I read about Kelly Osbourne's $250,000 Emmy manicure the other day and wept.
Well, not really. But I sighed and had a sip of ancient Scotch, which is the world's most agreeable method of indulging disappointment.
It wasn't because I could think of a million ways that a quarter of a million dollars could be better spent. That goes without saying. And it wasn't even because I have some knowledge of Osbourne. I interviewed her a few years ago in the penthouse suite of a Toronto hotel and all I can conjure now is a vision of her as an unfortunate style amalgam of Betty Boop and Tracy Turnblad, the character with the bouffant hair in the musical Hairspray. I recall Osbourne's hair as a big, bad artificial flower arrangement and her attitude wasn't much better. (Okay, I'm lying. My experience of her did contribute to the sigh and the Scotch.)
In truth, my chagrin had something to do with the notion that precious gems – in this case, 267 carats worth of black diamonds in a nail polish from the Los Angeles-based jeweller Azature – have become one-night wonders, an indictment, if anyone needed one, of an excessive consumer culture in which we acquire and dispose of just about anything, from fashions to spouses.
Mostly, though, I was feeling world-weary because Osbourne's manicure was a reminder of the tyranny of maintenance, which seems to be at a new height. There was even a manicam at the Emmys to highlight celebrities' nail art. What's next? A pedicam? A waxicam to check the state of hirsuteness on celebrity legs?
The majority of us – men and women – may not be sporting diamond dust on our fingernails, but maintenance of all kinds (waxing, hair colouring, eyebrow shaping, manicures, pedicures, Botoxing) is fast becoming an expected part of everyday appearance and style. A study of the Canadian aesthetics industry in 2006, the last year for which figures are available, showed that spa visits had been steadily rising at 17 per cent per annum since 1996 and accounted for over $1-billion a year.
But you likely know this because it's Saturday and you have an appointment to get to. I was in my local nail bar the other day (there are four within two blocks) and it was a veritable cocktail party of friends and acquaintances. Senator Pamela Wallin was seated on a vibrating vinyl throne with her feet in a pedicure tub and each hand being attended to by one of the staff. She would have waved if she had a hand free. "I just got off a plane. I'm trying to hide," she said when I greeted her. Really, in a nail bar? She would be better off hiding in a restaurant.
The costs associated with personal appearance is somewhere below groceries and mortgage payments. It's as though we all think of our bodies as crucial, mysterious machines – luxury cars that transport us from one place to the next – and we obsess about the detailing. You're a BMW in your perfect clothes and killer booties, but that chipped nail polish is like a side mirror that's broken. If you leave it like that, you have to pretend that a) you didn't notice or that b) you did notice and didn't care, which is somehow worse.
And the tyranny is not just in the number of treatments available. It's in their co-ordination so that everything appears to be at the optimal level of done-ness. The body may be intelligent, but it can act like a petulant, subversive teenager, doing exactly what it wants when it wants.
It will sprout a chin hair overnight just to spite you and your electrologist. You get your nails done, but your roots are creeping back. You get rid of hair in one place, but the hair you do like needs a blow-out. Honestly, having everything perfect all at the same time feels like a rare alignment of the planets.
To make matters more difficult, the trend is to have these services available at specialty or boutique bars – a scheduling nightmare. You have to spend a day or a weekend cosmetic-bar-hopping. There are blow-dry bars, nail bars, brow bars. Some cities have Botox bars. But hold the presses! I just received an e-mail alert about a "female masturbation bar" in Toyko with colourful vibrators lined up on the wall. Do you think they do fittings? A waxing boutique, Waxon, appeared this summer on a corner near my home in Toronto. All yellow and white in decor and smelling of herbal aromatherapy, you would think they were selling rare art, not a fast way to fix a hairy butt.
Oh, pardon me. I shouldn't have said that, because they didn't put it that way, of course: The place is a testament to how polite society can handle anything embarrassing if it has the cutesy language for it. One of the items on Waxon's bar menu, for example, was "Between The Cheeks," at a cost of $15 and with the explanation "nuff said."
Grooming, I always think, is like manners, a bit of deliberate poise with which to breeze through the throng. We do it not because we're told to – I never bought Naomi Wolf's argument in The Beauty Myth – but because it makes us feel good. It's a rebuttal to an unkempt world.
But that doesn't mean it has to be perfect all the time. In fact, people who are always groomed to within an inch of their lives are unknowable, all surface with no hint of an interesting interior. A little imperfection adds character and humanity.
That's my excuse, anyway.