The Daily Mail has run an article about Martha Stewart organizing her hoard of backup personal care products and putting them into plastic bins with labels on them.
The editors did not publish this article because they are happy that Martha’s basement is tidy.
They did so because they could also run a picture of her from mid-calf up, with a deer-in-headlights grin and her jacket sleeves rolled back unevenly, sporting the appropriately heavy and low bosom of a well-fed woman in her late 70s. They also ran it because one of the bins has a label “enema kits” and because it is hard to imagine the tensile strength of the contractor-grade plastic bags that would be needed to purge the voluminous bin contents every few months, which is what Martha does and what she recommends we all do with our own pots of cream and wands of paint. The Daily Mail, in their Schadenfreude, wants us to see a dim-witted hoarder, finally appearing foolish and even destructive in her overconsumption. I get this. Martha is made to look ridiculous in this article.
When I was in business school I took a class from a marketing professor who used the case study method to teach principles of analysis. We were presented with vignettes, actual situations that companies had found themselves facing that they then approached in ways that business students even decades later could learn from. I found that for any one of these cases, if I stared at the graphs and other illustrations long enough, the underlying truth about the product’s limitations, potential, or ideal market would reveal itself to me. Once you took in the mechanical details that were described in the accompanying text, the elusive and sometimes magical truth could be intuited if you let the semi-conscious visual messaging register.
One of the cases involved promotion of lemons and my own project was a success because I deduced from the illustrations accompanying this case that the way to sell more lemons was to pitch them to people like Martha, women who were creative and who could be made to discern in the tangy citrus fruit the key to their own creativity and even joy. I was right. This is what the Lemon Board, or whoever the hell had a need to promote lemons probably back in the 1980s, had done, and their campaign had been an enormous success, forever equating a bowl of lemons on a counter with artistic and empowered domestic goddess-hood. But back to Martha’s basement. I sense there is more to this story and drawing on my success in that long-ago MBA marketing class, I settle in and give it a good long stare. What else will reveal itself?
I see an aging jailbird, sure, but I also see someone who has given pleasure and encouragement to countless people and who has been a font of important knowledge for decades. I see large black plastic bags full of unused and discarded beauty products in landfill, not rotting in their plastic tubs for decades and maybe even centuries and I kind of wish I could put Martha herself in the bags with them, doomed to forever be sucking on her own corrupted garbage. I see Martha gesturing to her assistants for them to bring her the expensive and loaded-up small pastel paper-stock bags with the soft branding graphics, opening first this small cardboard box and then that one with her lacquered nails, piling the glossy paper inserts and clear plastic closure sleeves onto a side table, dipping her fingers first into this lightly fragranced pot and then into that one, thinking, “Because I’m worth it.” Blah blah blah. More easy hating and Schadenfreude, Daily Mail style.
The real story is somewhere else, right in front of me. The real story is the area of bins on the right side of one of the photos, and these bins have a combined footprint equivalent to the real estate devoted to hair care or skin care. Bins marked “MEDICATED PATCHES” “LIQUID AND SPRAY MEDICATIONS” “SPECIMAN COLLECTION” “ENEMA KITS”. Since these are the backup stash, it is not hard to imagine that there are quantities of the same, plus other over the counter medications and prescriptions, upstairs. This is A LOT of quasi-medical product for one small old lady.
The real story is how this shoring up of human health with medications has become normalized. I argue that Martha has bins of this medicated or semi-medicated stuff because her health has become compromised by the other bins of personal care products that are actually toxic garbage, along with the piles of lightly fragranced to-be-discarded glossy advertising inserts, the nail polish solvents, the glues and printing inks on all of the product packaging. I see two bins containing probably dozens of sunscreens. I wouldn’t touch that stuff because of its slowly-becoming-known dangers! Her exposure to these under-regulated or unregulated substances has undermined her health in small ways and probably also in not-so-small ways.
The real story is how this sort of overconsumption of this sort of over-chemicalized product, along with its packaging, has undermined human health. It isn’t right that so many of us are on medications or that we extensively consume this same kind of semi-medication because our bodies have been undermined in ways we can’t put our fingers on. Toxic products are often a social justice issue, but even she, who has had every advantage her whole life except for maybe during her few months in pokey, has had her health compromised I would argue by the consumer products around her. It isn’t right that vibrant Martha, a resilient and admirable creature, needs a kit to help her shit. Let her be a lesson for us yet again, this time as we don’t do what she does. We don’t want our lives to look like this when we get old. We need to keep this garbage away from us.