No, really, it’s a thing, and it’s not just for celebrities. Molly Young investigates.
A few years ago I wrote a profile of Miss America 2011, who was a Nebraskan named Teresa Scanlan. Teresa was kind and talented and pretty, and she wore full stage makeup and a wig at every public appearance, even if it was only to read to kindergarteners. At 17 years old, she understood the mechanics of image-making and the necessity of looking like Miss America in every photo. It was impressive and precocious, and poignant in the way that it is always poignant when young people sustain pressures under which most adults would crumple. One of Teresa's pageant secrets was leg makeup—which, if you're unfamiliar, is exactly what it sounds like. Leg makeup, she explained, was what gave pageant contestants their satin Barbie Doll sheen. It's foundation for your legs. Or, as Sally Hansen used to brand it, "It's like pantyhose in a can!"
That is not how Sally Hansen markets their fastest-growing, award-winning product today. Pantyhose sales have dropped over the past few decades, and most workplaces no longer require female employees (either tacitly or explicitly) to wear them. A few years ago Michelle Obama announced on The View that she loathed hose ("Put 'em on, rip 'em—it's inconvenient"), and who can blame her? As repellent words go, "pantyhose" is up there with "sexpert" and "fondle." Put it this way: I would not want to be long on L'eggs stock.
I was lukewarm, then, when Emily called to see if I was interested in testing out Sally Hansen Airbrush Legs for a sponsored post. She'd already tested the product on herself. "Does it rub off on everything?" I asked.
"No," said Emily. "Not until I took a shower— and then it looked like a Kardashian was melting down the drain!"
I liked the idea of a Kardashian melting down the drain.
When the cult products arrived a few days later, feelings of resentment began to creep in. All ultra-specific beauty products—waist-targeting gel, lip contour cream—make me resentful. By offering to fix things that I hadn't realized were broken, they seem to create flaws from thin air. The imaginary dialogue goes like this:
Airbrush Legs: "I enhance coverage of freckles, veins, and imperfections."
Me: "Are leg freckles a problem?"
Airbrush Legs: (Silence.)
Me: "I feel bad about my leg freckles."
But forget that, for a moment. Look at the picture on the bottles. The picture shows a pair of sleek, shimmering legs. Legs like Mariah Carey's digitally-enhanced ones on the cover of #1s. Golden legs. Legs that make you think, ‘I WANT MY LEGS TO BE THE COLOR OF A WAFFLE.’ Legs that can be yours, maybe, for $11.50.
I took off my pants. The product comes in two formats—lotion and aerosol spray—but there's no actual difference, because you're instructed to aim the nozzle at your palm, spray, and then rub it in that way. I applied the makeup to one leg and took an iPhone photo to compare. The result: my painted leg was bronzed and monochromatic; my natural leg was pink and contained two bruises. Also, my natural knee formed a darker pink circle against the rest of my leg, which made it look sort of like a nipple. I had not noticed this before. How erotic.
I took my legs for a spin around the apartment. The difference between test leg and control leg was startling: if I went to work with just one leg painted, for example, it would be considered an inappropriate distraction and remarked on. The painted leg was creamily brown and longer-looking. It was a better leg—a leg that looked like it belonged on Megan Fox. It struck me that a key difference between celebrity legs and civilian legs is that celebrity legs are all the same color. They do not have nipple knees or bruises or faint scars from the time their cousin t-boned them with a Frisbee. One has to wonder: do all celebrities use leg makeup? The answer is probably yes.
The next hurdle was to find out whether the makeup would stay on or rub off. I lubed up my other leg, waited 20 minutes, put on a pair of skintight black jeans and ran errands for a few hours in 97º heat. Then I went home and peeled off my pants; there was no makeup inside. This is objectively amazing, so: kudos to the Sally Hansen chemists! I hopped into the shower and splattered bits of Kardashian all over the white bathroom tile, watching it swirl down the drain as Emily described. The more stubborn traces disappeared with a gentle scrub.
The next day I painted my legs again and went to a picnic on the Brooklyn Promenade with some friends. One person brought crusty bread, brie, and prosciutto. Another person brought gin, Cadbury chocolate, and salad. I brought a bag of shitty snow peas and my leg makeup.
"I'm wearing leg makeup," I told everyone. The reaction was muted.
Midway through the picnic, I took a picture of my legs. They looked better than my legs had ever looked in a photo. I decided I would wear the makeup one more time—to work the next day—and see how it went. Our office A/C was broken and, thanks to the huge quantity of computers, the indoor thermometer was hovering around 123º. I was too nauseated to work and spent a lot of time angrily mainlining Ice Pops in my snow-white office chair. None of the makeup rubbed off on it.
"Bare legs are nice," says the Sally Hansen bottle. "Airbrush Legs are irresistible."
So, is the bottle correct? Should all women have a bottle of leg makeup in their bathroom cabinet? Here is what I think. I think that Airbrush Legs are the equivalent of false eyelashes: a beauty procedure that takes a few extra minutes to pull off but elevates your grooming situation from civilian-status to red carpet-status. (Not necessarily movie star status, but George-Clooney-date status, for sure.) They are something to dig out on occasion, but not something to deploy on a casual basis. It is the beauty version of a closing pitcher.
It is not a substitute for pantyhose, either, if you are in the market for pantyhose. Unlike pantyhose, you cannot pull Airbrush Legs above your bellybutton and feel your stomach firm up like instant-set Jell-O. Tubes of Airbrush Legs will never be rationed during wartime. And if you work at a place that requires pantyhose, you're dealing with a cultural rather than an aesthetic mandate, so the spray-on alternative won't be much help.
But for those who are interested in an instant leg upgrade, know this: Sally Hansen Airbrush Legs is odorless and has a sheen, but no glitter. (Perfect.) It makes your legs look thinner. The lotion is easier than the spray. You’ll want to exfoliate and moisturize before applying. You’ll want to admire your legs after applying. And when they tell you it washes off in the shower, they mean it. (It really does. I have white sheets, too.)