life.”
As I ran my finger along the lipstick kisses, I thought about six figure incomes, being your own boss, and new cars. I thought about how even if it were all true—even if being a Mary Kay lady really did deliver everything it promised—it would never be worth it.
I don’t even want to imagine a life where I view everybody I meet in terms of how much money I can wring out of them, where I brainwash people with fantastical language that estranges them from those who love them, and where I earn my living by exploiting the entire spectrum of vulnerable women—from those who are struggling financially, to those who long for an escape from unsatisfying day jobs, to those who are simply too nice to say no ten times in a row to overpriced hand lotion. Especially under the guise of “friendship” or “female empowerment.”
Because female empowerment has nothing to do with buying, selling, or wearing products.
It has everything to do with saying no—repeatedly, if we have to—to the people who try to take advantage of us.