What We're Talking About When We Talk About Skin Care

It's not just female consumption or even female gender performance, but female pleasure.
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Before The Outline’s now-viral takedown of putting fancy lotion on your face began to ricochet around my timeline and probably yours, I don’t think anyone’s plans for the week included writing a stirring political defense of skin care.

The writer, Krithika Varagur, charges that the current trend for high-maintenance skin care routines is deeply entwined with the excesses of capitalism (true), does not automatically or even frequently result in “perfect” skin (fair enough), is in fact “chemical violence” that will burn your face off (uh-oh) and, in summary, is a made-up “waste of money” that has tricked too many gullible women into endlessly surveilling and punishing their own bodies, as foretold in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (and here, the think piece goes flying off the track, into the stands, crushing several bystanders).

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,” Varagur writes. The only real solution, she lectures her readers, is to “stop wanting it.”

Beauty writers have debunked many of Varagur’s claims, such as her assertion that there was no skin care in the ancient world (Egyptians were nuts for the stuff; laborers’ wages were partially paid in body oil). But her arguments about privilege are not wrong. What is wrong is an “anti-consumerism” that hangs entirely on the supposed vanity and gullibility of women.

I spent most of my life with Bad Skin: pale, oily, simultaneously acne-prone and rapidly aging. It’s hereditary; my father had intense cystic acne. After my teens, my own skin mostly settled down into “normal” blackheads and breakouts, but it never left the bad end of “normal.” It didn’t help that the major contributing factors to my father’s skin — a family history of mental illness, the sheer pigheadedness to think you can manage mental illness by chain-smoking and binge drinking — were things I’d inherited as well.

I tried everything: Proactiv, a prescription that left my skin so dehydrated it hurt to smile, a $250 device that was supposed to irradiate the bacteria with black light. I still found myself gazing at normal people, wondering what it was like to walk around without visible pores.

I eventually gave up, reasoning (with the warped pride that has characterized 99 percent of my bad decisions) that I couldn’t will myself to be conventionally pretty, and it was undignified to keep trying. I also spent several years of my life so poor that buying face soap or an $8 lipstick from the drugstore constituted irresponsible spending. I didn’t have a “no-makeup look”; I had no makeup.

The point that “self-care” is not a retail product, and that the self-worth that comes from a $105 bottle of Good Genes is out of reach for many people, is well-taken.

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Yet here I am today, a woman with a 10-step Korean skin care routine so detailed and beloved it includes specialized candles and Spotify playlists. I got pregnant, so I had to stop smoking and drinking. And I was a political writer during the 2016 election; naturally, I got death threats, but there were also trolls posting photos of me online, holding public debates about how fuckable I was and one-upping each other with vivid descriptions of my hideousness. (“Sady Doyle has a gunt” is the one I remember best. It means both “gut” and “cunt,” signifying that I was chubby but also had a vagina.)

Throughout all this, I found myself lurking on beauty Reddits and combing through Into the Gloss’s Top Shelf archives, trying to find something to do about my bad skin.

I couldn’t guarantee that the pregnancy would be healthy. I couldn’t stop people from emailing me to say the world would be better if I killed myself. I couldn’t even stop thinking about how much I wanted a cigarette. But, by God, I could find a reasonably priced, pregnancy-safe serum that dealt with enlarged pores.

The performance of class that Varagur deplores is undeniably part of the skin care fad; that fresh-faced, milk-bathed Glossier complexion is expensive, and intentionally signifies a certain kind of hip, youngish, upwardly mobile professional woman. And, yes, some of it is about the social pressure to look good.

It hasn’t escaped me that I started reading up on cleansers and exfoliants at the precise moment I was both (a) undergoing a drastic and frightening physical transformation, and (b) experiencing harsh public scrutiny. On some level, the whole thing came down to a need to control how people saw me. But women also get into skin care for the same reason they get into knitting or “Call of Duty”: Because it’s fun.

Women from Jude Chao at Fashionista to Jia Tolentino in The New Yorker have written about skin care’s self-soothing properties. A thread on r/SkincareAddiction called “Relationship between skincare and depression?” has 63 comments and counting.

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,” the original poster writes.

“Kinda gross but I sometimes feel so down that I don’t want to shower and stuff like that,” writes another user. “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.”

Elaborate skin care combines the vaguely scientific with the pseudo-spiritual: 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. There are also all those medical-sounding benefits, requiring the user to research and comparison-shop and pleasurably obsess over her own needs.

Women on r/Skincareaddiction talk about the craving to put on a sheet mask at the end of the day rather than pour a glass of wine. They say things like, “I love being able to go into the bathroom, shut the world out, and just pay attention to what’s going on with my body.”

What we’re talking about, when we talk about skin care, is not just female consumption or even female gender performance, but female pleasure.

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The fact that our culture devalues female pleasure is not new. As Lili Loufborouw wrote recently in a blockbuster essay for The Week, women are so socialized to ignore their own feelings that we’ve normalized even physical pain. But when the realities of female enjoyment collide with consumerism and capitalism, female pleasure isn’t just ignored — it’s cast as soft, decadent and frivolous in a way that male spending is not.

Skin care is hardly the only hobby with a price tag. My husband buys watches and outdoor workout gear, and he zones out with a video game when stressed. I knew one man who collected antique cameras; another built bicycles in his spare time. All of these hobbies are consumerist, in that they all require consumption.

Some stereotypically male pursuits — a crate full of vintage comic books, an expertly curated shelf of records — have no point outside of procuring the objects in question. The “hobby” is, literally, shopping. Yet somehow, none of this inspires the same contempt as a woman applying $175 Vintner’s Daughter serum in front of a mirror.

The men are just enjoying themselves; the woman is a narcissistic sucker who has been fooled into paying too much for an experience we’ve deemed to have no value.

Of course, the beauty industry sells things based on false promises and phony “luxury.” That’s part of what capitalism does; it invents needs in order to sell solutions, and fools us into buying junk. But it’s a mistake to frame the beauty industry as some especially loathsome offender. Glossier is cheap because it markets to millennials; K-beauty and French pharmacy products are sold at Target; my miracle acne serum comes from The Ordinary and costs less than $6.

Before I relaxed with a half-hour face-washing ritual, I smoked a pack a day. The corporations that knowingly foster and trade on addiction and disease are surely far more cynical, exploitative and dishonest than the guys putting a too-high mark-up on some moisturizer at Sephora.

It seems more likely that we view the Sephora purchase as shallow or contemptible because we’ve stereotyped women themselves as vain, shallow and acquisitive.

“The skin care debate is a reminder of how we’ve cast female desire as both intrinsically excessive and intrinsically public, there to be checked and guided by outsiders.”

“Consumerism as applied to women is blatantly sexist,” Ellen Willis wrote in a 1970 essay that started making the rounds shortly after the Outline piece. “The pervasive image of the empty-headed female consumer constantly trying her husband’s patience with her extravagant purchases contributes to the myth of male superiority: we are incapable of spending money rationally; all we need to make us happy is a new hat now and then.”

The critique here isn’t structural, it’s “women be shopping.” (For the record, yes, we do shop more than men — but only because women are frequently saddled with doing the shopping for their families. Also, there’s some data suggesting men are more vain than women, which I’ll just leave here.)

It’s sexist, not only in how it elides women’s lived reality — anyone who has tasted the brutal contempt our society has for older women would think twice before telling a woman she “doesn’t really need” anti-aging products — but in how it casts female want itself as dirty, shameful, inherently self-indulgent.

Our image of the decadent aristocracy is Marie Antoinette spending money on fashion and makeup, not her incompetent, childlike husband Louis XVI. When Hillary Clinton gets a $600 haircut, she’s an out-of-touch narcissist. But Donald Trump can literally coat his entire home in gold and still be taken for a man of the people.

The skin care debate is a reminder of how we’ve cast female desire as both intrinsically excessive and intrinsically public, there to be checked and guided by outsiders. Caitlin Flanagan wringing her hands over the imagined promiscuity of Aziz Ansari’s accuser is not obviously connected to the man who hangs out on my timeline until I mention a perfume so that he can chide me about how much it costs, but both have assumed authority over how much another human being can or should want.

“We must recognize that no individual decision, like rejecting consumption, can liberate us,” Willis writes. “We must stop arguing about whose life style is better (and secretly believing ours is) and tend to the task of collectively fighting our own oppression and the ways in which we oppress others.”

Policing how individual women navigate their dates or spend their paychecks does nothing to untangle the political problems of the day. It only contributes to a climate where women are constantly being judged.

My skin care narrative should probably conclude with victory. I should tell you that I don’t have bad skin anymore. I don’t have breakouts anymore, it’s true. I have visible pores, and crow’s feet, and dark circles under my eyes; I have deadlines, and hate mail, and a 7-month-old. I have not magically become conventionally beautiful, because skin care doesn’t do that, and maybe, for some people, that makes it a scam.

But every night, I haul myself into the bathroom and spend an hour or two in the bath, trying to do something nice for my face. It’s the hour, not the face, that matters.

Women deserve some pleasure in this mean world, and getting a little too excited about washing your face is far from the worst thing you could do with your time.

Note: Krithika Varagur previously worked as an associate editor at HuffPost.

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