The Promise of a Shampoo Bottle


Alba Honey Mango Bath and Shower Gel

You’ll have no trouble hopping out of bed with this tropical treasure waiting in the shower. Packed with pure botanical emollients, our replenishing bath gel nourishes and softens while the fragrances of mango, honey, and pure vanilla take you island hopping before breakfast. Both hydrating and hypoallergenic, it combines aloe vera, botanical extracts and fragrant herbs to whisk you from ordinary to extraordinary.

It’s 6:53 a.m., my five-year-old is up in my grill asking me to remove his sodden pull-up, I am hungover, and my three-year-old’s plaintive moans of “mummmmy!” from her bedroom are tightening my barely conscious nerves before I’ve even boiled water for my first cup of tea. I’ve overslept and am wholly unprepared to face what’s ahead. I think about the article on “tear-free mornings” I read the other day and know that today will not be one of those mornings.

Pleasantly citrusy as the scent may be, creamy as the suds might feel swirled under my arms and between my legs, Alba Honey Mango Bath and Shower Gel most assuredly does not “whisk me from ordinary to extraordinary.” We’re out of SunButter for the five-year-old’s lunch and his kindergarten is nut-free and I wonder if two slices of bread and an apple count as a real lunch. I’m also relatively sure my three-year-old’s ballet tights are still curled up in a wet, wrinkly ball at the bottom of the washer, and I know I’ll have roughly three minutes and twenty-seven seconds to shower. Sadly, my island experience must be cut short.

By 7:37 a.m., I’m relying on PBS to keep my children safe as I frantically rub fragrances of mango, honey, and pure vanilla into my skin with frenetic desperation. Ominous silence accompanies my bathroom-door-open shower, which keeps me firmly rooted in the ordinary (as will the revelation that said silence was due to the five-year-old cutting a graham cracker-sized chunk out of the three-year-old’s hair). I wonder if the pure botanical emollients will help with my headache.


Fekkai Brilliant Glossing Conditioner

Infused with sun-ripened Olive Oil. Scented by a fresh floral garden. Bathe hair in brilliantly lustrous radiance. Dull hair is nurtured to shine.

It’s 7:39 a.m. and I don’t yet know that I’ll be taking my daughter to get her hair fixed after ballet class. I’m eager to condition my own hair, which is fried by bleach to prevent revealing a drabber reality.

I like the word “gloss.” I like the word “brilliant.” But the dearth of enthusiasm or effusiveness by way of exclamation points on the back of this bottle is not making me feel hopeful about my hair’s future post conditioning. The command implicit in the third statement is off-putting (like, what if I don’t “bathe my hair in brilliantly lustrous radiance?”), and the terseness and lack of complete sentences make me feel as though my conditioner isn’t fully committed. I almost wonder if I’m being made fun of—me and my hopelessly dry, stringy tresses. Nevertheless, I dutifully coat the bottom half of my hair in Fekkai Brilliant Glossing Conditioner and hope for the best. Because what other option remains?


Old Spice Body Spray– Denali – with the Fresher scents of Spruce

Put a fresh-scented woodland adventure tuxedo all over your body. P.S. True outdoorsmen also use Denali antiperspirant and body wash

It’s 2:07 p.m. and I’m using housework as a pretense for procrastination. I should be grading papers or recording firsts in my kids’ baby books, so their childhoods aren’t erased from memory. I should be strengthening my core or sending flowers to my grandmother for her birthday or googling summer art camps, but I’m cleaning the bathroom instead. It feels easier. Clear countertops give the appearance of control over a life that feels too frequently like a series of events that are happening to me. The literary treasures I find on the back of this can of Old Spice Body Spray make me feel justified in my decision to scrub orangey water stains away from the bottom of my sink. If there’s anything that evokes the image of a “true outdoorsmen,” it’s definitely the unmistakably aggressive stench of the body spray that ushers multitudes of skinny, zit-covered adolescents into “manhood.” And talk about capitalizing on a shockingly untapped market—our society’s widespread demand for woodland adventure tuxedos. I sit down, sponge in hand, and get lost in visions of young, chiseled men wearing nothing but leaves and arboreal detritus and wonder if that’s what an adventure tuxedo would look like. Birch bark cumberbunds. I hear my daughter crying herself awake from her nap. My free time is over.


Acure Deep Root Conditioner – Argan Stem Cell + Mint

This is the where-have-you-been-all-my-life deep conditioning treatment that restores moisture, manageability, shine, and strength. With nourishing Organic Argan Oil and CoQ10, this acidifying treatment will protect the hair cortex, locking in moisture and color, while Argan Stem Cells dive into the follicle to strengthen, nourish, and regenerate hair at the root. Directions: Allow to penetrate for 5 minutes, rinse well, then go turn some heads.

It’s 5:47 p.m. and my husband just got home to find me sitting on the couch with both kids watching Daniel Tiger. I must’ve looked too rapt, too invested in the happenings on the TV screen, which featured Mama Tiger singing a song about trying new foods cause they might taste goooood, because he suggested I pour myself a glass of wine and take a bath. I don’t really like baths, but I like wine, so I’m here in the bubbles waiting for this deep conditioner to penetrate me. My experience with the Fekkai Glossing Conditioner has left me needing and wanting more; luckily I have this deep conditioner to lean on for additional support. It feels good to have a backup plan.

I swush the bubbles over my stomach so I don’t feel guilty for not having spent any time toning it today, and flip the bottle of conditioner over to find out what I might expect from this experience. I appreciate the attempt of a hey-girl-lets-be-friends-and-relate-to-each-other by way of a hyphenated Frankenstein adjective, but my teacher brain balks at the unnecessary capitalization of words. Argan Stem Cells are the same thing as argan stem cells. I feel a weight of dread settle into my chest because the pile of student papers on my desk and in my inbox is the same size today as it was yesterday. I imagine writing the person who wrote this copy some helpful constructive feedback the way I do for my students: “Love the friendly voice in this piece 🙂 Just be sure to review capitalization and proper noun rules. Here’s a link that might help!”

My eyes fixate on the mass of science-y words—cortex, CoQ10, root, acid, follicle—I suspect someone might be trying to bewilder me into compliance. As a hardened consumer of empty promises and/or hair products, I’m familiar with the gold standards of manageability, shine, and strength (although, in today’s age of bedhead ideals a la all the beautiful people everywhere, I think we’re all looking for less manageability, not more. Like, I aspire to be able to brush a hunk of beach-y waves out of my eyes and humblebrag that ugh my hair is so out of control. But I digress). I’m bit startled that I didn’t know acidification was a thing. Startled and newly awash with hope. Maybe this was what I’ve been missing all along. Acidification. I eagerly massage “Acure Deep Root Conditioner – Argan Stem Cell + Mint” into my scalp, not so much convinced that I’ll turn any heads at kindergarten drop-off tomorrow morning but comforted by the fact that at least my hair is getting acidified. I sink back into the tub and feel a sense of accomplishment the rest of my day has failed to provide. I’m relieved to be able to check hair acidification off of my list of critical things that must be done.


Glossier Cherry Balm Dotcom Universal Skin Salve

Instructions: Use on lips, on cuticles, on elbows, on your friend… anywhere that needs some love.

It’s 9:37 p.m. and I’m falling asleep too late with my book’s binding breaking against my chest. I wake up, glasses wedged against the side of my face, and reflect on the fact that I drank too much again. I could’ve stopped at three glasses of wine. I didn’t need that last half-actually-full glass. But I was watching Outlander and all the characters are always slugging red and it makes me feel like I’m part of the party if I’m slugging red, too. I sat on my couch wearing a pair of sweatpants I’ve had since high school and no one ripped them off me in a fit of passion, but at least I was drinking with friends.

I put my book on the nightstand—it’s a collection of essays called Ongoingness and the blurb on Amazon describes it as follows: “A haunting account of mortality and impermanence, of how we struggle to find clarity in the chaos of time that rushes around and over and through us.” I read two pages before the words started to bleed together in a blur of meaningless hieroglyphics.

I rub hand cream into my knuckles, cracked red from the Ajax I used to scour the bathroom sink, and I resolve to drink less tomorrow night so I can read more and remember more about what I read. I pick up my tube of lip balm and admire the lovely words of restraint, marvel at the power of that incandescent shade of pale pink. The terrible geniuses at Glossier know they own me. They know that all I really want is to be cool, and goddammit do I feel cool-as-fuck smearing some of this lip balm onto my lips after popping my birth control, organic multivitamin, Zoloft, and clicking my mouth guard into place.

I lay down, turn off the light, and try to sleep. But I can’t. I turn the light back on and open the drawer to my nightstand, and there it is—the small tube of  Glossier Cherry Balm Dotcom—so very still. I reread the words like a bookworm savoring the last pages of a favorite novel. Anywhere that needs some love.

I am curious about this mention of love. My lips get chapped, and they need a smooth mixture of wax and oil and chemicals to feel salved. My lips have simple needs. I worry my own needs are harder to pinpoint, harder to meet. I worry that the viscous contents of bottles purchased from links to online shops I am directed to by trendsetter bloggers, the search for bottles of promises, the chase for something that works, is covering up needs I can’t yet name. I’ve forgotten to figure out what clarity might mean for me in the ongoingness of lotions and potions, in the chaotic chasing of bouncy hair and young skin. I wish I could remember more of my book.

I fall asleep with hair properly acidified, strands pumped with texture, body washed clean by mango honey, and lips slicked glossy. I fall asleep next to a man who smells of sweat and our children’s tear-free shampoo and garlic from the dinner he cooked and, of course, the fresher scents of pine.

I fall asleep and dream of days full of meaning and strangers who throw me against walls, smashing their lips into mine, which are ripe for kissing. My skin glows with the fresh radiance of a Glossier model, in which case I must no longer be thirty-six, no longer tied to a life that has arisen from deliberate choices I’ve made. I must be that nebulous age during which everything is still very much possible. No longer enclosed within four walls of domesticity and routine and milestones I’ve worked to reach, my dream body moves through space and time unhampered by the persistence of now. My heart beats and I wonder what I will become, and the promise of becoming is enough to fill me up, is enough to make me breathe easily without wishing to become whole by way of the promises written on gummy labels peeling from the sides of plastic bottles. Plastic bottles which sit on a wet shower shelf day after day, until they create rings of soapy residue, orangey sludge which will need to be wiped clean.


Rumpus original art by Lauren Friedlander.

Sara Petersen is a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Glamour, InStyle, and elsewhere. She's working on a book about momfluencer culture. You can read more at and find her on Twitter and Instagram @slouisepetersen. More from this author →