Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Erynn Masi de Casanova's "Making Up the Difference"

Erynn Masi de Casanova is Assistant Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Affiliate of the Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at the University of Cincinnati. She has been conducting research in Ecuador for a decade, and her work has been published in journals such as Gender & Society, Women's Studies Quarterly, and Latino Studies.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Making Up the Difference: Women, Beauty, and Direct Selling in Ecuador, and reported the following:
Page 99 falls in the middle of a chapter I almost cut out of the book, “How Products Sell Themselves,” which analyzes how ideas about race, gender, and class are portrayed in the catalogs of the direct sales organization* I studied. I considered scrapping the chapter because I couldn’t get permission to reprint most of the catalog photos I wanted (images of thin, white or very light-skinned models in luxurious settings). In the end, I kept the chapter, and skeptical readers can verify my claims by perusing the company’s website.

One of the most puzzling questions about direct sales in a poor country like Ecuador is “How is it profitable?” Page 99 goes a long way toward answering this question.
The use of certain beauty products and practices is associated with high-class status… this type of consumption is seen as having the potential to obscure humble origins (when performed “correctly”).
Catalogs’ text and photographs link the products, especially jewelry, with elite class status. The company’s marketing strategy is based on making luxury-type goods accessible to low-income people through installment payments.
Despite the catalogs’ emphasis on class, wealth, and elite status symbols, Yanbal [the direct sales company] makes some concessions to the economic realities of the [developing] countries in which it does business, and the material conditions in which clients live…. [for example, selling] engagement rings and wedding bands, made of sterling silver and cubic zirconia.
So, based on a glance at Page 99, is this a high-quality book? That is for readers to judge. The page doesn’t contain any of my favorite sentences or any dazzling photos. But it does help explain why direct selling is big business in Ecuador.

* Direct selling organizations use a model of person-to-person sales; think of companies like Avon or Mary Kay.
Learn more about Making Up the Difference at the University of Texas Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue