Janet's Reviews > Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubinstein, L'Oreal, and the Blemished History of Looking Good

Ugly Beauty by Ruth Brandon
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's review
May 15, 2011

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Read from May 13 to 15, 2011

It turns out to be less a book about the beauty industry than an account of L'Oreal's founder's pro-Nazi activities during WWII. About a third of the book is about Helena Rubenstein, who interested me enough to want to get a biography of her, being the first female self-made millionaire. A good two-thirds is about Eugene Schueller, the L'Oreal founder, and his friends and cohorts, L'Oreal executives, etc. which made my eyes roll up in their sockets from boredom. The last chapter talks about ways women try to be beautiful in the present day, including plastic surgery, which I felt didn't have a place in the book; and there's comparison between Rubenstein and Liliane Bettencourt, Schueller's daughter, but they are two very different women from two very different generations.

My eyebrows were raised by the revelation that in Rubenstein's Paris salons in around 1915, she employed a Swedish masseuse who "did a little extra" that had the female customers keep coming back and the masseuse booked solid. And it's interesting that the author claims that the beauty business is 90% run by men. And it's also interesting that over and over again it's said by various people that the way women look directly affects their self-esteem and confidence. I myself don't wear makeup at all, never have, and I don't think I have a self-esteem and confidence problem as a result. I may be one of the few women who value education and intellectual life more than surface appearance, by which people will probably take to mean I'm unattractive and dress like a slob. They're entitled to their opinion, but at least I have hundreds of dollars more per year to spend on things I think are important, like books, instead of making a lot of overprivileged men richer.

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