Throughout 2016, Sam George-Allen will be writing a bimonthly essay series, ‘On Beauty’, for KYD online. These essays will explore the beauty rituals and cultural associations connected to different parts of the body, and will comprise a critical exploration of beauty in culture, with a foundation of feminist theory. This is the first essay: Skin.
I’ve had ‘bad skin’ since I was ten – at least, that’s when I got my first pimple (I still have a scar from picking at it). Now, a decade and a half later, I get several pimples per month, and my face is dotted with the hyperpigmentation they leave behind. I have my mother’s large pores and oiliness, and my father’s early crow’s-feet. I don’t have severe acne or rosacea or dermatitis or pitted scars, and when I complain about my skin to my friends they tend to look at me funny, but whether my skin is actually ‘bad’ or not doesn’t matter – since prepubescence I have wholeheartedly bought into my self-appointed identity as a Bad Skin Haver. In other words, I am the perfect patsy for the beauty industry. I hate my skin, but I love skincare.
The nature of the Western beauty industry is one of conspiracy: it aims to instil in its potential customers a series of anxieties and insecurities so thoroughly and from such a young age that to be insecure about how one looks feels as natural and true as breathing. We all grow up knowing that in order for a girl to be valuable, she must be Pretty. Even with feminist mothers, liberal schooling, a curriculum of Judith Butler and Toni Morrison, we know.
And so, as we approach the turbulence of puberty, with its sudden and monstrous onset of pimples, facial hair, sweat and the disconcerting attention of boys, we learn that, thanks to our friends at Clean & Clear and Maybelline, there are products available to address all of these problems: face washes, scrubs and creams, wax strips, clouds of Impulse deodorant, and a dizzying spectrum of makeup.
Throughout our late teens and twenties we glimpse from a distance the spectre of Ageing (you can’t be Pretty if you’re Old, obviously); but as the horizon rushes up to meet us, we find that, fortunately, there are plenty of products to address that as well. With them on our side, we look forward to becoming as well-preserved as Penelope Cruz or Cate Blanchett, as though their preternatural beauty were due to L’Oreal and not their very good genes. In fact we don’t just look forward to it; we have learned to expect it of ourselves. Everyone else is effortlessly achieving beauty – so must we.
Of course, it doesn’t work like this in reality. If one product really did ‘defy age’, everyone would buy and use it and the market for anti-ageing would dry up like post-menopausal skin. In 2016, the global skincare market is estimated to be worth US$121 billion, because the beauty industry is a capitalist dream. It creates a feedback loop: we feel shame about our flaws; we purchase a product to address these flaws; we see no results from the product; we feel shame once again; we purchase another product.
It doesn’t matter that most of our perceived flaws are completely fabricated. It doesn’t matter that the efficacy of the products we apply to them is moot. What matters is that we participate in the ritual of spending and despairing. Beauty as an industry is a game women cannot win. With its shifting goalposts (last year’s ideal skin is matte; this year’s is dewy) and its specious claims about the nature of the products it sells (‘erase fine lines!’; ‘smoother skin in 14 days!’), it is, without exaggeration, a massive conspiracy.
The medical specialisation in skincare is dermatology, but the medical science that dominates the Western beauty industry is largely lip-service. There are several ingredients that regularly appear in skincare cosmetics that actually have been proven to have an effect on the appearance of skin – among them salicylic acid, glycolic acid, vitamin A, and collagen – but the formulations of most mainstream beauty products that contain them render these ingredients ineffective.
Salicylic acid is a popular one for fighting acne. It can help to clear the skin and increase surface skin cell turnover by acting as a gentle chemical exfoliant, but this only happens when it is applied as a liquid and allowed to stay on the skin. All the expensive acne washes that contain salicylic acid achieve none of its useful potential, but do allow cosmetics companies to lie through their teeth about active ingredients. Basically, the gut feeling I’ve had since I was a pre-teen is true: none of this shit works.
But as I’ve discovered very recently, some women are doing the research into what actually does work, and they’re sharing their knowledge. It is a fascinating and exhilarating opt-out of the system.
About six months ago, my dear friend Stephanie put me onto an online community of women who are DIY experts in skincare. This community encompasses sites as diverse as subreddits like r/SkincareAddiction, personal blogs, beauty sites such as xoVain, and the websites of amateur dermatologists. I was astonished. This was grassroots knowledge-sharing at its purest: a sprawling, unaffiliated and self-taught network of women taking control of their appearance in a fascinating way. I had never seen people talk about their skin issues with such candour and honesty – and light-heartedness, too. I have acne, but it’s not the end of the world, they said. If we have to jump through these hoops, at least we can make it fun, and do it on our own terms. If we are expected to look a certain way, at least we can also be efficient and savvy. If we are expected to be beautiful, at least we can find the damn stuff that actually works.
Much of the knowledge being passed around in these digital spaces comes from research into products manufactured in South Korea, where skincare is an enormous industry – women in South Korea spend more on skincare and cosmetics than women in any other country, and last year South Korea exported cosmetic goods to the value of US$2.4 billion.
While at first, like many Eastern imports, Korean skincare was played up in the Western beauty media for its exoticism – especially considering the unusual lead ingredients in many of its star products, including snail mucin, placenta, and starfish extract – among a population of skincare users it became much more than a novelty. For a number of reasons, South Korean skincare science is years ahead of what we’re accustomed to in the West. Snail mucin is a good example of the differences between the two industries: while it started as just another gimmick, cosmetics companies in South Korea continued to fund research into the properties of snail mucin when applied to human skin, and found that it can stimulate healing and the production of collagen and elastin. Most of the snail mucin products on the market contain quantities of the ingredient above 90%. It does actually, kind of, work.
This isn’t to say that online communities of women discussing serious skincare are slavishly beholden to whatever products South Korea exports; the best thing about talking skincare with them is the ultra-high levels of scepticism about everything they encounter. Here are women who have turned their participation in the exhausting rigmarole of being a women in the world into an engaging, stimulating hobby – and some of them know more about the mechanics of human skin than many dermatologists. In this way, they’re bringing knowledge of women’s own bodies to the women who might otherwise be unable to access it.
I was struck by the generosity of these women. They spend hours sifting through published research papers, and share their findings in easily-digestible blog posts; they post pictures of themselves without makeup, and praise the vulnerable selfies of others for the progress they have made towards reducing acne, hyperpigmentation, or fine lines. They candidly discuss their goals, and their concessions to the reality that they will never be ‘perfect’. Some women go even further into grassroots skincare, and create their own formulations. Many active ingredients – like vitamin C and glycolic acid – are available to purchase in stable states on Amazon and eBay; thus the internet has given birth to a generation of amateur chemists, happy to be taking the state of their body into their own hands to the fullest degree. Isn’t that thrilling? Doesn’t it feel like guerrilla warfare?
We are raised to see beauty as a zero-sum game and a solitary pursuit. But these digital spaces change everything. From message boards, blogs and online communities I learned about the skin’s moisture barrier or ‘acid mantle’, the layers of epidermis and dermis, the methods by which vitamin A strengthens the skin, the importance of pH to the skin’s health. As though by osmosis, I’ve become an expert on my own face. It feels very freeing.
In order to function, the beauty industry requires a disconnect between ourselves and our bodies. We are separated by shame and ignorance, taught that our physical selves are our enemies. But self-taught skincare closes the gap. We are not comprised of insurmountable flaws. Our skin insecurities are treatable or manageable, the tools are plain and easy to understand, and with the support of an entire community of women coping with a shared set of expectations and concerns, the issues we’ve worried about since we were 13 don’t seem like such a big deal any more.
Perhaps the most inspiring part of my exploration into the online world of skincare fanatics was the moment I realised that many of these women happily courted the thing I most dread: pimples. In their experimentation and quest for knowledge, they risked bad reactions and skin-clogging products without the least concern; their hobby so abstracted from the idea of ‘perfect skin’ that the whole concept seemed suddenly, wonderfully, finally, absurd.