Friday, September 25, 2015

Unholy Grails

"Look, you stupid bastard, you've got no arms left!"


If you frequent the company of middle-aged male professors who specialize in Renaissance history or literature, chances are good you'll hear a lot of Monty Python references. A few years ago, after too much time spent laughing politely at allusions that went over my head, I got around to watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I found it mildly amusing but not uproariously funny (except for the Black Knight scene, above), so maybe you need to have been a teenage British boy in the 1970s to truly understand its hilarity.

This is a very roundabout way of introducing something I've been pondering: the concept of beauty "holy grails." In recent procrastinatory moments, I've been searching for better versions of a few things I already own: a cherry-red lipstick, a black liquid liner, a lightweight facial sunscreen, and a yoga mat. I began this post intending to ask your opinion on some candidates I've found online (and I'll get there in my next post, don't worry), but right now I'm more interested in how and why we talk about holy-grail products. I don't mean to suggest it isn't natural to look for the best possible version of everything we buy, because of course it is. Who doesn't go to Sephora with platonic ideals of The Fuchsia Lipstick and The Emerald Eyeliner floating somewhere in her consciousness? My problem is with the assumption that the holy-grail idea comes entirely from a place of virtuous minimalism. The desire for minimalism is part of it, but it's not the whole story.

It's easy to believe that once you find the perfect matte lipstick formula or the perfect moisturizer, you'll never need to look for another one. You'll live a streamlined, downsized, KonMari-approved life, take just five minutes to put on your makeup each morning, achieve a healthy work-life balance, and stop dipping candy corn in peanut butter whenever you're stressed (or maybe that's just me). But whenever I've set out to find the perfect X or Y, I've ended up buying a series of products that disappointed me. They disappointed me not because they were necessarily bad, but because I put the pressure of perfection on them. The products that have achieved holy-grail status for meTopshop Get Me Bodied, for example—were almost inevitably not the results of a grail quest. They were chance discoveries, impulse buys, happy accidents. Nor has my appreciation of these products eliminated my desire for more of the same: I've bought at least four other plum lipsticks since I wrote my review of Get Me Bodied.

Some of my HG colors and formulas. Clockwise from top left: Zoya Neve, Topshop Matte Lip Bullets in Plastique and Get Me Bodied, Zoya Normani, Illamasqua Zygomatic, NARS Lhasa, NARS Mata Hari.

The ideal of the holy grail fosters consumerism as much as it fosters minimalism. If you're determined to get your hands on ~*~the best~*~ peach blush, you'll probably go through quite a few inferior peach blushes in the process. Inferior to what? Well, to the Platonic peach blush in your head. One of the blushes you try will be too yellow; another will be too pink. One will fade too quickly; another will be too pigmented, or too shimmery, or too coarsely milled. Instead of focusing on the virtues of the products you've already bought, you'll find yourself focusing on their shortcomings in order to justify the purchase of yet another peach blush. And you'll lose quite a bit of time and money in the process, even if you don't lose any limbs.


Again, I don't think there's anything wrong with knowing what you want and looking for products that match your criteria. If a sunscreen makes me break out, I won't force myself to keep using it. If a warm-toned red lipstick doesn't suit me, I'll exchange it for a cooler-toned one. I just wish that the beauty blogosphere would stop fetishizing HG products (and that YouTubers would stop announcing a different, inevitably sponsored, "holy grail" every week). Not everything has to be an HG to be functional and delightful. As proof of which, here are some products that are flawed but still bring me joy—unholy grails, let's call them:


Tony Moly Milky Violet is less pigmented than I'd like, the plum half of NARS Habanera is a bit patchy, and NARS Angela is as drying as every other opaque NARS lipstick I've tried (that is: very). But I still use all of them semi-regularly and don't feel compelled to search for a superior lavender blush or magenta lipstick, at least not now. (I've bought a few more plum eyeshadows, but only because I really like plum, guys.) Amid the stress of this semester, I'm trying to appreciate what I have, even if it could be better. Everything could be better. Except, perhaps, the vanilla ice cream I made last week with my new ice cream maker and this recipe:


Holy grail achieved.

18 comments:

  1. Okay first, candy corn in peanut butter is so genius, my jaw actually fell open.

    As to Holy Grails... I've never looked for them in the sense of trying to find The One. I have done a lot of fruitless searching for very specific products, with varying degrees of success, but my makeup habits are altogether too unplanned to really go in for "this is the only one I'll ever need." Plus I'm not a minimalist, probably never will be. I really do abide by the "this makes me happy" makeup philosophy (cough glitter polish cough) and that's very frequently why I buy specific products.

    If you haven't seen any other Monty Python, look up the dead parrot sketch. It might be the best thing they ever made.

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    1. Candy corn paired with any kind of nut or nut butter is pretty tasty!

      I'm glad I'm not the only beauty blogger who doesn't aspire to minimalism. Needless to say, I'm aware of my carbon footprint and I don't want to buy so much crap that I forget what I own, but I also enjoy having a good selection of colors and textures. The only products that inspire minimalism for me are the ones I find boring, like concealer and mascara (I never have more than one of each). In those cases I really do try to find my HG, but only because I don't want to think about them and would rather free up brainspace for lipstick.

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  2. But what about the killer bunny scene?

    I can't remember if I was every a holy grail quester, but then I have a bad memory. Maybe for a broad category like foundation or concealer, but even then I'm pretty realistic that it's unlikely that I'll find one that isn't disappointing in at least one way. It does seem like a recipe for dissatisfaction - to have some very strict, uncompromising criteria in mind. Like looking for a relationship!

    But then even when I have a favorite mascara or something, I'm usually too curious about others to not want to try something else the next time, even if I'll go back to the old favorite some time in the future. So I won't take the romantic relationship metaphor too far. Anyway, your attitude seems healthy to me!

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    1. I can barely remember the killer bunny scene! Maybe I'm due for a rewatch.

      I think I was more of an HG quester when I was first starting my makeup collection. Soon enough, though, I came to terms with the fact that I'd always be curious about new colors and formulas. The beauty world is constantly developing and innovating, so it's unrealistic to expect that you'll use the same products for decades (unless you're my mom, who really does).

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  3. I think I'm the sort who truly won't purchase anything else after I've found my HG. I've found the perfect pink lipstick in a perfect formula, so i actually gave away or sold off most of my other pinks. Nars Dragon Girl is my HG blue/bright -red, so i certainly won't be buying anymore. I'm not sure if other people do it this way but I'm getting rather bored of shiny new pretty things, i feel like my collection is about as complete as it could be. Plus, if i buy a non-hg, I'll still try to make it work, or sell it, or something. There are many, many items that i have that i dont have a HG for though, and I'm totally fine with that. I don't have a HG blush or eyeshadow for example.

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    1. That's very admirable! I feel the same way about a few products: I haven't bought a matte blue-red since discovering NARS Mysterious Red, for instance. (I guess the NARS pencils are HG material for many of us!) But once I use up Mysterious Red, I'm not sure I'll buy it again for a while, since there are so many great matte reds out there.

      May I ask what your perfect pink lipstick is??

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  4. "I found it mildly amusing but not uproariously funny (except for the Black Knight scene, above), so maybe you need to have been a teenage British boy in the 1970s to truly understand its hilarity."

    I TRUSTED YOU.

    In all seriousness, I've also been looking for new sunscreens for both face and body. My Shiseido and Biore are just too matte for me now. :/ So I've been trying some other Asian options for the face--have one coming to me right now from Japan--and I'm considering trying Blue Lizard Sensitive for my body. Sunscreen hunting is just such a pain.

    Also, I agree that if you really want to find your holy grail products, you kinda just have to try stuff and wait until something impresses you. Testing stuff with the goal of finding your HG just sets you up for disappointment and frustration. It's like finding a partner: you go trolling for a date instead of just asking out people you're interested in, and you'll likely end up with a slew of duds.

    But because it's a slow process, I'm immediately wary of anybody who tries a product for a week and announces that it's their new HG. No, that's not really possible; you haven't tried it in different weather situations, for example, and the honeymoon phase is still in effect. Heck, I've been using the Cinema Secrets Moisture Spray for several months now and I'm still not yet comfortable calling it an HG.

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    1. In my defense, there aren't many movies I've loved on the first watch! Having written this post, I want to rewatch Monty Python and the Holy Grail and see if it's any funnier the second time. It might well be.

      I was satisfied with my Eucerin facial sunscreen for two years, but recently I've noticed that it doesn't really sink into my skin, and if it's over 70 degrees or ~60% humidity outside (so, every single day), I sweat it off in five minutes. I'm desperate to find a lighter sunscreen that my skin can actually absorb, but I know next to nothing about sunscreen. I think my next post will just be a cry for help.

      Now I'm wondering if anyone actually tests a bunch of products in the hope of finding an HG, or if I just set up a convenient straw man in my post. I do think people are way too quick to proclaim something an HG: you need to have standards for that shit! And even if something works well for me, it might be terrible for someone else (I've seen the Topshop matte lip bullets described as patchy and drying, for instance). Beauty HGs are very personal, while the HG of Arthurian legend is the only one.

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  5. I feel like Holy Grail has become a new buzzword to sell products rather then mean anything specific. Obviously people have HG products, but in general I'm suspicious of those claims unless they honestly use the product over and over.

    I don't think I go hunting specifically for an HG product, but I do buy similar colors of products over and over. Though part of that is an appreciation for that color and not a search for the platonic ideal.

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    1. I think you're absolutely right that "holy grail" has become a marketing phrase more than anything else. There's also something creepily fetishistic about it: makeup can be meaningful in many ways, but calling a product "holy" just doesn't sit right with me (and I'm not even a little religious).

      I think it's natural to want multiple variations on your favorite colors. Plum is the last color I need more of, yet the first color I gravitate toward when I'm looking at a range of lipsticks or eyeshadows or whatever.

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  6. I'm not big on the term "HG," myself. I agree with you that spending all that time looking for THE ULTIMATE just ends up with a lot of money and time spent on an endless slew of maybes. Sometimes we are looking for something specific that perhaps doesn't exist, but I think that search is a little different. I'm happy to use a bunch of different products that help me achieve the look that I want (which is really the point, in the end), and if I like philandering with other products, then I do that too.

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    1. Yes: the pursuit of HGs is focused on the products instead of on the looks they can create. I've certainly been guilty of commodity fetishism now and then, but I do think it's healthier to see beauty products as means to an end.

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  7. I don't every look for holy grail products because I know they would move in the exact opposite direction as minimalism. If I found the perfect thing for me I would either buy 20 of it or refuse to use it on the off chance I deployed it on a not-special-enough day. I have a big problem with "saving" my products though and perhaps a holy grail for me would be something that fit my lifestyle. However, having a holy grail pink-y brown matte eye shadow seems unnecessary. Some are better than others but don't think "the one to rule them all" exists in such an arena and if it does I don't need to spend millions trying to find it.

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    1. I agree that proclaiming something a "holy grail" sets up a certain set of expectations around it, one of which is that you should save it or treasure it more than your other makeup. It's just makeup! I think we (I, at least) need to be reminded of that sometimes.

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  8. Very well written, miss! There are many elements in the blogosphere that fuel consumerism. And the search for the perfect version of a product that we've made up in our heads is a case in point. As bloggers, we are inherently primed to search and try out new products and be quite picky in our search. So a warning against the search for holy grails is refreshing and much needed!

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    1. Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed the post! I do feel guilty sometimes about the possibility that I'm promoting consumerism on my blog. And as a blog reader, I'm as susceptible as anyone else to temptation. I might be perfectly satisfied with my collection of (for instance) fuchsia lipsticks, but I sometimes forget to appreciate what I have when a blogger announces that she's found THE BEST FUCHSIA LIPSTICK EVAR. At the end of the day, though, one tube of fuchsia goo is much the same as another.

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  9. You just reminded me how much I loved the mint in habanera (I destroyed it while trying to depot the duo...I always wanted to repurchase but I am afraid the compact will turn sticky after one summer).

    I don't think I ever search for holy grail but they come naturally (like I stop bothering looking for similar product afterward). So far, I have my HG cleanser and sunscreen (both shiseido and both repurchased for more than 5 times) and an eyeshadow brush I want a backup of (shu 10 natural) but I remain fickle for other color makeup.

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    1. The mint in Habanera is so great! Surprisingly versatile, too. I've been tempted to buy other mint eyeshadows, but when I remember how great Habanera is, I hold off. So maybe that shade is a HG for me?

      I've been thinking about buying a Shiseido sunscreen, actually! I've heard the Urban Environment one is good.

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