Alex Casey dissects a destructive obsession with discount pharmacy Chemist Warehouse.
Within the four walls of the Chemist Warehouse, a malevolent force commandeers my mind, body and soul. I walk in a confident, independent woman in charge of a small shopping list (SPF moisturiser, dry shampoo, mascara) and I leave a gormless, penniless drone, lobotomised by an industry hellbent on making me feel like a mouldy yoghurt lid stuck to the side of a toilet bowl.
Knowing full well that this occult possession will happen on 100% of my visits, I still go regularly. And every time I sheepishly fill my basket with exciting sale lotions and potions, holding on to the thinly-veiled hope that, when applied to my skin in the right order under a full moon, they will conjure up the best version of myself. Thinner. Younger. Fitter. Wealthier. Happier.
It’s all waiting for me, just as soon as I get these fucking under-eye bags under control.
The St Luke’s branch of the Australian discount chain celebrated its opening last year with a bright yellow hot air balloon tied to the roof, suggesting it had either crashed down from the heavens or ascended from the bowels of hell. The interior is overwhelming and technicolour, plastered with DISCOUNT PRICE flyers and FREE BLISTER PACKS with any purchase. Free!?! What even is a blister pack?! I’ll take 10.
Aside from the bargain pricing, the big drawcard is the free prescriptions. Great news for the glassy-eyed customers, bad news for all the local family-run pharmacies. But it’s not the even free prescriptions that lure me in. It’s everything else. Chemist Warehouse is the grim casino of self-improvement, roping in the vulnerable through rotating jackpot skin cream deals, crow’s feet negging and the eternal promise of a better tomorrow.
And, of course, the blister packs.
Upon entry, you’re greeted with a glitzy array of celebrity perfumes – either a glamorous hall of fame or a sombre graveyard of misery, depending on your mood. I counted 20 Britney Spears eau de toilettes, a couple of Ariana Grande numbers and even one eau de Delta Goodrem. There’s even a Michael Bublé cologne, for god’s sake. “I need a Katy Perry for Ella,” a frazzled woman in a raincoat said to her friend. She had seven to choose from.
Beyond the pop star juice, there’s the playland of protein powders and vitamins. About the closest thing we’ve got these days to Big Fresh, the stupidly enormous barrel containers are worth a pitstop for their sheer comedic scale alone. They growl from behind aggressive spiky fonts – “MASS GAINER” for all you muscly ‘I Will Survive’ fans and “ETERNAL MASS” for all you sinners. I feel like you could probably reuse them as a either a baby bath or a sustainable urn.
Because you’ll need an urn once you stare down the gaping void that is the vitamins aisle. There’s a little chalky brown pill to fix every single ounce of your existence. I need it all. Eye health. Krill tablets. Bum health. Sleep support. Age protect. Urinary health. Wild krill. Emu powder. Mood support. Bone health. Emu oil. Pregnancy and breastfeeding support. I mean, I’m definitely not pregnant. But am I? Almost certainly. I should buy a test. Do babies like krill tablets?
A woman with blue eyeliner and thick framed glasses was desperately trying to get the best price per gram on vitamin C for someone on the phone, not unlike like a proxy bidder on The Block NZ. “Look, if she’s going anywhere else, then she’s paying more,” a staff member sagely advised out of nowhere. I ran my fingers across the label of some probiotics, desperately trying to remember what I had read about them online. They’re good, right? Regardless of good or bad, they are on sale. It’s a sign.
“Take a chance you stupid hoe,” Gwen Stefani sings through the speakers. You’re in no position to judge me Gwen, I’ve seen the price of your perfume. I put the probiotics in my basket.
There’s a spot on the floor of the skincare aisle where I once sat cross-legged, holding five different micellar waters, holding back tears. Do I buy the green one, because it’s clearly OfNature? Or do I buy the blue one with the la de da French? Or do I get the one that says “Simple” on the label? I’d like my life to be simple. Maybe I should just lather myself in Emu Oil and slide straight into sale stand of Paris Hilton’s ‘Heiress Bling’ fire sale parfum.
Because once you’ve managed to take your makeup off, you’ve still got your ageing, wrinkling, drying skin to deal with. Women: the world must not know that you are getting older, because once you are old you are irrelevant unless you are ‘funny old’ like Betty White. Luckily, there’s creams such as “Eyetox”, alongside “Instant Facelift”, promising a visible lift and tuck within five minutes. It’s $41.99.
“Who would ever fall for that horse shit?” I thought to myself, slipping a much more sensible age-defying “Youthfoil” sheet mask into my basket.
While you are spending all your hard-earned cash on magic ointments to fix problems you don’t have, how about chuck in a tube of “Breast Enhancer” for larger, firmer looking breasts? “Say goodbye to padded bras and chicken fillets” the back of the box tempts unconvincingly, “this clinically proven cream can give you larger looking breasts in as little as four weeks.” Apparently 78% of women saw larger looking breasts in just 28 days, which is crazy because my boobs get bigger every 28 days too! I’m sure that’s just a coincidence. I’ll take five.
“I’m in love with the shape of you,” Ed Sheeran quietly confessed over the speakers. If you like me now Ed, wait until you see me slathered in $67.49 worth of breast enhancement cream.
If the boob growing juice is a bit much to, ahem, stomach… a big ol’ tube of tummy tuck might be more your buzz. Promising to “mimic the effect of exercise and activate thermogenesis,” some users reported a weight reduction of a WHOPPING 4.8kgs in JUST 56 short days. But wait: it’s not just for your bad tummy, it can be used on your bad hips, bad thighs, bad buttocks and bad upper arms. Me? I would like to rub it directly into my eyes.
I asked a friendly staff member to point me to the foot skin removal section. It should come as a surprise to nobody at this stage in the saga that I dabble in foot peels, mini cheese graters for coarse heels and anything else that makes me feel like a snake shedding anew. She directs me to the packets of Milky Foot, plastic booties full of fruit acid that you wear for 15 agonising minutes, and then wait one agonising week, until your entire foot begins to peel off and leave little skin piles everywhere like the Blair Witch.
“This is my favourite aisle” she says with a smile. “People always come in for fungal nail stuff and it’s so gross” She was grinning that perverse grin. The Goldmember grin. The pimple popping grin. The grin that denotes an obsession with the abject, the fluids and all the grossness that comes with maintaining a sentient bag of bones and blood. She was probably my soulmate, but she had to go and help someone else.
A man in a trench coat bumped into me while asking for some QV moisturiser. A classic of the genre. I pointed him down the store, even though I didn’t strictly work there or know exactly where it was. My small moustache curled as I came to the pink and purple-coloured hair removal section. There are so many parts of my body that I need to remove hair from! The legs, the eyebrows, the chin, the lip, the armpits, the bikini line, the whole undercarriage.
Why are all the women on the boxes smiling?! Why are they waxing hairless pits?! Where’s the ear hair removal wand?!
If the waxing and shaving section is grossly gendered, just wait till you turn the last corner. You’ve heard of Pak N Save’s aisle of values, well, this is the aisle of vulvas. Femfresh and Vagisil both offer wipes, sprays, gels and powders to layer onto your genitalia to keep them smelling like a bunch of flowers, a spring meadow, a… Summer’s Eve? Ahh, love to smell like a sizzling barbeque and Fat Freddy’s on the UE boom. Couldn’t find a single male equivalent, just by the way.
After leaving the seventh circle of vaginal hell, I still didn’t have a fucking mascara. “Who are YOU going to be today?” an advertisement leered in the makeup section from high above me. I tried to focus my rapidly-crossing eyes on the selection of 400,000 mascaras, and grabbed one purely because it was bright green and it also had lycra science in it. My eyelashes would look so much better if they had a lycra extract on them, I think we’re all in agreement about that. Cyclist lashes. The dream.
I made it to the counter after an hour. I hadn’t meant to spend any money, yet somehow my basket was full. Snapping briefly out out of my trance, I dutifully returned the ostentatious gold glasses chain to its place on the shelf. How did that get in there?! This is why you need a game plan, you need a budget and you definitely need a chaperone to tell you that you are being irrational when you buy 500 bottles of FemFresh because you’ve suddenly been given reason to doubt thousands of years of human evolution. I put in my pin, ready to start my new life.
The cashier looked at me pitifully as my card declined. Fuck you Chemist Warehouse. But never leave me.
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The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.