The skin care wars, explained

The skin care wars, explained

When we talk about skin care, we’re talking about women, their bodies, and their money.

The intersections of the internet that are interested in gender, beauty, and Foucault all had a minor meltdown at the end of January. The culprit? The Outline had published an article by Krithika Varagur arguing that skin care was mostly a con.

“All of this,” wrote Varagur, referring to the current vogue for elaborate skin care regimens of serums and acids, “is a scam. It has to be. Perfect skin is unattainable because it doesn’t exist. The idea that we should both have it and want it is a waste of our time and money.”

In response, think piece after think piece dotted the internet, arguing that skin care was anything but a scam, that it made women happy and was harmless and really no one else’s business, anyway.

“One thing I refuse to be told,” wrote Lisa Niven at British Vogue, “is that spending money on skincare makes me some kind of vacuous moron.”

The debate after the Outline article was not anomalous. Over the past year or so, skin care has slowly become an object of intense literary discourse.

Writing about skin care used to be confined to beauty blogs and glossy magazines; now, it’s increasingly showing up at major mainstream outlets that don’t have a mandate to cover “beauty” or “women’s issues.” Jia Tolentino and Rachel Syme are writing about skin care for the New Yorker’s website. Sady Doyle is writing about her skin care regimen for the Huffington Post. Nicole Cliffe has a skin care newsletter.

In this, skin care is roughly following the trail blazed by advice columns in 2015, when they went from being oft-overlooked and utilitarian service journalism to showcases for some of the hottest young voices in digital publishing. Both skin care writing and advice columns are, broadly speaking, feminine and focused on self-care, and their parallel rise is not coincidental: They are both gathering cultural force as women writers have accumulated cultural capital.

But with skin care’s newfound prestige has come a backlash of which the Outline article is only the most visible form. Critical think pieces about skin care abound, and they tend to hit the same beats: Is skin care exploitative? Is it a waste of money? Is it misogynistic? Or is it the backlash against skin care that is truly misogynistic?

These critiques aren’t unique to the skin care conversation. They emerge whenever women en masse become deeply and visibly interested in something.

Because in our culture, anything that women love is co-opted by two forces: corporations, which attempt to commercialize what used to be subversive, and concern trolls, who tell women that the thing they like and take pleasure from is secretly bad for them in particular and society as a whole. And while the two co-opting forces might seem to be opposed to each other, they’re actually mutually reinforcing agents of the same patriarchal myths about women.

So when we talk about skin care, we’re not just talking about cosmetics. We’re also talking about our anxieties about women, their bodies, their money, and their pleasure.

The rise of skin care coincides with the corporatization of self-care

It would be disingenuous say that skin care was “taken over” by corporations, because skin care in its modern form has always been corporate: It is inherently about putting money on your face, often at a huge markup. But the rise of the new skin care regime is closely linked to the rise of self-care.

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence,” wrote Audre Lorde in 1988, in what came to be the manifesto of the self-care movement, “it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”

That is the basic philosophy behind self-care: that it is not selfish to take the time to take care of oneself, that it is in fact necessary for one’s strength and well-being. Especially when embraced by people from disenfranchised groups, who are taught that they do not have the right to expect care from anyone — like Lorde, a black lesbian poet — self-care is fundamentally subversive and anti-capitalist. It means thinking of yourself as a human being with inherent value regardless of your social capital or what you are able to produce.

In her history of self-care for Slate, Aisha Harris writes that self-care began as a medical concept used to encourage patients to exercise healthful habits, was taken up by civil rights activists as a way of bringing health care to disenfranchised communities, and began to enter the mainstream during the wellness movement of the ’90s.

In this decade, self-care became a topic for blog series and Solange songs. And in the wake of the 2016 election, as shell-shocked progressives took to the internet to share their coping rituals for living in the age of Donald Trump, self-care became a topic for think pieces about how we live now. Ultimately, the rise of skin care is part of the post-election rise of self-care. Jia Tolentino describes her skin care routine as “one of many small, ridiculous attempts to affirm to myself that I will outlive the Trump Administration.”

And as the Trump age becomes our new normal, skin care as self-care has as well. The idea that caring for yourself is a way of recognizing that you are a human being of inherent value and worth — within a social and political climate that seemingly finds new ways to challenge that idea every day — has become central to the way we talk about skin care since the election.

“Elaborate skin care combines the vaguely scientific with the pseudo-spiritual,” writes Sady Doyle: “there’s the meditative quality of lying down with a sheet mask on, the ritual of applying exactly the right ingredients in exactly the right order.”

Doyle quotes the commenters of the subreddit r/SkincareAddiction who use skin care to cope with their depression: “My skincare kind of pushes me to do other basic self-care things because I actually want to get out of bed and go to the bathroom and do all my stuff,” writes one. “It’s a huge distraction from thinking negative thoughts, and I’ve been really encouraged by seeing positive results when adding in a new product or technique,” writes another, adding, “The ritual of practicing a physical kind of self care has also improved the way I feel about myself.”

Skin care is a particularly physical kind of self-care, a way of paying attention to one’s body, rubbing it with oils and smoothing it with acids, noticing its bizarre shifts and preferences: the things that make it red and inflamed, the things that soothe it and clear it. It is physical and personal — and it is also, potentially, enormously lucrative.

As skin care and self-care became more and more intertwined in popular discourse, skin care marketers took note. Now the language of self-care and wellness has become the very effective, very profitable language of marketing copy.

One brand sells “skin care/self-care products that make you look and feel BE-YOU-tiful,” suggesting that at the end of the day, there is no difference at all between skin care and self-care.

“Your skincare routine should be something you enjoy, and taking the time to focus on yourself reaps mind, body, and beauty benefits,” says a recent blog post on another brand’s website. “An effective and efficient skin care routine is a therapeutic process that will help you feel your best. … We believe in the power of skin care as a self-care ritual, and want to enable you to dedicate downtime to focus solely on yourself.”

There are, of course, many worse things for companies to sell us than the idea that taking time for yourself is a nice thing to do, but it is worth looking carefully at what’s happening here. The concept of self-care, which used to be about recognizing your own self-worth in a racist, misogynistic, capitalist society that tries to demean you, is now also a really great way for corporations to make a few bucks. Insisting on your own value as a person, regardless of your wealth or social status, becomes valuable precisely for the amount of money a company can make from it.

It’s also worth noting that skin care is not purely about self-care. It’s also about fixing problems that would not be problems except that we as a culture have agreed they are problems: While it’s true that some forms of acne and dry skin are physically painful, the drive for “perfect” poreless skin is primarily an aesthetic one; poreless skin is not an inherent and objective good.

We as a culture have agreed that women’s social worth is primarily decorative, and that to have decorative value, women have to fit into certain extraordinarily narrow standards: hence the obsession with how female politicians look and dress, as though their appearance affects their ability to set legislation; hence the data showing that women at work are punished for appearing too ugly and too beautiful; hence the way skin care and cosmetics are overwhelmingly marketed to women rather than to straight men.

Skin care is about having pristinely clear pores and perfect porcelain skin tone, and while women en masse are not stupid or bad for aspiring to those goals (hate the game, not the player, etc.), it’s undeniable that setting those goals for women has made a lot of rich white men a whole lot of money.

Before embracing the language of self-care and wellness to sell their products, skin care corporations explicitly played on women’s insecurities: stop that blackhead, fight those wrinkles, kick that pimple’s butt because your skin is unacceptable as it is. Now that wellness has become the marketing language du jour, that ideology is still present, but more hidden.

At the New York Times Magazine, Amanda Hess tracked the way wellness marketing copy covertly suggests that aging is bad and unnatural:

As ever, beauty expectations for women haven’t been revised so much as they’ve been rebranded, with words like “renewing” and “vitality” and “radiant” serving as cutting-edge euphemisms for “youthful.” The implication hiding beneath is an unsettling one. You may think the stigma against older people is social, a construction of our culture and what it chooses to value. The ads suggest otherwise: Youth, they seem to say, is simply natural.

The same slippage happens with other skin ailments, like acne and clogged pores: In today’s ads, they aren’t bad guys to be fought the way they were 10 years ago, but rather unnatural interlopers who must be tended to, naturally and radiantly. And you have to tend to them because don’t you want to be a natural, healthy, radiant, emotionally well-adjusted person who takes care of herself? Don’t neglect your self-care! If you aren’t using retinol, then Trump is winning!

The effect is to collapse the subversive, empowering language of self-care with the capitalist-affirming, predatory language of corporations that invent and then profit from women’s insecurities. “Take care of yourself, and take pleasure in tending to your body,” advertising tells us, “but don’t forget that you’re really doing it in order to maximize your social value as a woman.” The subversive system has been cannibalized by the dominant.

Beauty is labor, but our culture shames us whenever we acknowledge that fact

The Outline’s “skincare con” article argues that skin care is a modern scam, and that women who spend money on skin care are being cheated by massive corporations that offer nothing but snake oil. There are some historical and scientific errors in Varagur’s argument (contrary to her claims, people have put things on their skin for most of history, and there is a scientific basis for some, if not all, of today’s most popular skin care), but most of the backlash to the article centers on a line that comes halfway through.

“Don’t we all have friends who are fanatical about skin care and don’t … really (whispers) have great skin?” Varagur writes. “How can that be?”

“Why are some of your so-called (whispers) friends so judgmental and unsupportive of your hobbies?” Cheryl Wischhover responded at Racked.

There’s a sort of mean girl-ish condescension to the line; you get an image of the scariest girl at your high school looking you up and down and saying, “Oh, you’re into skin care? You’re not very good at it, are you?”

But the judgment in the line is instructive. It shows what’s so familiar about the Outline piece, and why the feminist skin care discourse community reacted so strongly against it.

We’ve already talked about how our culture has decided that women must fit into certain narrow beauty standards to have social value. But the depressing flip side of that standard is that our culture also teaches us that beauty must be effortless for it to really count. Women who put effort into their looks are high-maintenance. They are not cool girls. They’re not aspirational.

I wrote about this idea in 2016 in the context of the effortlessly beautiful heroines of the WB and their scary, high-maintenance foils:

The WB heroine is nearly always brunette, doe-eyed, and beautiful. She doesn’t wear any obvious makeup or have obvious highlights in her hair: She is a natural beauty. That’s in direct contrast to her foil and frenemy, who is usually blonde and always either high-maintenance and manicured or plain and mousy. …

For us to really feel the impact of the WB heroine’s effortless, thoughtless perfection, we have to see her in contrast to less valuable girls, less likable girls: girls who try. The girls who try to be smart, who try to achieve their goals, who try to be attractive, those girls are the villains. They know their worth, and they make no apologies for their ambitions. They’re not perfect. They’re not valuable. They are, in fact, scary and off-putting.

Our culture worships the effortlessly beautiful woman, but she is a myth. Beauty is pain, beauty is labor, and beauty is money. That’s why we have a flourishing skin care industry in the first place.

But whenever the pain and the labor and the costs of beauty begin to show, the shaming begins. And often, it cloaks itself in feminist-sounding rhetoric: Women, don’t you realize that you — yes, you, you specifically — are being conned by the patriarchy? Why would you spend your money on skin care/makeup/clothes? You must have low self-esteem. You must not be as smart or as empowered or as beautiful as these other women who managed to fulfill social standards correctly without trying.

It’s an inescapable trap. If you don’t participate in the beauty system, you are ugly and also lazy, and probably unclean and unhealthy and unnatural and not your best self. If you do participate in the beauty system and you let your labor show, you are a gullible fool and also high-maintenance and self-obsessed. And if you participate in the beauty system but don’t quite manage to meet the narrow, exacting standards of patriarchy — if you “don’t … really (whispers) have great skin” — well, then, what are you even doing?

What we’re left with is a system that first profits from and then shames women for their insecurities, one that cannibalizes the subversive practices women use to try to survive the capitalist patriarchy and then uses the vocabulary of those practices to sell the capitalist patriarchy right back to them.

The women who live in this system are not bad or wrong or stupid or gullible for doing whatever they have to do to get through it as best they see fit. Embracing skin care does not make you a foolish and conceited gull, even if it also might not turn you into your best and most enlightened self. Rejecting skin care does not make you gross or lazy or unclean, even if it also won’t magically bring you into a world where the patriarchy doesn’t exist.

But none of this — the outrage cycle, the think pieces and the backlash to the think pieces — is really about skin care. It’s about a system that is designed to make women feel terrible no matter what they do. And the best way we can help women through that system is to refrain from judging their choices as they do their best to get through it anyway.

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