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Have you tried those Bioré®# strips yet?

Technically, they’re called Bioré®# Pore Perfect™ Deep Cleansing Strips with C-Bond™. The product is a 4-inch gauze strip daubed with stickum (that’s your C-Bond™) reputed to uproot nasal nastiness, and it was the most visible and talked-about sponsor of last summer’s Lilith Fair. In the old-fashioned style of early radio and television shows, the centerpieces of the alt-rock traveling show talked up their sponsor between statements in favor of indie girl power and rock ‘n’ roll sisterhood. Sarah McLachlan and her shiny-faced friends smiled uneasily at panel press conferences and said that, yeah, the thing really works, and, even better, just as the ads claimed, the proof was in the unsightliness of the spent strip. If there’s unidentifiable gross stuff on the gauze, it follows that whatever it is is no longer clogging up a girl’s precious pores.

Its target demographic crazy with the heat of publicity, Pore Perfect flew off the shelves of pharmacies and supermarkets; Bioré’s undermarketed foaming cleanser and other, more pedestrian beauty products sat largely untouched. It wasn’t until months after the tour ended that I was able to find a fresh shipment that hadn’t been ravaged by tie-dyed teenagers with navel rings. The strips aren’t cheap, they hurt like hell, and they leave you fondling a small mass of infinitesimal hairs and a slight rash. There are a million ways to rip off female beauty consumers; Bioré—and now its imitators (Pond’s has just released its own version)—has just found a new angle.

It can’t be news to anyone anymore that most products of whatever ilk are basically the same; only the advertising differs. Market identification is as good a shopping guide as any other—probably better. “All toothpaste spatters the mirror,” said no-nonsense doyenne of the daily Peg Bracken, in urging travelers not to be untenably brand-identified while shopping for necessities overseas. Makeup artists will tell you that grease and color bases vary little among cosmetics, so quality is actually a matter of taste and desired effects small (pliability, staying power) or large (color).

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Paula Begoun, the self-styled “cosmetics cop” (www.cosmeticscop.com) and author of Blue Eyeshadow Should Be Illegal, The Beauty Bible, Don’t Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me and the new Don’t Go Shopping for Hair-Care Products Without Me, has been pushing beauty common sense for a decade. She knows her stuff, but she’s an unreliable narrator straight out of classic fiction. Not only is she wrong about blue eyeshadow—her advice is geared toward the conservatively styled woman who wants to look her unobtrusive best (makeup isn’t anything to play with, ladies)—but in exposing their high-priced tricks she has learned at the feet of the masters how to go one better. The recent launch of her own line, Paula’s Choice, nobly unrated but frequently mentioned in her books, casts doubt on the legitimacy of all that pro-consumer spade work.

But Paula’s Choice is only a smart extrapolation of an inevitable process—buying her Completely Emollient Moisturizer ($9.95 for 4 ounces) and not La Prairie’s Age Management Eye Repair ($100 for 0.5 ounces) signals that you might be able to afford La Prairie but are on to their little game and prefer admirably humble cut-to-the-chase quality.

Anti-advertising is the best advertising, as ABC learned from Joe Isuzu by way of Volkswagen. Attitude toward the dirty business of taking people’s money is the only thing that separates the bewildered, old-school sales techniques of the La Prairie counter from the fresh young things at Bioré (who are actually the wizened old hands of Jergens). The earth-friendly neo-hippie girls snapping up pore strips as if they’re free Matt Damon posters will not be told that a product is better because it’s made in France or models itself after a parodically high-class treat, like Skin Caviar (La Prairie again—I couldn’t resist—”mostly silicone oil, some water, and slip agents,” says Begoun; $100 for 2 ounces).

Jergens’ claims for its gauze-and-goo concoction are modern and roguish. Fittingly, they’re grunge-based; beauty isn’t even mentioned, although it’s the assumed punch line to this comic treatment. The ads are revolutionary in emphasizing the yuck factor of the pore-cleansing process—”Don’t look at the strip when you’re done!” they cackle, spurring thousands of females to wonder what the hell they’ve got trapped in there. As with mud baths and seaweed wraps, mayonnaise hair soaks and grainy skin scrubs, not to mention ancient arts such as urine and blood washes, Bioré profits from a clever updating of the time-honored beauty myth: the direct correspondence between grossness of treatment and loveliness of result.

Women are particularly susceptible to such scams not so much because they are the ones who buy beauty treatments—hey, hasn’t that Candy Man line of “male polish” swept the country yet?—but because they are the ones who are urged to express themselves through accouterments. Humans of all sexes need clothes and habitats, and there are plenty of voluble experts who can expound on the male and female signifiers to be found in both. But a lavish supply of accessories—”knicks ‘n’ knacks ‘n’ bits ‘n’ things,” as Edina Monsoon disdainfully described the stock in an elderly do-gooder’s resale shop—indicates feminine luxury. The more precious, losable, single-purpose thingies a woman has, the more time (read: money) a woman has to take extreme care (corollary: I’m worth it) of her person.

Men’s lives are being stripped down; the Swiss army knife is a classic representation of streamlined, rugged, all-in-one capability. A brilliant, successful man has nothing to show for it—his is the virtual office, with mega-memory storage on tiny microchips, untold financial possibilities in one thin credit card, a pair of $200 sneakers that look like Keds. (Maybe they are Keds.) Middle-class male money throws its weight around with dated ponderousness; just look at the materials: brass, dark wood, leather, wool. And the colors: oxblood, hunter green, mahogany. Only men’s vehicles, it seems, are immune to fashionable starkness; as a man’s importance grows, his ride become more monstrous, an ostentatious expression of his vigor.

Little girls learn early the power of things; their things have things. More precisely, Barbie#® has things. Any parent can report on the exasperating profusion of bitty plastic come-withs that outfit the various plastic girls—”Did we misplace Barbie’s cotillion fan?” Tony Kornheiser imagines a saleswoman snickering, dollar signs in her eyes. (Aptly, she sounds more like a cosmetics-counter “technician” than a Kay-Bee clerk.) Barbie is the dream of the teenage years so few young ladies end up living out, with her dream house and sports car and a horse as lush-maned as its rider. (Actually, 1966’s “Riding in the Park” ensemble was for the plastic-haired Dancer, but Miss B. came tricked out with jodhpurs, ascot, gloves, tweed jacket, hat, Lobb-style boots, and a riding crop. Holy doll fetishist, Batman!)

Barbie’s extras aren’t just a consumption display but a set of coded but unmistakable promises about feminine adulthood tricked up as something more useful: a set of oblique cultural guidelines. Information about sexuality, friendship, and finance is as taunting and vague as the memory of a beautiful dream. Barbie’s premiere LP, which chastely muses on the possibilities of her “First Date,” appeared two years after the first of her many wedding ensembles. “Slumber Party” (1965) came with a scale set at 110 lbs. and a book titled “How to Lose Weight” (consisting of the advice “Don’t Eat”; unsurprisingly, Ken’s PJ’s came with a pastry and a glass of milk).

Modern Barbies are deliberately accessorized to reflect the markets they seek. When Judy Shackelford came on board as Mattel’s first female vice president, she immediately smart-marketed various dolls to suit various demographic tastes. She even uses the phrase “whole worlds” to describe the knicks ‘n’ knacks each Barbie trails behind her: hairplay dolls with styling stuff; lifestyle dolls with either sports equipment or briefcase, credit card, newspaper, and calculator; and glamour dolls dressed from the inside out in lingerie, hose, dress, coat, bag, shoes, and compact. And if it’s not clear enough that “she” means “you,” there are disorienting crossover notes, like the hot-pink Barbie pleasure boat that comes with molded plastic seating for Barb and the gang as well as a child-size, battery-operated blender in the stern—Oreos and daiquiris for all my friends!

One grownup skill girls can’t rehearse on their plastic friend is makeup application; La Barbie is always impeccably, if gaudily, painted. Her lips are go-anywhere red, her eyeshadow seasonless pale blue. (One nouvelle vague-period doll had go-go white lips, but she was a trendy rarity.) I seem to remember a big, ugly “hair-play” toy consisting of Barbie’s swollen, disembodied head planted like a begonia or a bust of Napoleon on a plastic base, with washable cosmetics for play, but those lipsticks and liners may not have been washable, or even Barbie’s.

Cosmetics companies understand this need, and their sympathy bridges the gap between the young Barbie owner and the woman she is to become. Witness Chanel’s generous spill of cheap but sleek go-withs: The pencil liner has its own black plastic sharpener, indubitably a class artifact since it is etched with its maker’s name. The Day Lift cream has a keen white plastic “applicator” (it’s a stick like those red ones you get for packaged cheese ‘n’ crax sets); the body lotion comes with choice of screw-on cap or gold-edged pump attachment. Le Regard Eye Essentials compact comes with no fewer than three tiny brushes in three cunning shapes for its shadow/liner/cake mascara set and a very Barbielike diagram that fits over the powders. One Christmas my Chanel source spent enough cash on my stocking’s-worth of overpriced prestige products to warrant an exquisite little sterling silver fold-out double picture frame; I put in two snaps of myself and set it up on the aptly named vanity.

Mattel presents Barbie as an adult—or a slightly hallucinatory version of female adulthood seen through the eyes of a very isolated, very rich, and rather naive teen. Chanel treats its disappointed adult clientele as Barbies. The dream of adult femininity is always illusory—Bioré buyers aren’t any closer to world peace or cute boyfriends than they are to going without blackheads after they shell out their six bucks. But this easygoing hippie fantasy is a peculiarly advanced one, at least in terms of the ongoing historical beauty quest; what they do get is a peculiarly modern sense (in marketing terms) of belonging. The grande dames of beauty still plow ahead like the not-quite-irrelevant luxury liners they are because they offer that members-only passkey as well as something more tangible and ineluctable: a momentary wallow in Barbie’s dream life.—Arion Berger