The sorts of establishments I work in—spas, salons, skin care boutiques—used to be part of what was simply called the “Beauty Business.” When marketing firms began to realize that people would pay top dollar for perceived virtue, it morphed into the “Health and Wellness Industry.” The idea being that consumers were no longer buying superficial products or services, they were buying a belief system. Pretty on the inside, I like to say.
If you’ve ever purchased an overpriced, eco friendly bottle of shampoo because of what it stood for, you almost surely bought it from the first corporation that ever employed me. You might have even experienced a religious wave of personal satisfaction as you handed over your credit card, flush with the sense that your money was supporting a higher good.
It was the late nineties and this company had three New York City outposts, each staffed like a Benetton ad. It was the sort of multiculturalism that would have been admirable but for the fact that the racial diversity was mitigated by the unabashed lookism. Every single employee—save the holiday season hires when they were desperate for anyone they could find—was almost blindingly attractive. I was brought on just before Christmas.
The interview process was a lyrical little interlude involving straight-faced questions as to whether I considered myself a daisy or a rose. That was followed with a personality test and a close examination of my pores.
Learning the environmentally correct product line proved far easier than mastering the company’s nouns and verbs. Our glasses, linguistically speaking, were always to measure half full. Problems were referred to as challenges! Overtime hours were growth opportunities! And the obligatory staff meetings (which were run like tent revivals) were called Celebrations of Information! On the last Friday of each month, the hundred or so Manhattan tribe members would gather and audibly hoot and cheer when a tribe leader (a corporate educator flown in from out of state headquarters) took the stage to announce a new shade of organically sourced lipstick. At seven o’clock in the morning. Applauding lipstick as if we’d cured cancer.
Every small event was an assault of positivity from a person whose smile said one thing, while their eyes said something else altogether.
The company’s founder was a small time celebrity and heralded as a visionary. A man of unparalleled ethical proportions, his devotees declared, running a business much like God must run heaven. In my experience, he was a tyrannical egomaniac. And while he might have felt fiercely protective of Planet Earth, that concern did not extend to human beings. Especially one named Dina.
Dina was the acting retail supervisor when I started and I took to her right away, compelled to befriend her. It was clear, early on, that Dina wasn’t well liked among the staff. A single mother in her mid forties, she shared a small one-bedroom apartment with her teenage son. Dina slept on the couch, giving him the bedroom. She was dutiful to degrees that made me sad, staying long after close to ensure each promotional gift bag was adorned with an individual sprig of cinnamon. The general manager and her various superiors would take long liquid lunches and gossip while getting their make-up done. Dina ate standing up and assisted customers with the single-minded devotion that belonged in hospice care, not retail.
Hers was a brand of self-denying deference that, frankly, makes me uncomfortable. A good twenty years older than the average employee, Dina stood out, awkward and uptight. A goody-goody. At first I assumed her direct reports were simply put off by her puritanical work ethic, but I’d come to understand it was more than that. People are complicated and Dina, while sympathetic, was also an epic buzz kill. Sure, she routinely went above and beyond, but she also routinely reminded everyone of that fact. Dina’s smiles always looked constipated, her sighs always sounded letdown. She never allowed anyone to help her, and then resented doing everything alone.
Had a massive display case toppled over and trapped Dina beneath the suffocating rubble of two thousand deep conditioning treatments, you’d have heard that tinny voice, echoing from deep within:
Don’t worry about me guys! I’ll be fine!
I’d feel terrible if anyone missed a cigarette break!
The bleeding will stop soon!
Forget about me! Finish your chips!
Dina was a Grade-A martyr.
This was something she’d learned at her other job, motherhood. I think that was why I signed on to Dina in the first place. I was familiar with that song and dance. I have a mom. She did and she did and she did for us, too.
This is something I’ve done my whole life. There are certain transgressions I can’t muster any forgiveness for those close to me, it feels like too much to surrender. So I’ll go and find someone else, someone slightly removed—a stand in, basically—and offer that person unfailing patience and understanding. Its how I make myself feel better without having to actually grow or do the right thing.
The truth was, Dina did not need to eat standing up. There was a chair right there. But habits are hard to break and you just knew she’d been playing that particular violin since the day she was born. Dina’s hard work was a means to feel valuable in a world she didn’t believe valued her at all. I can’t speak to the world’s appraisal of Dina, but I can speak volumes to the deeply discounted price the owner of the company put on her head the morning he visited our store.
In full display of everyone, Dina included, this man barreled past a pyramid of scented candles and angrily demanded an explanation as to why his site manager was so old and unattractive? I believe that was followed with, Get rid of her.
Just to be clear:
Dina did not hear him say, You’re worthless.
She heard him say, You’re right.
Those are two very different things.
As a matter of fairness, Dina was neither old nor ugly. If anything, she had a surprisingly definable waist for a woman nearing menopause and a real knack for accessorizing. She applied make up with a shovel, but didn’t need to by any means. But beauty is relative and the faces of that company—the one’s walking around and hawking the wellbeing— were measured with a very short ruler. Predictably, the man degrading Dina for the audacity of aging was himself paunchy and tired looking. To his great fortune he had the two magical attributes that excuse a person from physical standards of pulchritude. He had money and a penis.
His defenders would argue the case by shrugging off his cruel insanity as the consequence of genius and creativity. I would argue that his defenders are the reason twenty-nine bad things happened somewhere on this planet (and not to trees, to people) in time it took me to write that sentence.
Those of us in audience to the attack just stood there saucer-eyed and silent, torn between how wrong it was and the twisted delight of drama. Our lives were boring affairs and our jobs were mundane. We would soon start showing up early for shifts, desperate to continue the conversation about what had happened. No one stood up to him, of course. If anything we all grew more submissive, running and fetching him tea, reapplying lip-gloss to show our commitment to the company’s policy on pretty. Once he left, we rallied around Dina like people who actually cared. I doubt she bought it. Like most unattractive people, she was smart. Dina knew she was sandwiched between two dueling groups of idiots; the ones above her, and the ones below.
At the time I felt a lot of righteous indignation about the situation. But then I was 22 and I was righteously indignant about pretty much everything. It made me feel important. All these years later, I see things differently. I’ve worked for those clowns now a thousand times over, the only difference being the street address and watermark on my check. That company was not my entrance into the labor force; it was my entrance into adulthood. Some people try really hard and some people don’t. Promotions are sometimes warranted and sometimes not. Nice folks walk side by side with assholes, and folks who are nice under certain circumstances are assholes under others. Most importantly, virtue—by definition—never seeks profit or power. If it does, it is not.
The day of the epic insult was a day that Dina did not, in fact, stay late to excel at her position. I imagine her walk home was as long as it was lonely. I used to think about the walk. Now I think about home.
Her real profession, motherhood, would start when she arrived. It was a results-driven position, and she was good at it. I might still be sitting around, hours later, the afternoon’s events at the forefront of my thoughts, but I bet they’d receded further back in her own mind as she went about making dinner. Dina understood something it would take me years to grasp in even the most elementary way; it was a job.
Dina wasn’t ultimately fired for her failure to be dewy and embryonic and, to my shock, didn’t quit. Not right away at least. Later, she’d find a new job and move on, but I think it was more due to the low ceiling of potential advancement than it was the personal attack. I believe she’d still be there today had there been anywhere to go, any money to be made.
Most of us drifted out eventually, either exhausted from the nonsense or in pursuit of modeling careers. The company, nonetheless, maintains a stable of long-term employees. The majority gulped down the proverbial punch. I suspect a few, however, accepted the cup with a well-practiced grin. Once certain they weren’t being watched, they quietly tossed the contents down a drain, smudged some lipstick on the rim, and returned to their work no one the wiser. Maybe they had families to support and mortgages to satisfy. Maybe they had a sense of humor and perspective, an understanding that all jobs—like all things in life—failed you on one front or another.
You always knew who they were, though, when they’d converge on New York City for product launches or press events. They’d speak in their mother tongues, the language they learned at home growing up. They would call a meeting a meeting and when the corners of their mouths stretched into a smile, their eyes agreed.