Gaslight, Gatekeep, Glossier: On Marisa Meltzer’s “Glossy”

Diana Heald reviews Marisa Meltzer’s “Glossy: Ambition, Beauty, and the Inside Story of Emily Weiss’s Glossier.”

Gaslight, Gatekeep, Glossier: On Marisa Meltzer’s “Glossy”

Glossy: Ambition, Beauty, and the Inside Story of Emily Weiss’s Glossier by Marisa Meltzer. Atria/One Signal Publishers. 304 pages.

I CONFESS I’VE WATCHED the long, agonizing death of the girlboss, the cadre of female entrepreneurs who were the rising stars of my generation, with vicarious glee. At the top of their pyramid, with her sphinxlike smile and a B-school jargon-filled vernacular, sat Emily Weiss, founder of direct-to-consumer (DTC) beauty brand Glossier. I had a front row seat to Weiss’s rise and subsequent plateau: a decade ago, I was a millennial woman working in marketing in New York. I also happened to be an interviewee on Weiss’s beauty blog, Into the Gloss, and an early customer and focus group participant when Glossier launched. Initially, I looked up to girlbosses like Weiss and her friends—Tyler Haney of Outdoor Voices, Audrey Gelman of The Wing—and hoped to access some version of what they had when I bought their skincare and leggings. In the years that followed, as Glossier grew from a modest four-product launch to a Silicon Valley unicorn, valued at $1.8 billion in 2021, I grew disillusioned with the brand—or perhaps I’d just aged out of their fresh-faced target demographic. Still, Weiss’s 2022 departure from Glossier sent shock waves through a generation that had grown up revering her. She had outlasted most of her girlboss peers, but surely there were corporate misdeeds lurking behind all that glossy pink.

In Glossy: Ambition, Beauty, and the Inside Story of Emily Weiss’s Glossier (One Signal/Atria, 2023), Marisa Meltzer meticulously recounts Glossier’s journey from a vague concept deck for which Weiss struggled to secure venture capital funding to a dominant player in the beauty business. This year, a Business of Fashion writer asked industry insiders who was the most important beauty founder in the last 15 years; all named Weiss. Along the way, Meltzer writes, “Glossier changed everything […] from where and how products are sold to the kinds of emotional and social messages promoted—the intangible products—alongside skincare and makeup.” The DTC retail model for beauty brands, the popularity of the muted, peachy rose known as Millennial Pink, and the aesthetic preference for a natural beauty look that disguises its true level of effort all owe a debt to Glossier.


Meltzer’s overview of Weiss’s pre-Glossier years reminded me what had initially made her so compelling. I first encountered Weiss in 2007 on the MTV show The Hills, where she was the competent East Coast foil to stars Lauren Conrad and Whitney Port, pretty blondes with a penchant for heavy eye rolls and for not doing their jobs very well. Though much of the show was scripted, Weiss’s preternatural competence was no performance—she grew up in Wilton, Connecticut, with an intense drive to make it out of the suburbs, earning the nickname “the Super Intern.” I could relate. I’d grown up outside Washington, DC, with a spray of acne across my chin and an unrealized desire to be found cool and beautiful, experimenting with makeup by the ripe age of 10. I inhaled Seventeen, where Weiss modeled back-to-school clothes in 2003, hoping to learn what might clear my skin, defrizz my hair, or give me whatever ineffable allure would secure a date to homecoming. By the time Weiss launched her beauty website Into the Gloss in 2010, I was 25, disillusioned with fashion magazines’ beauty recommendations but still hungry for transformative products. (That is the inherent, mostly unrealized promise that makes the beauty industry so lucrative: products sold at accessible prices offering physical—and if the branding is good, emotional—transformation.) I visited the site daily, devouring the esoteric cosmetic practices of fashionable women Weiss selected. I was as likely to encounter a recommendation for an obscure eyeliner a Bushwick DJ had picked up on a Bali surf vacation as for a Revlon mascara, lending every tip an integrity I appreciated. This authentic-feeling formula was a hit with millennial women: Emily Weiss earned our trust.

When Weiss launched Glossier in the fall of 2014, I ordered the full set of products, hand-delivered in a pink bubble-wrap pouch with a sheet of stickers: hearts, stars, the Glossier logo. The playful branding, with its whiff of early 1990s nostalgia, made beauty feel lighthearted and fun. Though I loved the nearly invisible texture of the foundation, the other products were underwhelming; I ended up only repurchasing a few and gradually moving on to other brands. From Glossy, I learned that many in the beauty industry whispered about Glossier’s middling quality at launch and wrote the brand off. But customers had bought the hype, and I had too. Glossier wasn’t awful, just average, and the excitement around it made me feel like I was participating in something special.

In the fall of 2015, I was invited to the company headquarters for a focus group with 20 other customers. Through some combination of the power of the Glossier brand and my own hubris, I assumed I was invited due to my inherent coolness and my past participation in an Into the Gloss Top Shelf reader interview, where I listed out my beauty routine in exchange for exposure. Over pizza and awkward small talk, the other customers and I tested a scented version of the lip balm, which smelled like Cherry Twizzlers and looked like nothing at all. I missed the second focus group invite—dropped into a Slack channel created for Glossier superfans, the #Slackpack, who spent all day exchanging reams of inane digital chatter—and was never invited to another event. This episode left me disillusioned in a way that mirrored my experience with the products: excitement at access to something billed as cool, followed by disappointment. John Berger couldn’t have imagined a more perfect example of his critique of advertising, which “steals [a woman’s] love of herself as she is, and offers it back to her for the price of the product,” than the 2017 launch of Glossier You, the company’s first perfume, which promised to make you smell “mostly […] like you” for $60. Fans said the scent smelled different on everyone, though the difference they were smelling was not the perfume but the human scent behind it, more evident because the fragrance had no top notes. That year, Glossier also released a line of cream eye shadows that gleamed on the brand’s Instagram but flaked off my eyelids in dusty, muddy smears. The empress of millennial beauty had no clothes; Glossier was no different from other beauty brands making consumers promises they couldn’t keep. I stopped buying it.

In 2020, a string of girlboss-helmed companies began to falter, falling victim to reports of poor management, racism and bias, and simply poor sales. Succeeding as a “girl” (read: woman) in the corporate world required a preternatural ability to tune out the haters, but the wealth and privilege that allowed the girlbosses to rise to power made them tone-deaf to valuable criticisms about how they ran their businesses. Weiss was one of the last to go, announcing in 2022 that she was handing the reins to Kyle Leahy, a former Nike executive with a lower profile. Weiss positioned this transition as a natural step, reminding fans that a company’s founder might not be the best leader to take it into a more mature phase as a company. I, and countless others on social media comments and Reddit threads, wanted to know more. We wanted to see the final girlboss fall from grace.


Glossy is not a takedown of Weiss, and as I read the book, I began to feel uncomfortable about why I wanted it to be. Weiss emerges as a compelling, though complicated and enigmatic, leader. We never see what drives her: she finds questions as simple as “How have you changed as a leader over the course of Glossier?” impossible to answer. Meltzer posits that because Weiss “seemed both unable and unwilling to tell me one real thing about power or money or success or hardship,” perhaps from both a degree of guardedness and a lack of self-awareness about the role that luck and privilege played in her trajectory, she had no avenue to public sympathy as consumer views on capitalism and girlbosses shifted. The “girlboss” label haunts Weiss, who finds it reductive, as do I—it feminizes and infantilizes a gender-neutral position in the work hierarchy, making powerful women appear unthreatening. To be a girlboss, Meltzer writes, “was to make business cute.” In the end, Weiss was a young female executive in the public eye, striving to remake the business landscape to fit her aspirations and running into challenges at each turn. Meltzer ends Glossy on a positive note, assuring the reader that Weiss’s star will continue to rise. Looking at the business landscape surrounding her, I found Meltzer’s optimism hard to share.

The pandemic reset my engagement with the beauty industry: without the eyelash extensions and manicures I’d once considered mandatory, I questioned how many products made a meaningful difference in how I looked. Engaging with the beauty business necessitates engaging with capitalism, with its relentless focus on stoking consumer desires, those impulses so deeply intertwined with our closely held beliefs about gender. Meltzer never implicates Weiss for her role in upholding the beauty industry’s values: though she informs the reader that “good-looking people are […] paid 3 to 4 percent more than their ‘plain’ colleagues.” Meltzer also writes, in an echo of that refrain so often lobbed at critics of the industry, “Did makeup and skincare have to mean so much?” Well, yes. To argue otherwise is to ignore the tremendous weight of social pressure on women to look a certain way, and on some level, Meltzer and Weiss must know this.


I’m haunted by a particular moment in Glossy: the description of Weiss’s beauty routine in preparation for her 2016 wedding. A year after Glossier launched, Weiss returned to Into the Gloss to chronicle the extensive cosmetic preparations she had undertaken to look her best on her special day: facials, hair extensions, lash extensions, colonics, all at odds with Glossier’s minimalist approach. This monthslong process, Weiss reported, left her feeling “8/10 happy with how [she] looked … pretty good!” She was 30 years old, a well-off former model with access to unlimited comped beauty treatments. This 8/10 rating, after so much effort, caught commenters’ and critics’ attention. As Charlotte Shane wrote in The Cut: “Fifty feminist academics working for fifty years could not have concocted such a concise depiction of what is involved when one strives for conventional feminine perfection.” Speaking with Meltzer about this time, Weiss seems uncharacteristically self-aware about her Sisyphean upkeep regimen: “There’s no level of maintenance that’s actually okay.”

I kept thinking, while reading Glossy, about the mascara I apply each day, how confident I feel wearing it, how glad I am when I find a brand that works for me (I wore Glossier’s until it started flaking, stinging my eyes). I have a choice between enjoying this moment or thinking about the sociocultural connotations of it. Mascara creates the illusion of larger, wider eyes, features we associate with babies, inspiring affection in their caregivers. I wear mascara to look prettier, sexier, but it feels poignant to reframe its application as a feminine request to be cared for. Inherent in my use of makeup is a fear, and a truth, that Weiss’s prewedding routine makes me think she must share: that the level of care I receive from the world is predicated to no small degree on how I look. Makeup can be fun, but I struggle to champion companies that Meltzer acknowledges are “playing with the ideas of equity and advancement for women, which is not the same as actually doing it.”

I was hungry to read Glossy because I felt duped by Weiss, and by Glossier. I’d wasted money on the company’s mediocre products, sensed a swirling void beneath its surface. But I finished the book mostly feeling sad. There was no scandal to uncover, just the fraught endeavor of running a company as a woman in a world where business success is still one of the most viable ways of accessing power and the freedom that comes with it. So many of us cheered the girlbosses’ downfall, believing it a victory against entitlement. To some degree it was, but Glossy alerted me to its risks. Meltzer writes, “Weiss never saw her company as a vanity business. She didn’t treat it like one, either […] signaling the end of the era of the girlboss was like saying female ambition was—poof!—out of style.” In her place, we’ve been offered the trad wife and the bimbo, feminine paradigms that recast traditional gender roles as radical, anti-capitalist choices. Reviewing Glossy, beauty journalist Jessica DeFino asks, “Is the Glossier founder some sort of manipulative marketing genius? Or is she simply her own core customer: a millennial too concerned with the aesthetic construction of the self to realize her methods are at odds with her message?” I sense she’s both—a victim and a perpetrator of capitalism’s shallow interpretation of female success. I think about myself as a teenager, flipping through Vogue, spending my allowance on beauty products, and about teenage Weiss, the intensity of her drive. I wish we’d both grown up in a world where her energy could have been put towards building a more meaningful enterprise, where I could still feel good about buying what she was selling.

LARB Contributor

Diana Heald is a Brooklyn-based writer currently at work on a book about the marketing of antidepressants. Her work has appeared in Off Assignment, Panorama Journal, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!