While the Avon lady is not exactly a fixture in my own memories, I think she’s a fairly well-known character. She’s made her way into the American cultural consciousness, and its hard to forget her lipsticked smile and raised eyebrow of disapproval (likely at our choice of eyeliner). Having avoided her all my life, I never expected to meet her in Georgia. Look!
Every time I see an Avon car driving around the streets of Telavi, or the pile of catalogues in the teachers’ lounge at school, or the pink Avon balloons that appear in any crowd, I sigh at how brilliant a business it is in this society. The best matchmaker couldn’t have found a better pair than Avon and Georgia.
First of all, cosmetics of any kind are absurdly expensive here. Essentially, things are priced comparably to the US. But the highest number I’ve seen for average monthly salary is $600 (which seems ridiculously optimistic), and when 35% of people here live on less than $2 per day, I have a hard time justifying spending three times that on a bottle of shampoo. My point, in any case, is that Avon is no less expensive that whatever weird generic turns up in the bazaar.
Secondly, network marketing is a perfect fit in Georgian society, as almost everything that happens here is closely tied to ever-shifting relationship dynamics. Word-of-mouth is almost always the most effective means of communication, and individual preference is only one of the many things taken into account when deciding what and where to buy. So much so that advertisements often seem a bit out of place in a social landscape that depends so much more on what is spoken than on what is written down. Social circles here, like elsewhere, have a huge impact on what people want. But here, it’s unwise to buy anything without asking your others what they’ve paid for similar items; set prices are seldom seen in bazaars or shops, and prices often have more to do with who you are than with the product itself. The Avon lady, however, is your friend or co-worker, a perfectly trustworthy salesperson.
“The company for women” fits perfectly into the traditional gender roles that rule over both public and private spheres here. Avon is in fact, for women, and makes no attempt to define itself in any other terms. While from a western perspective this might seem like a way to provide women with some kind of independence, here it plays directly into the gender segregation so evident even in passing. Men need not even concern themselves with anything remotely cosmetic, and women find autonomy only in in the aesthetic realm. I don’t wish to make any value judgement as if it is fact, but if you’ve met me you can probably imagine how I feel about this.
In any case, I’m always surprised by the pieces of America that show up elsewhere. This particular surprise brings me an odd sort of joy, as it’s so appropriate, but also makes me concerned for our cultural legacy abroad. I hope we can use our characteristic innovation to do more than spread our ideas about conventional beauty and “women’s work.” Until then, I’ll try finding a cheaper shampoo, but the only one might be from Avon.