I have an entire room (a real estate agent would call it an “office”; someone more honest would call it “a walk-in closet with a window”) dedicated half to a dresser I share with my husband, and the other half to beauty products.
Perfume bottles take up an entire shelf on my vanity. I have at least a dozen different bottles of foundation, none of which I’m wearing right now, obviously. Most importantly, I have two shelves on the bottom half of the vanity devoted to skincare.
This is not even going into the situation in my bathroom, so cluttered with moisturizers, serums, and exfoliants that there’s barely any room to store extra rolls of toilet paper.
This made sense two years ago, when I was just exiting a career in women’s media, was still writing my beauty newsletter, and considered myself a relatively well-educated skincare freak. Skincare, I thought, was a lightweight consumerist hobby — but it also felt good to take care of myself, productive to tackle the flaws that appeared on my chin or across my nose. It was fun to peer at product ingredient listings like they contained the keys to the universe (or a fragrance that would turn my already-rosy cheeks ruddy).
Now all the products I’ve collected are approaching their expiration dates, if they’ve not already passed it, and I have no desire to drop hundreds of dollars at Sephora to replace them. Skincare, now, is not a hobby, but a means to an end: my skin gets dry and itchy, so I moisturize it. I wear sunscreen. I use a gentle cleanser to wash the dirt, dust, and oil that has accumulated over the course of the day. And I have a very complicated relationship with the retinoid I slather on my creasing forehead every night.
Because as much as I wanted to believe, and many magazines and brands would like you to believe, slathering on anti-aging products to smooth away the decades from your forehead and beneath your eyes is not empowering. Agonizing over whether a skincare product is giving you closed comedones is not healthy.
We do this because society privileges youth and perfection over age, experience, and divergence from the norm. We do this because we want the world to value us, because it values us for our beauty. But as much as I struggle with these feelings myself, I can’t encourage other people to intensify their own neuroses about their “imperfect” faces.
Staring at my face in the mirror trying to figure out how to erase the light keratosis pilaris that blooms across my cheeks is not that different from pinching my waist thinking of how badly I wish I could lose ten pounds. There are physical outcomes that distinguish these two neuroses — eating disorders can be deadly — but body dysmorphia isn’t specific to weight issues, and relentless self-criticism and anxiety aren’t limited to how I think I look in a pair of jeans.
But we don’t talk as much about how skincare products, mostly designed to fix aesthetic flaws, contribute to a culture of oppression. Allure magazine can pretend like it’s fixing anything by not using the term “anti-aging” or telling its audience that “aging is a privilege,” but what is the end result on its audience after reading article after article about how to prevent and “treat” wrinkles, as if it’s a disease?
I’ve written before about how communities dedicated to skincare can be toxic environments that fuel obsession, self-loathing, and fear. Research shows that social media has a negative effect on how women feel about our appearance. A 2019 study found that merely thinking and writing about their appearance causes women to self-objectify, or think about their bodies as if from an external perspective, and evaluate their self-worth based on their appearance. And a 2013 study found that “old talk,” or conversations in which women discuss and critique their aging bodies and faces, is similarly detrimental to a woman’s self esteem as the more heavily-researched “fat talk.” A 2016 meta-analysis found that negative self-talk causes poor self-esteem and mental health, rather than that negative talk emerging as a result of poor self-esteem.
“Fat talk is hypothesized to increase a sense of inter-connectedness between girls and women,” write the authors of the 2013 study, “yet at the same time, fat talk reinforces the thin-ideal and decreases the opportunity for girls to interact in more meaningful ways.” The same could be said, in my opinion, of general skincare discussions. It’s fun to connect with my friends about their favorite products for decreasing the frequency of blackheads, or discuss retinol percentages. But it’s not healthy. As the studies show, even casual conversations about our supposed physical flaws increases internal self-criticism.
I can’t actively participate in this anymore, at least not outwardly. I, like millions of (mostly) women, struggle with intense self esteem issues, including but not limited to my appearance. I’ve lost years of my life distressed over my weight, the size of my thighs, how I’ll never compare to the beautiful, thin women in magazines and advertisements, how I’m less worthy as a person because my body doesn’t reach some impossible beauty ideal. I can’t let this extend to my face, particularly as it begins to sprout “fine lines” that magazines think I need to “prevent and treat.” And I can’t participate in encouraging other women to deepen their own neuroses about their skin, which are beautiful because, not in spite, of how their years of experience write themselves across their faces.