I’m not a fan of direct sales companies, although I’ve never been sure why. It’s not as if I had a scarring childhood experience. As a kid, I never saw any Home Interiors or Tupperware catalogs lying around or went to parties with my mom, but I distinctly remember having faux wicker butterflies and lidded containers in shades of paprika, pea soup, and breast-fed baby shit. Now that I dig into my memory a bit, I remember an Avon lady coming to our house, too. I guess that explains that perfume decanter shaped like a little girl, and those scented gingerbread-man Christmas ornaments… Good God! Did everything in our house come from a direct sales company? Apparently, my mother was living some kind of double life. And so another paragraph that began in innocent reflection ends in traumatic discovery.
As an adult, I’ve mostly managed to avoid these parties. I went to a jewelry one once, unsuspecting, and as I perused the catalog, I came upon the company philosophy: “We believe God created every person with value. We believe life’s priorities should be God, family and career. BLAH BLAH BLAH more God crap BLAH BLAH.” By that point, it was too late to bail, so I just sat there quietly and tried to look pious. I wouldn’t make the same mistake again, although I did unwittingly end up owning some Thirty-One products over the years. My mother-in-law got me a purse one Christmas that I loved. It was the perfect color and perfect size, and I owned it for a year before I noticed the “Thirty-One” tag inside of it. Thereafter, I referred to it as my “Jesus bag.” They are so sneaky. I know what “thirty-one” means, OK? I know the Bible verse has to do with the virtuous, God-fearing housewife, and I don’t want any parts of that bullshit.
Also, I once went to a Pure Romance party because everyone else was going and I was curious (and I knew it wasn’t “faith-based”). I don’t remember much about it except it was surreal passing sex toys among my co-workers, I bought an ugly piece of lingerie that was way too expensive, and the hostess got drunk and spilled a suitcase full of dildos. So that was Pure Romance.
Then, a few weeks ago, I got ambushed.
One of G’s colleagues called his phone and asked to talk to me. I’d never met the woman. I assumed she asked for me because G’s fortieth birthday was coming up, and she wanted to collude in doing something embarrassing to him.
When I answered, she said she wanted to invite us over for a get-together. Then she told me she was starting a new “business” and asked if her “mentor” could get on the line with us. Without identifying the name of the company, she and her mentor chirped on about “lifestyle products,” gave me two possible party dates, and cowed me into committing to one of them.
Boom. Within three minutes, it was over.
“What did I just do?!” I shrieked at G. “It’s probably those fucking oils that people think cure cancer!”
“Calm down,” he said. “We don’t have to go. We can make an excuse.”
But I found myself unable to come up with a valid excuse. Before I knew it, the date was nigh and I was receiving reminder emails. Here are the reminder emails, with my commentary in caps.
5 days before the party:
Hello Abby, Thank you so much for agreeing to come to my party. [YOU AND I BOTH KNOW I DIDN’T AGREE OF MY OWN FREE WILL; I WAS TRICKED INTO IT BY WHATEVER DIRECT SALES INCANTATIONS YOU WERE USING.] It will be fun I promise. [THIS IS WHAT JEFFREY DAHMER SAID BEFORE HE KILLED, VIOLATED, COOKED, AND ATE ANOTHER HUMAN BEING.] Feel free to bring G. [OH, HE WILL BE COMING WITH ME, BECAUSE IT’S HIS FAULT I’M IN THIS MESS.] or a friend ;-). [I ONLY HAVE ONE LOCAL FRIEND, AND I CAN’T BRING HIM TO PARTIES LIKE THIS BECAUSE HE LOOKS AT EVERY ITEM AND MUSES ALOUD HOW IT CAN BE USED SEXUALLY. HE IS ALSO PHYSICALLY INCAPABLE OF WHISPERING.]
4 days before the party:
Hey Girl, [RYAN GOSLING IS THE ONLY PERSON ALLOWED TO BEGIN AN EMAIL THIS WAY. TRY AGAIN.] Thank you for agreeing to attend my Arbonne Party. [SEE ABOVE.] I’m totally excited you are coming. [TOTALLY EXCITED, OR JUST PARTIALLY EXCITED? I WOULD UNDERSTAND IF YOU HAD RESERVATIONS.] We will have mimosa’s waiting for you 🙂 [EGREGIOUSLY INCORRECT USE OF APOSTROPHE IN “MIMOSAS” COUNTERBALANCED BY ACTUAL MIMOSAS. I WILL ALLOW IT.] and wisky for G. [NOW YOU’RE PUSHING IT. I WILL ACCEPT “WHISKEY” WITHOUT THE “E,” BUT NOT WITHOUT THE “H.”] While we’re downstairs, the men can stay upstairs and drink!
Ugh, gender segregation. Besides the high-pressure sales tactics, the worst thing about direct sales is the blatant sexism. The campaigns are aimed almost exclusively at women. OK, women are the primary buyers of makeup, health and beauty products, home décor, and smelly shit. I get that. But they’re not simply being encouraged to buy a company’s products; they’re being encouraged to participate in the schemes themselves in order to supplement the family’s income, especially as stay-at-home moms. I find it insulting when people tell me I will “change my life” and/or “build my community” and/or “help people” by selling candles. I already accomplish those things in my career. And I sure as hell don’t appreciate being relegated to the basement while my husband roams freely upstairs, drinking and talking about topics of his choosing.
Maybe women are too nice to say “no” to each other. I can’t imagine these direct sales schemes working with men. If a man brought a catalog to the office, would another man buy something from it? No. A man would give him the three-part punch: insult (“You’re mother’s a whore, Bilson”), honesty (“and these candles are fucking stupid”), and then an actual punch to the face. Nobody would have to buy candles again. We women should take a lesson from this and do the same. Here’s a good litmus test for sexism: take behavior that’s culturally sanctioned for women, and imagine men doing it. Imagine, for example, a bunch of men squealing and salivating over a male colleague’s engagement ring, or gathering kitchen implements for a groom-to-be. It gives you some perspective, doesn’t it?
When you invite me to a direct sales party, you are assuming that because I have a vagina, I’m interested in your product. If you’re selling artisanal tampons or walking around with that suitcase full of dildos, then that’s a fair assumption. Otherwise, enough with the gender stereotypes, OK?
The party went pretty much like I thought it would. A regional sales manager was there to give the rah-rah speech and PowerPoint presentation. If you’ve never seen a regional manager, they’re middle-aged, perfectly coiffed, overly enthusiastic sales mavens named “Connie.” We had seen Connie outside getting out of a white Mercedes, and we assumed she was the woman of the hour because her license plate, which read “DRMCCHR,” had a bejeweled Arbonne frame. She had a manner that was genial and at the same time uncomfortably forceful, a manner that said “I’d like to get to know you. Also, give me your credit card number.” Accompanying her was a just-as-perfectly-coiffed henchwoman who kept cornering people to give them sea salt scrubs.
“You,” she intoned, pointing at me when she encountered me on the stairs, headed up to get my promised mimosa, “have not had a salt scrub yet.”
I needed alcohol way more than I needed a salt scrub, but as the salt scrub didn’t seem to be optional, I followed the henchwoman into a lower-level bathroom. There, she scrubbed up my right hand with Awaken—“with lemon for vitality,” the jar read, “and coriander for happiness.” Fuck, I thought, joke’s on my insurance company, shelling out all that money for Zoloft when I could just roll around in coriander. Suckers. As vitality and happiness were being scrubbed into my skin, henchwoman and I discussed the tragic plight of dry, cracked middle-aged hands in winter, and how the magic potion in front of us selling for $32 a jar could be the solution. She spoke of the wonders of natural botanicals and the evils of petrolatum. And you know what I realized? Propaganda is very, very effective when it smells like citrus. I mean, the Nazis knew what they were doing, but these Arbonne people are not fucking around.
Before the official presentation began—and having just recently acquired my mimosa, I was not even close to being intoxicated enough for it—there was a ribbon-cutting. Connie explained that if our hostess had been opening a brick-and-mortar store, friends and family would gather for a ribbon-cutting ceremony. This was a way to celebrate the official kickoff of her business. As Connie held one end of the ribbon, she asked for a volunteer to take a picture, but I sure as hell wasn’t putting my mimosa down for that. Finally a photographer was secured and our hostess posed, smiling with scissors open. That’s when Cassy, one of my husband’s other co-workers, piped up, “Is this like losing your virginity?” Everyone tittered, but I began to laugh so heartily that a little mimosa squirted out of my mouth. Also, despite the fact that I’d been on Mucinex for a week, my lungs chose that exact moment to try to clear themselves of phlegm. The woman next to me stared as I coughed and sputtered for half a minute like a tuberculotic drunk. Fortunately, that was the last mishap I had involving natural body processes, although several hours after the party, my flatulence became so explosive that I had to take up residence on the patio. I suspect it was caused by drinking a sample of the $70-a-bag chocolate protein powder with added fiber.
G. wandered downstairs during the heart of the presentation, when Connie was waxing poetic about the glories of building one’s own business. She said we really should close our eyes and think about what our lives will look like in five years. My life looked pretty much the same—except happier, because in five years I would no longer be sitting on that fucking couch. When I opened my eyes, G. was looking at me, bemused. I shot him a look that said, “Do you see? Do you see how awful this is?” Sometimes I need him to suffer alongside me so he can understand how shitty it is to be a woman.
I feel bad that I left without buying anything, but the papers on the little clipboards didn’t even have options under $125, and frankly, I wasn’t drunk enough to spend that much money. What’s weird is, there was actually a moment—a brief, champagney moment—when Arbonne seemed like The Way. Yes, I thought, I will reinvent myself! I will adopt a multi-step, botanically-based anti-aging regimen, and I will believe in it so much that I will derive complete personal fulfillment by sharing it with others! Fortunately, I quickly remembered that my unique combination of personal qualities—laziness, cynicism, and hating everything—would render me a less-than-stellar salesperson. After all, Connie had specifically pointed out that Arbonne wasn’t a good company for negative people.
“Ugh, Fart-bonne,” I quipped to G. on the way upstairs that night.
He rolled his eyes at the pun. “That’s not funny.”
“You know what a pirate’s favorite direct sales company is?”
“Don’t even, Abby.”
I snuggled under the covers, thinking of organic, botanically-based products for pirates. I can tell you one thing: Those motherfuckers wouldn’t have had scurvy if they’d had Arbonne’s citrus-flavored Energy Fizz Sticks.