If you’ve ever read a headline along the lines of “Kardashian Family Worth Combined Zillion Dollars” and wondered how a gaggle of uneducated, tawdry, plastic people with a combined vocabulary of Joe Biden manages to account for, like, 10 percent of America’s GDP, you obviously haven’t visited a cosmetics store recently.

In search of something to even out my complexion, made a little too ruddy for my liking by the harsh Pennsylvania winter and the constant firing of a gigantic coal furnace, I ventured to my local Ulta Beauty store. I just wanted a little something...

If you’ve ever read a headline along the lines of “Kardashian Family Worth Combined Zillion Dollars” and wondered how a gaggle of uneducated, tawdry, plastic people with a combined vocabulary of Joe Biden manages to account for, like, 10 percent of America’s GDP, you obviously haven’t visited a cosmetics store recently.

In search of something to even out my complexion, made a little too ruddy for my liking by the harsh Pennsylvania winter and the constant firing of a gigantic coal furnace, I ventured to my local Ulta Beauty store. I just wanted a little something to temper my Rumpole-of-the-Bailey-after-a-bottle-of-cheap-claret skin tone. What I got was a heaping helping of humble pie and an appreciation for Covid masks behind which to hide my hideous mug.

If you don’t think there’s anything wrong with your looks (skin, hair, nails included), you will once you set foot inside a makeup store. I wandered the aisles helplessly, feeling like Crocodile Dundee in Manhattan, obstruent to practiced beauty buyers laser-focused on selecting from the shelves their go-to brands (stylistas are notorious for being fiercely loyal “cult followers” of their favorite companies), styles of vial, color numbers, and desired effects of the stuff inside.

Cosmetics stores always make me feel like a self-conscious bumpkin. For one, they are located in metropolitan areas. I live in a town of 2,700 residents (fifty-four of them whitetail deer) where there really is a combination beauty salon/taxidermy shop. Since deciding to abandon city life once and for all a few years back, my style for appearing in public has taken on a “hillbilly glam” aesthetic. It generally involves a tartan (as opposed to plaid, which is for workwear) flannel shirt paired with cubic zirconia earrings (my lifestyle is too rowdy to risk real diamonds).

By contrast, the girls who visit makeup stores and who are employed by them are generally experts in the realm of salves, serums, balms, body lotions and body creams, foot lotions and foot creams (apparently not the same thing), perfume, perfume oils (again, there’s some sort of difference), scrubs, gels, bronzers, highlighters, lip liners/glosses/sticks, plumpers, paints, polishes, and pallets of all sorts. They’re dressed to the nines, not a hair out of place, nails freshly manicured, makeup applied to perfection. I, on the other hand, found out the hard way once — and only once — that there’s a fine line between the “smoky eye look” and “Industrial Revolution kid playing too long outside.”

There’s also a recurring marketing theme that pairs aggressive sexual overtones with feminazism, which is unnerving to say the least (especially when you go shopping with your sweet Catholic mother of six). Fine lines, wrinkles, dark circles, puffiness, redness, and excessive shine are not just treated; they’re forcefully stopped in their tracks! Blemishes aren’t just cured, they’re BANISHED! Eye makeup ads frequently involve a tough chick performing some intense exercise — kickboxing, for instance — who pauses to brag about how smudgy makeup doesn’t stand a chance against her sweat, as she brutally bludgeons a punching bag before heading to the office in a power suit to take care of business with exquisitely aligned cat-eyes made possible by waterproof eyeliner.

The beauty business is a cunning, self esteem-destroying, paraben-producing, plastic packaging-consuming, evil genius of an industry, hawking exorbitant, water-based products to vulnerable consumers in the name of empowerment. Cosmetics companies (and the Kardashian clan is a big factor here) rake in nearly $49.5 billion each year in the US by promoting body positivity and diversity, while subtly convincing you of unseen defects. They push overpriced potions “necessary” in dominating these “problem areas,” assuring you of boss bitch status once you spend your life’s savings (and two hours a day for the rest of your life) attaining a flawless appearance.

There’s something called the “bump eraser,” and ointments, cleansers, toners, moisturizers, exfoliators, and masks for every imperfection under the sun. Unwanted hair? Try this hair removal. Thinning hair? This scalp treatment is a must. Got any hair left? You need to protect it from heat and frizz with this deep-penetrating conditioner. Going for the natural look? Here are sixty-five products essential in achieving that.

I feel myself touching my face and examining the ends of my ponytail. In a dizzying haze of mixing scents, thumping techno music, and a barrage of indecipherable labels, I begin to analyze my own hands. Come to think of it, I do need renewing, floral-infused cuticle oil drops, by Jove!

“You finding everything OK?”

A gum-chewing college girl with enough paint on her face to play in a Kiss cover band snaps me out of my capitalistic delirium.

“Uhm, no. I need foundation.”

“K. Is your skin dry or oily?”

“Neither…? More dry, I guess?”

“K. What are you using now? Liquid or powder?”

“Something I found in my mom’s bathroom? I think she bought it at CVS…”

The girl looks to me but not at me. She frowns and scours, stoically studying my complexion, then leads me to the NARS Cosmetics section. She squats and runs her long acrylic nails along the seemingly endless row of skin-colored shades. I feel a breeze from her mega-long, faux eyelashes as she glances up at me, then back to the bottles. She chooses two, stands up, holds one then the other to my cheek, and mutters, “This should work.”

With all the warmth and bubbliness of Spock (and nearly his eyebrows), she smears some Crème Brulée Light 2.5 Radiant Creamy Concealer onto my face and rubs it in.

“What do you think?” she asks, holding up a mirror. “Don’t worry, everybody looks really bad in this fluorescent light.”

The distress I feel from looking “really bad” after applying a costly coat of makeup (the tiny tube — 0.22 ounces — is 30 clams!) must be evident on my face, and my human emotion actually registers with my Vulcan sales associate. “Let’s look at it in the natural light,” she suggests.

We go to the storefront window and try again. Voilà! The spot with makeup really does blend nicely and gives my weary skin a smoother, dare I say, more radiant appearance. Sold!

“Wow, first try!” I say, genuinely impressed by the masterful eye of my new guru.

“Anything else?” she asks, immune to my esteem.

“Well, since I’m here — what mascara do you recommend?”

“Better Than Sex,” she answers robotically, leading me past a display of “Naked” eyeshadows with color names like “Dirty Talk,” “Desperation, “Booty Call,” “Tease,” and “Sin.” The slutty names are amusing, considering that 99 percent of men I know wouldn’t notice if you changed your hair color and chopped off a foot of it, let alone applied a new shade of shadow as a means to seduce them.

Miss Personality advises I pair the black gunk with some white gunk (“primer”) to give my lashes extra lift with the help of some tiny fibers.

I go to pick a mascara…but wait! Do I want the mascara to extend the length of my lashes? Enhance their color? Make them appear thicker? More defined? More curl? Do they need nourishment with a vitamin-packed formula? What about long-lasting wear? Vegan? Weightless? HELP!

Spock is gone. I’m alone with my small bundle of magic makeup and an expansive array of brushes of all shapes and sizes designed to blend, blur, and contour. An ad with a mustachioed man sporting magenta paint on his eyelids signals it’s time to take my leave; $81 and 135 ULTAmate Rewards points later, and I feel like a brand-new, hoodwinked woman with slightly better-looking skin.

On my way out, my eye catches a display hyping the detoxifying benefits of a charcoal-infused skin cleanser. I reach for a small sample, notice the $22 price tag, and consider instead what purifying components might be found in the sulfuric ash produced by a coal-fired furnace, awaiting my attention at home.