The first ten pages of L.A. Weekly provide an excellent crash course in the economics of the California Dream. Page after page of the free alternative news weekly are generally crowded with images of nearly naked people promoting cosmetic and laser procedures. Although we may be too broke to buy a real newspaper, advertisers are still willing to bank on the fact that we can dish out a few thousand dollars for age-defying beautification.
With the price of a tank of gas reaching toward (half) a laser dermabrasion procedure, however, I wondered -- are beauty budgets shrinking? And if the plastic surgery heartland - four of America's "10 vainest cities" are in California - starts letting itself go, will the epidermises, tummies and chins of the rest of country follow?
As luck would have it, I recently "won" a gift certificate to a center that specializes in laser skin treatments. As third prize winner, I was offered a whopping $300, which was almost as exciting as an economic stimulus check. Then I learned that my $300 needed to be applied to something more expensive.
"What can I get for $305?" I asked over the phone.
"It doesn't work that way. You have to buy a package."
"How much is a package?"
"We can't tell you until you come in for a consultation?"
My excitement was quickly diminishing. "I am the only person who got third prize?"
"Well ... no."
"How is it a prize then, if everyone gets one?"
"Everyone doesn't get one. You are still a winner!"
Ok, I'll buy that. Sitting before the laser consultant in a pristine office in Santa Monica a week later, it became apparent that my "prize" wouldn't make much of a dent in the center's best-selling version of the California dream: an entirely hairless body (except the head, of course).
Full-body hair removal for men is exceptionally popular, a bleached blonde with a perfect tan told me. The multi-treatment process starts at around $18,000.
"I love my job," the consultant said. "It's all about improving people's lives. Some of them start out so incredibly hairy!"
What happens once you've been through all the laser treatments?
"The hair is gone forever!" she explained.
"Isn't there something wrong with that? I mean, don't we need at least a little hair on our bodies?"
"No," she stated. Another perfect smile.
I couldn't blame the center for their deceptive raffle-gambit. Even my darling L.A. Weekly was seeming a little starved for hairless, greased-up Ken and Barbies. I only counted 30 cosmetic procedure ads this week -- fewer than the usual spreads.
I put a call in to the paper's advertising department to see if the economy was responsible.
"A lot are downsizing their ads from full to half to quarters," explained Robert Dea, L.A. Weekly's, Director of Advertising. "They have to stretch their dollars out more now."
Back at the hair removal center, however, I couldn't get an admission that economy could trump beauty. If business was slow, the consultant explained, it was simply "the summer dip."
"Really?" I insisted.
"Well, we do offer long-term financing."
Should we be worried that the sub-prime beauty bubble will be the next to burst?