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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Not Making It Up

Yesterday I got paid for being white. For having white skin.

Okay, that was an unnecessarily inflammatory way to say it, so let me explain. Not just yesterday but whenever they offer, I visit an multinational conglomerate's beauty division and let them test make-up on my face. My white face. It's crucial that it be a white face. Not because that's the only type of face they test; they also test Japanese faces (I asked; I did not ask about other kinds of faces), but because here in Japan, it's not as easy for them to come by white faces as it is easy to recruit Japanese faces upon which to test their make-up. So my value is in being comparatively rare, not in being white. But I can't help being aware that it is my whiteness which is rare and therefore valuable to them. I don't like it, being valued for my skin color. Equally I don't like being dismissed for my skin color (which happens here on a regular basis too, though not at the beauty division of the multinational conglomerate).

It pays very well, having a white face. I don't know how much Japanese faces get paid to have make-up tested on them; I hope they get the same generous amount, but if they don't that would just reflect  relative scarcity, not implicit value. On the other hand, if the pay is to reflect the opportunity cost of being at their company and doing their bidding for a few hours, then pay should be the same for all participants regardless of skin color. And I don't even know what the pay is for anyone other than myself! But still it bothers me. I know if I had skin that was the norm, this company never would have searched me out--I'd never have fallen into their network. But by virtue of my skin, I'm in, and in fact have been asked to recruit other white women, which I have.

On the other hand, I LOVE talking about cosmetics and testing them out (I was told I was one of their favorite subjects because I talk so much, which strikes me as funny as I would normally consider myself to be reticent, but they're paying (and well!) so I give them a running commentary of every thought going through my head about make-up while I'm with them). I miss talking to my girlfriends and sisters about make-up and hairstyles and all that, so when I visit this company, I'm thrilled they pay me to do this very thing. We have lots of fun during my visit; we laugh and chat and I've even given a CD to a worker with similar taste to mine. But we work too. I apply make-up and scrub it off and am interviewed, photographed, videotaped, and fill out questionnaires, and have tests done on my skin that I'm not allowed to talk about. (The tests are not that exciting but they are confidential.) My favorite visits are the ones in which a professional make-up artist applies products to my face. I sit very still thinking, "I can't believe they pay me to do this!"

So this is the third time I've written a post about my make-up testing, but I've never actually posted one to the blog. That's because race is such a central and distressing issue in my life that it pains me to talk about it. So this is a start. In the context of cosmetics, skin color is an obvious thing to consider, so today I begin talking about race in this rather safe context. And maybe I'll get braver.


Supervillainess said...

My husband used to do cosmetic testing as a cosmetic chemist for KAO corp in Cincinnati, and bring me hope things to try, which was really fun! Now that he works in software, I get fewer cool samples!
I'd love to hear more about this, as I have always found Japanese cosmetic products to be much better for my sensitive (and super pale) skin than American or European products. Shu Uemura, Shiseido, love!
Oh, whoops, you've discovered my inner makeup junkie.

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Glad to know I'm not the only one whose an inner make-up junkie. I can't really reveal much more about the testing I do, as I signed confidentiality agreements, but it's for a multinational firm that you wouldn't consider a Japanese brand.

In college there was a girl on my dorm floor whose father was a chemist for Nestle. We used to get big boxes of chocolate bars to test. Now that was some fun!

My grandfather was vice president of kitchens for a major airline, and he used to bring us china and silverware for both first class and coach, and ask us to use it and give our impressions. Once a sales rep gave him some "unbreakable" plastic silverware, and my grandfather told us to go at it. It didn't break, but it did melt if thrown into the bottom of the dishwasher. We made mobiles out of it.