How Years of Running Beauty Focus Groups Nearly Destroyed Me
I am the only one in the room who is neither asked nor allowed to answer: “How does that make you feel?”
This is Focus Group Archives, a column by Katiy Heath about navigating womanhood and identity within the beauty industry’s white corporate gaze.
Lowering the thermostat chills the air and offers a nice contrast to the portable heating pouch concealed under my jeans. Today’s groups coincide with the onset of my menstrual cycle, and I am in the midst of the day-one-endo-flare. Over the past six months, my body has been attempting to interfere with my work. And in my profession, I am compensated for my always-on, bubbly disposition and knack for connecting with strangers in a limited time.
120 minutes is how long I have to build rapport, to coax passion, to evoke excitement for soap and other personal hygiene mechanisms. 120 minutes to manage the lulls, control the talkers, and remain professional. 120 minutes until the next 120 minutes, until the stars are out and children of clients are ready to be tucked in. Moderating days are without monetizable breaks, and I cannot afford any interference.
There are no right or wrong answers, I fib to ease nerves as we begin. Of course, there are wrong answers when it comes to beauty.
What I’m not saying is that I will reroute the conversation if necessary, to appease the ones listening in. That I will ask questions that yield sound bites the client can use in internal videos, and a presentation that will make its way through the desk clumps of Skincare Incorporated. Eventually, floating heads of these women will live as projections on flat screens inside pristine boardrooms overlooking Marina Del Rey, their voices recounting how much they love product X. Any visual or audio trace of me redacted, as if I were never here to orchestrate this performance.
Ears perk up when I mention that a camera feed will stream our conversation out for those tuning in remotely. Unfortunately, you won’t get your fifteen minutes of fame or find yourself on YouTube. This point is true, but it’s one most people refuse to believe. I catch them fussing with themselves in the mirror, positioning their bodies to show their figures, as if this is an audition in-the-making.
Behind the glass, brand managers and researchers sit in a dimly lit row, so as not to be detected. Glowing laptops illuminate takeout menus, from which they’ll order twice to make it through the evening. At least one will be sushi, platters of every cut of tuna available filling the back table.
Between bites of yellowtail and albacore, when the backroom conversation turns, the women in the front will become targets. Targets the main client, Helen, SVP of the Innovation Lab, have spent thousands of company dollars on, and who represent the advertising bullseye.
Helen and I are rarely in the same room and communicate primarily through notes she passes underneath the door. When she hears a respondent too fixated on price, she writes, move on—tell them it’s all about the idea! When they get too fixated with the idea: move on—we cannot make a sustainable facewipe; ask about the experience!And when a respondent details their experience with one of the client’s make-up-removers—how it scorched lids and lashes—I receive a post-it with two capital letters, A-E, shorthand for ‘adverse event reporting’ and an instruction to shift topics before we are required to inform the legal department.
From the other side of the mirror, the women introduce themselves. This is where the spreadsheet begins to fail me. In the room, there is a “celebrity jewelry designer,” a “travel vlogger,” a “houseplant influencer,” a “life coach in-training,” and a woman who specializes in “unboxing videos.” But the spreadsheet reads: social worker, educator, professional data entry, bank manager, and pain clinic associate—someone whom I planned to talk with afterwards, but she only wants to discuss fingernail art. That’s okay, though. This dissonance is understandable, and it’s important they have their moment, that quick bump of confidence that comes from validation in a room of strangers.
I listen as they describe their morning routines and how the tautness of their forehead is social currency. They will use anything their dermatologist recommends.
“Except chemicals,” one says. “Anything unnatural contaminates.”
“Really?” everyone asks. They talk all at once. Minds are rubbing together now.
In the past six months, work has started interfering with my body. My brow flakes onto the floor. Day-one-endo-flare, along with cramps and belly bloat, dries me out, which I worry undermines my credibility. Most of my forehead is in the bathroom trash bin back at the hotel. Last night, I prepared for groups in Beverly Hills, with a bottle of prescription strength Motrin and a moderately priced Malbec. Wrapped in terrycloth, my toes against the marble floor, I disposed of my face from the day. Cotton ball after cotton ball, up and down the T-zone, under the eyes, across the faint frownie line.
I stood there swirling the wine in my glass, exposing the viscosity of its legs; in the mirror, I watched thick red coat thin stemware and visualized the backflow happening within me: sheets of cells moving in response to forces exerted by my uterus, progressing like tides toward the coastlines of other organs, where, much like a sea spore or polyp of coral, my uterine debris floats, latches, and continues to grow on new tissue.
This mental image is a broad understanding of my symptoms. Definitively diagnosing endometriosis, however, is only possible by laparoscopy that allows physicians to examine reproductive matter and collect samples to test. A procedure I postponed to accommodate the focus group schedule.
I stood looking in the mirror and thought about all the hotel sinks that have harbored my shedding, and the expectation to be perceived as healthy.
My value has been placed on me being seen as a woman whose body isn’t yet marked.
To be seen as unwell raises questions: If we are anything less than healthy, then what is our value? Can we still work and produce? Individual illness that can be detected from the outside, then, has become a reminder of our collective vulnerability, a burden in which the affected endure and are encouraged to conceal.
Attention on an individual’s health diverts attention from the larger system in which it serves. My value has been placed on me being seen as a woman whose body isn’t yet marked, whose face doesn’t flinch and reflects the kind of aesthetic the client is selling.
In the group, I move to autopilot. On my endo-flare days, I live on autopilot, committing to the clock. Nodding.Making affirming mms and ahs.Saying that’s interesting, and tell me more about that, how does that make you feel? Looking at the transcripts, anyone would think that, in fact, How does that make you feel? is my favorite question to ask. I say it after nearly everything these women share with me.
How, since they hit their mid-twenties, they are invisible. On the topic of getting older: They want to staple the sagging folds on their necks, iron flat their crow’s feet, and peel off layer after layer to get that baby skin back.
Interesting, and how does that make you feel?
Proximate pain in my right side, sweat in my navel under the electric pouch, but I stay tempered.
“I want to bathe in the fountain of youth, even if I lose my mind,” someone says.
Another is experimenting with bee stings, using venom to fill her creases.
“My sister’s boyfriend said she needed lipo—that he’d pay for it,” saysthe woman to her left.
A wow slips. Impulse controls are waning, but I keep it all inside. Building rapport without sharing is counterintuitive to how humans socialize, but the reciprocity clause doesn’t apply in focus groups. Instead, body language and midwestern manners help me establish trust. I learn to read rooms. If asked a personal question, I redirect the conversation. I’m paid to not feel, to not share, to forget that these questions apply to me. I am the only one in the room who is neither asked nor allowed to answer, How does that make you feel? and even if I were, I am not sure how I would respond.
I recover with, What do you love about your face wash?
The beads! It’s all about the beads! Everyone is zealous for the microbeads found across the client’s portfolio of scrub products. Aids that remove the dead and the dull. As we carry on in this room, hundreds of thousands of these same praise-worthy globs—a fraction of a millimeter in diameter—glide down drains into rivers and oceans; beads fastening to wildlife, burrowing inside our tastiest fish. At the time of these groups, these women don’t know this; I don’t even know this yet.
As I moderate in this moment five years ago, Helen is receiving an email announcing the proposal of the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 that Congress will pass next month, prohibiting the sale or distribution of rinse-off cosmetics containing plastic microbeads.
Five years from this moment, online magazines will promote plastic-free diets and how-to guides to determine whether your favorite products contain microplastics. (Hint: Look for polyethylene or polypropylene.) In five years, according to research conducted by The Plastic Soup Foundation, sponsored by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), ingredients will be replaced with those classified as skeptical microplastics; meaning synthetic polymers for which there is not enough research available, but many indicate harmfulness to human life and aquatic environments. (Hint: Also look for polyquaternium, polysorbate, PEGs, and PPGs.) Five years from this moment, in 2020, toxic tubes will linger on the shelf.
Don’t worry, Helen will later say, as if trying to convince herself too. Senior leadership has a plan. She will pause to suck the tobiko off the outside of a salmon roll, popping the fish eggs against the roof of her mouth with her tongue, wedging themselves under her gum line like microbeads.
I think about the drive to the facility this morning: the sun rising over I-10, me, scrunched sideways in the backseat, texting the words almost there to Helen. Blood soaked denim seeping into the light-colored fibers to make a sizable endo imprint. Hoping this doesn’t affect my ride share rating.
I think about Helen’s Boeing 777 soon departing LAX for groups in Seoul, flying across the Pacific, fields of microbeads below.
In the beauty industry, you only move up or down, not out. Until this moment five years ago, I had only been striving toward up, unclear of what that meant. More focus groups? More international trips? More incremental money to spend on an apartment I never slept in, sitter for a dog I seldom walked, unattended marriage counseling appointments?
Pain can change our perceptions of what’s real. It can lead us to accept a reality governed by brands that set the price on self-worth and convince women that aging is as threatening as illness. As long as I am able to perform, stay on my feet, position my hips just so, sway my ponytail in a way that pleases, I am needed. So long as my dimples shine and jaw is still, so long as my temperature is perceived as neutral, I have value.
By associating with sophisticated executives, I expected to cleanse my identity from my blue-collar upbringing. But I confused insider access with insider status. And access does not guarantee immunity. The same system of exploitation I support does not support me.
I was not raised in a home with careerist energy. Both parents held (and still hold) jobs: Mom is employed as an administrative assistant at a food processing plant that makes and distributes private-label vegetable oil-based products; Dad as a service technician repairing ice machines. The overly familiar ‘work to live’ mantra not only vocalized, but is, in it of itself, a kind of vocation. Jobs were not meant to inform our dreams or identities. Jobs were meant to provide the means to care for our families, communities, and selves.
The same system of exploitation I support does not support me.
Sometimes the mantra interferes with my work.
I want to live in the tidal waves of joy, untethered and covered in sediment. Bathe in the beads of ephemera and fissured shells. Soften my upper lip until it is piously pliant, full range to lift and dip with my mood. A face to match my body.
I want to ablate the sterile images of age-ambiguous white hands splashing water across contourless white faces, erode mass market narratives of western beauty.
Trace a silhouette in the sand, let it wash away.
Sometimes, my work gets in the way of my intentions.
“Devices are very popular in Korea right now,” the woman to my right tells me, in what seems like the longest focus group of my career as we near the final exercise.
In the final minutes of the session, the clients want to explore a technology not yet introduced in the US. Can we combat problems of plastic, with plastic?
I unveil six white, windowless masks lined with state-of-the-art light therapy nodules. Opaque shields with built-in eye covers to guarantee a quieting treatment.
Respondents are hesitant, and I assure it has been cleared by the FDA.
I put one on to demonstrate, mimicking a flight attendant gesturing at the exit rows of the cabin.
Lights turn on and off automatically at the click of the remote, I say as my voice echoes back against the mask. The lasers fire up, sending a radiance from underneath, looking like I have placed my head in a microwave. I instruct them to shut their eyes for protection.
I hear click after click, then a collective ooh. I imagine what we must look like to an outsider, like the faceless women of the future. I leave mine on and stare directly into the red, waiting for a burn.
KATIY HEATH is an essayist from Saint Joseph, Missouri. Her obsessions include women who bathe, women who work, and women who witness. She currently is writing a memoir about her experience moderating focus groups for skincare companies. Read more from her at CHEAP POP, Pigeon Pages, and XRAY Lit.