Is Sephora a Dream or Our National Nightmare?

I asked many intelligent women and a few men about their experiences at Sephora, one of the most polarizing and overwhelming and magical shopping experiences one can find in these United States.

Meghan Nesmith:

How do they make it so shiny? What I really wish is that someone would build a Sephora that is entirely bereft of other human beings. There really has never been a moment in my life where I wanted a stranger to start touching my face or to really even look at it for an extended period of time. All the salespeople have this hawk-eyed fever. That being said, I keep going. The Sephora brand stuff is pretty cheap and everything is so colourful and recently I decided I could budget like one or two Nars lipsticks a year and so sometimes I do that. It feels thrillingly indulgent. Also I went through a blue eyeshadow revival and Sephora was my enabler. Or sometimes I’ll go to Sephora just to try stuff on so I can figure out what colour might work and then try and match it to something super cheap at a Duane Reade. Also I’ve been known to go in before a date to “freshen up” except I would never actually call it that.

Those are my Sephora feelings. For now, at least.

Miranda Popkey:

I own one thing from Sephora: lipstick. It is perfect. It also cost me like $20. Most of the time I think Sephora is a waste of money because, like, my face is my face. Even if you make it look fancier, it’s still going to be MY FACE. Better to save the money for clothes / drinks. But then I see people who have legit makeup on, and they look great and profesh and I think: Maybe this is what’s standing between me and grownup life. Sephora.

Bennett Madison:

I think Sephora is amazing and it always made me jealous I don’t get to wear make up. It seems designed for shoplifting, I guess.

LS: You wrote a book about shoplifting. Did the girls in the book shoplift at Sephora?

I’m 90% sure they did. But it’s been awhile since I read it. Actually I think there’s a scene where they get busted for the first time, at Sephora.

LS: I have your book on my phone, I’m going to look it up. Yep: “I was alone in the Stila aisle with a fistful of lip liner when Francie found me.” Page 283.

Whoa my hard copy doesn’t have that many pages.

LS: Yes on the phone your book is a 633 page Tome.

Jill Johnson:

Well, you know I LOVE Sephora. I think it’s kind of overwhelming though and if I don’t walk in with something specific in mind to buy there’s just too many options and I don’t buy anything. I also don’t like to try any makeup on there because of germs.

Sephora does make me want to buy lots of skin products (to stop aging!) but they are so expensive. However, sometimes I justify $$$ purchases by thinking it’s my face and it’s worth it.

Nozlee Samadzadeh:

I bought an impulse lipstick there once, just once, the day I gave notice at my last job, and even as I stood in line to pay my hard-earned $22 for it, the fun of the moment started to fade — I’m not a makeup person and it felt like I was enacting an impulse I’d been taught to feel, not one that I necessarily felt. (I still have it, but the truth is that it’s just a little too orange-red for my coloring.)

However, I have never, ever regretted spending $22 on an impulse food purchase.

Amy Merrick:

I’ve been there twice. I went through a phase feeling like, if I’m going to be a grownup and have my own business, I want to look like a grownup and not look like I just rolled out of bed, which is what I did. The first time I went, I was dragged there by one of my good friends, and she said, okay, you need to buy this, and you need to buy this, and you need to buy this, and she did all the shopping for me.

LS: Oh that’s my dream.

And it was something crazy like $100, but I swallowed my pride and did it. And then the next day I got a call from the bank, saying, “We have a fraud alert on your account, did you spend $100 at Sephora?”

Elaine Chase:

1. I avoid Sephora as MUCH AS POSSIBLE. I only go if I absolutely need to (see below). It’s better than, like, MAC, which is totally unpenetrable unless you know EXACTLY what you’re doing and are wearing stilettos and a pencil skirt, but in general the second I walk into Sephora, I immediately feel two things: (a) that I should be wearing like 5 layers more makeup and a dress, probably, and (b) fuck, I’m about to spend $100 on makeup.

2. I go to Sephora when I need to buy things I absolutely need, like foundation or bronzer or shit like that. Or if I have a giftcard. (Most drugstore mascara is better, for me, than a $40 bottle of Dior.) Of course, I usually end up getting a tube of lipstick I’ll only wear once every three months and like 5 bottles of chic new nail polish, too, which is the main reason I hatelove Sephora so much.

Side note: Sephora is one of the only places I’ve ever felt bold enough to shoplift. $7 or whatever for a thing of Rosebud Salve? Fuck you. I’ve taken a travel-sized thing or two a couple times while in line to buy like $70 worth of other stuff. If we’re gonna be gouged…

Emma Carmichael:

I’ve been into a single Sephora for about 5 minutes. I felt overwhelmed by the amount of choice and the amount of makeup I’ve never considered or encountered before. (I don’t wear much at all and what I do wear is laughable drug store quality.) But I’ve been meaning to go back and get a proper tutorial from a Sephora lady. It just seems like such a… commitment. LOL, “I run a ladyblog.”

Jia Tolentino:

I think of Sephora the way I think of a lot of women’s magazines: gorgeous, glittery arenas that I deeply enjoy immersing myself in once every four months or so, but can’t handle more often than that because of my aversion to acquiring new needs. I like makeup a lot but never have the urge to buy anything I wouldn’t wear often; what gets me are the products that are marketed as essential steps to a normal-looking face but are actually pretty superfluous, like primer or highlighter or whatever the kids are messing with these days!

Megan Frost:

A few weeks ago, I went into Sephora for the first time in what felt like years. I had been running around all day, didn’t have time to go back home before going out to a play. But I had a few minutes to fill so I rushed into the Sephora in Times Square to freshen up. I felt guilty and like I needed to sneak around because I knew I wasn’t going to buy anything. I was only there for the samples — I really needed to powder my face.

I have no idea why I felt guilty — does anyone ever buy anything? Everyone in there, which felt like thousands of people, was there using the free products.

Also because I buy all my makeup at Target — Neutrogena and Boots all the way — I had no idea what brand, color, to rush to quickly. There is way more stuff in there than anyone needs. I have a friend who loves all that stuff. The more stuff the better. But I get overwhelmed and don’t really have any interest in trying lime green eye shadow, purple mascara or $200 perfume. It also reminds me of the duty free section in the airport.

Christian Brown:

LS: Have you ever been to a Sephora?

I’ve been to the mall with a girl, Logan.

LS: What’d you think?

It feels like a TRAP. Like a boiled down condensed consumption paradise
where it’s very hard to escape without buying stuff.

Edith Zimmerman:

Hmmm. I guess I like Sephora, except that I hate it and so much of what it stands for. I’ve loved their flexible policies and their variety, but also I hate how shamelessly they’re designed to make you spend so much fucking money on garbage no one needs. I guess if I wanted makeup I’d go there, but I’ve been trying to throw everything out, so I’m basically down to an eyeliner, a mascara, an eyebrow pencil, and a lipstick. And an eyelash curler. Four of which I got at Sephora. I don’t know. I like trying to look prettier than I am, but I also hate it.

Basically I think Sephora’s fine and useful, and everyone I’ve ever spoken with there has been warm and helpful, but I also hate it, and if I owned it, I’d go through different phases of satisfaction and distress throughout the day (bringing women happiness / bleeding them of money). I think I have a huge number of points on my Sephora frequent buyer card, for what it’s worth. I’m also most drawn to the same kind of sheer-ish berry lip stain tube tub pot-type things. Having written this out I now feel a little worse. Sephoraaaaaaa. Also I make a big to-do of using all the little cleanliness & safety tools at those trying-on stations, in case anyone looks over at me, although left alone I’d probably be a lot grosser.

I guess just overall makeup makes me feel better and prettier in the short run, but in the long run, once it becomes a part of my everyday routine, it eats away at the idea that I’m fine without it, and throwing makeup away has helped with that.

Lauren Rodrigue and I went on a field trip to the Sephora in Union Square to see all of this in action.

LS: Everywhere you look, there’s something to buy.

LR: That’s what a store is, Logan.

LS: Is that Parker Posey?

LR: Where?

LS: That picture.

LR: Oh I thought you mean like actually here. No that’s not her.

LS: Do you think Parker Posey shops at Sephora? Also do you think my hair could look like this?

LR: Everyone shops at Sephora, so yes. And yes I think you could get your hair to look like that. Probably with some products in this retail establishment.

LS: Okay. We are at the nail bar, which is a bar for doing your nails. There are five million nail polishes, and you can use them and buy them I guess that’s also an option. Ooh look at this one! It’s called a “Blogger Kit.” Curated by nail bloggers. Blogger kit. They are just so good at making things you want to buy.

LR: How is this a thing in America right now. Blogger kit nails. I feel like we’re in a Mary Kate and Ashley movie and this is a montage.

LS: I didn’t think I was into nail art, but now I’m thinking I kind of like nail art.

LR: Yes I’m into this.

LS: Studs on your nails. You can glue studs on your nails.

LR: I might buy this. Twenty-four dollars though.

LS: Because it’s called a kit does that make you want it more?

LR: Kind of. I’ve always liked the word “kit,” and then suddenly I like the word “blogger,” like in the past couple of years.

LS: Because you are a blogger.

LR: I’m not the blogger they’re talking about though. God all of these color combos are so good.

LS: Yeah they’re pretty good. Do these bottles with the bows on them do anything for you?

LR: Yeah they do a lot for me. They do a lot for me. I’m feeling like I’m in a music video about being a girl. And look at this — “Bespoke Lacquer!” “Missus Patmore! Bespoke lacquer.” Ohmygod look at this, rock and roll blogger.

LS: Okay we have to keep moving. This section is good. Anything that has a drawing on it makes me want it.

LR: Benefit has the best packaging.

LS: Yes, Benefit does have the best packaging.

LR: Look at this package. Take a picture of it.

LS: Will we get kicked out?

LR: Just say you’re a beauty blogger. “See those Blogger Kits over there? Thats my kit.” Ohmygod look at this you have to look at this. It’s the magnetic kind. Ohmygod. Yes. yes.

LS: I don’t understand.

LR: Let me show you. It’s the best thing. The best thing. Okay step one, apply one coat. Oh I think I did it wrong. I did it wrong. I didn’t put the base coat. Fuck this. Wait what, Dry five minutes, I don’t have time for that.

LS: “Hold cap over nail for 1 second.” That’s confusing.

LR: I love this. I love this. I love kits. I love being a girl. I love little things that come in a plastic package.

LS: This wall of lip color stresses me out. It’s too much.

LR: This is too much lip color.

LS: That’s why it’s so smart, and I think they know this, that they have that, and then they have these little sections, of specially picked products — “Sephora Favorties,” “What’s Hot Now” — I can totally pick something from this little section.

LR: Look at all these people doing their nails. Do think they’re going to buy something? I don’t. I don’t. Oh no now we’re in hair. This is stressful because I know I need all of this.

LS: Bumble and Bumble packaging is really attractive. I just want all of it. What would happen if I put this hair powder in my hair?

LR: I think it would look bigger.

LS: Am I doing it right?

LR: I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know. No. You’re not. It’s white. It turned your hair white.

LS: But in a good way?

LR: No. Not in a good way.

~ Later~

LS: So we got out of Sephora alive and with our dollars intact. You wanted some lipstick, I wanted new foundation, but we both managed to get out. Do you remember the last thing you bought at Sephora?

LR: Yes because I hardly ever buy stuff there. It was a Clinique brush-on gel eyeliner. $15. AND I’m sporting some killer office appropriate eyeliner wings today, thx clinique ~air kiss~.

LS: How often do you go to Sephora?

LR: Once or twice a month. You?

LS: Same. I mostly go there if I’m out in the world, and feeling really ugly. So I’ll go in there and think, maybe I can go there and someone will give me a makeover.

LR: I’ve never gotten one of the makeovers. I’m too scared + totally incredulous that it’s free.

LS: Yes. Well, I usually just go and am like, help me, help me with THIS (waves hand in front of face). It’s my dream to have someone be like, “Yes, let me paint you with potions and make you prettier than you ever dreamed and all you have to buy are these three reasonably-priced things.” But usually it doesn’t really work like that. I also have a dream of someone looking at my face and saying, “You could have perfect porcelain skin if you used this 1 product.” And then giving me an extremely large sample of that product. It brings out my magical thinking, I guess is what I’m saying.

LR: Well that’s what they want. They want you to think they have the magic.

LS: I just want to find that 1 product that is going to be my secret favorite best beauty secret fix-all. And I believe it is in there! I just have to find it, and for me, I feel like it’s just a matter of finding that right person, or even another customer, who knows the secret, and is willing to share it with me.

LR: BB cream.

LS: New invention. Didn’t exist, and now it does.

LR: I much prefer to be on my own solo mission of discovery at Sephora. I don’t like engaging with others while there. I like to try things and be really surreptitious. Like not even there. Like a whackamole. Because I don’t want people to think I’m a lil girl. I feel like a child in Sephora,
and I just don’t want these adult women being like, “Hi little girl, where’s your mommy, no mascara doesn’t go on your lips.”

LS: And I always say, “Help me.”

LR: Wow we are opposite. I say opposite. I say nothing. I just act really mild and invisible and put things on and leave. Would you say u go there because they’ve established themselves as experts and you want to learn?

LS: Yes but I know they aren’t all. I just want to find a magical fairy godmother to tell me what to wear and buy.

LR: But they don’t want you to find that one product, because if you do, you’ll only buy that. So there will never be that 1 thing, sadly. There will be a constantly growing and evolving kit of things. KITS.

LS: You’re right. You’re right. But maybe I’ll find someone who wants to subvert the system and tell me a secret. There has to be 1 thing, 2 things, 3 things max. Or at least in each category, 1 perfect thing. Tell me, are you open to buying when you go there? Are you hoping to find something to buy?

LR: No, no the opposite. I’m hoping I’ll want nothing. But surprise, I want everything. Things I didn’t even know I wanted.

LS: We really should just never go there again. Literally no good will come of it.

LR: Except I’m going today after work. I need falsies for my Fourth of July picnic.

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