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Just Don't Eat the Soap!

Clean Out Your Pores, Your Soul . . . and Your Wallet.

By Jendi B. Reiter

How can politically sensitive Cantabrigians of the '90s maintain their personal appearance and grooming habits without destroying rainforests or causing bunnies to go blind?

Harvard Square's The Body Shop (1440 Mass. Ave.) and Origins (8 Brattle St.) purport to be the answer for these modern-day dilemmas, providing alternatives to ecologically and medically unsafe cosmetics.

Aside from their politically correct products, however, what these stores are really selling, it seems, is a lifestyle, or rather, the illusion of one--how to be organic, mystical and color-coordinated in one easy lesson.

The appearance and popularity of these stores are signs of our growing environmental consciousness, but also of the extent to which environmentalism has become a fad. Slap the label "organic" on anything, from lip gloss to supermarket baggies, and you can double the price and still increase sales.

The Body Shop and Origins represent the two sides of the organic yuppie mentality: one doesn't want to give up the cushy and comfortable life, and the other does and is damn proud of it. Thus the former store emphasizes the glitzy, fun aspect of its products, while the latter goes for the earthy, sincere look, complete with unfinished wood and whalesong CD's.

At the request of my die-hard, save-the-Square-from-yuppification editors, I recently went undercover at both these stores to try and separate the holistic from the hype.

Bloomies, Is That You?

As I entered the Body Shop, I felt a rush of nostalgia for my native New York and the candy counter at Bloomingdale's. Lined up along the green marble walls (the eco-freak's color of choice) were glycerin soaps, bath beads and little soaps shaped like fruit, some in glass candy jars and all assorted in at least eight different colors. The whole thing looked like a nice little country buffet. Just don't eat the soap.

Lest they be accused of shallow materialism, the Body Shop maintains its unrelenting environmentalist stance by using real fruit flavors in the soaps--and shaping them to resemble various endangered species.

Gee, thanks, guys--I was in danger of forgetting the plight of the blue whale until you thoughtfully reminded me. Or maybe the proceeds go to Greenpeace?

Actually, the pamphlets at the counter include the store's contributions to ecological causes as one of the features that makes the Body Shop distinctive. According to the pamphlets, the stores also "attempt to establish non-exploitative trade relationships with Third World countries."

Somewhat more relevant to the consumer is the information that they don't test on animals and that they provide refills if you bring your old package back (so as not to waste plastic by buying a new one).

Despite the committed, serious tone of the pamphlets, the real motto of the Body Shop should be "food, folks and fun." Everything possible has been flavored and colored, from the soaps to the "Ice Cream Flavored Lip Gloss," which was tasty, but not particularly practical. Sure, Rocky Road and Kiwi Fruit taste yummy, but who wants green or beige lips? Another casualty of the Body Shop's compulsive color-coordination.

Often, the colors seemed to be the only difference between some of the items, like the bath beads that were "especially for men" because they came in silver and black as opposed to the popular but wimpy pastels. The Real Man, I guess, wants to seem macho even if he hugs trees and buys endangered soap.

Gotcha!

Feeling that this color riot was too good to be true, I asked the woman behind the counter whether the tints were natural or not. She admitted that they were synthetic, but added that it was in response to consumer demands: people tend to be put off by the unevenly colored, unstylish look of the products in their natural state.

Of course, some purists may feel that something isn't truly organic unless it looks like pond sludge. Never fear. The Body Shop also carries rough-hewn products like Henna Cream Shampoo, which looks like a jar of copper-colored vaseline mixed with mud, because it contains no artificial colors or color stabilizers. The "Men's Rhassoul Mud Soap" resembles a small cement brick. For women, there's "Wheatscrub Soap", made of wheatgerm and cinnamon, which is supposed to "exfoliate" your skin, and a milk bath that contains oats and avocado oil. Apparently the Body Shop doesn't know the inside of the body from the outside.

One of the strangest products I encountered there was this lotion that came in a tube and is supposed to make you look tan without having to expose yourself to nasty ultraviolet rays. Is smearing chemicals on your skin any healthier?

Less Eco-Glamour

At first sight, Origins is a relieving break from the Body Shop's eco-glamour tone. A soothing ambience is created by the play of the light off the unfinished wooden cabinets, bundles of straw and an abundance of wicker baskets. Gentle hoots and splashes emanate from the sound system playing the whalesongs CD. The pamphlets and the wrappings on the products are made of nubbly beige recycled paper.

Some of this wholesomeness is authentic. Unlike the Body Shop, Origins uses no animal products or artificial colors in their soaps, cosmetics and perfumes. The towels and bathrobes they sell are 100 percent cotton or linen, and are unbleached.

However, many of the products that most contribute to the store's woodsy look are either overpriced, superfluous or of dubious ecological soundness.

Fifteen dollars is a lot to pay for a wooden comb which isn't significantly different from a drugstore plastic one. Crayons or pencil leads stuck in inch-thick twigs (complete with bark) are unwieldy and rough to the touch, and contribute (as do the combs) to deforestation through the unnecessary and wasteful use of wood. Besides, at $3.50 a crayon, it would take a month's wages to amass a 64-color set.

Most perplexing of all was the terra-cotta bath scrubber, a $5 cookie-shaped object with the texture of a cheese grater. Its purpose is to scrub off skin flakes. This object seemed to symbolize the Origins mentality: "Look at me! I'm mortifying my flesh even though I'm also indulging in expensive toiletries!" Maybe the bath scrubber would make a good gift for your favorite ascetic, but a real cheese grater would work just as well--and be more useful around the house, too!

Spirits in the Material World

Origins wants to make it very clear how much they value the spiritual over the material. Thus, while the Body Shop's perfumes are named after fruits, those in Origins are dubbed "Spirits of the Night," "Spirits of the Gardens," "Spirits of the Sun" and "Spirits of the Forest," tastefully arranged in four big alchemist's bottles filled with leafy herbal stuff. Unfortunately, there didn't seem to be any testers, so I was unable to commune with the spirits.

Origins's New Age mystical dreaminess reaches its peak with the "Peace of Mind" demonstration, which tries to convince customers that hand lotion is a soul-uplifting ritual substance.

"First put the lotion on your fingertips," the shop assistant murmurs. "Now rub it behind your neck. Now on your temples. Close your eyes and put your hands over your nose. Breathe deeply. How do you feel?"

Maybe it's too close to my next exam for peppermint hand lotion to give me peace of mind--but it did clear my sinuses.

In both of the stores I visited, there were a few genuinely useful and wholesome products buried beneath the trendy paraphernalia, but the appearance of ecological consciousness was more often a gimmick to flatter people's consciences while they indulged in overpriced inanities.

Both stores were nevertheless packed with customers who were apparently indifferent to the insubstantial hype. Maybe what we all want nowadays is a sanitized, decorative, larger-than-life reality substitute rather than the real thing.

That being the case, I think I'll go into business this summer. Look for me in Harvard Square, selling 100 percent organic bottled dishwater and soaps made of leftover Cream of Wheat. Given the gullibility of Cambridge yuppies, I'll probably make enough to pay off my student loans.

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