Industry + Real Talk

The Ethics of Conspicuous Skincare

You can’t throw a rock at social media without hitting a post about self-care. Articles with titles such as 9 Easy Self-Care Hacks to Get Ready for Vacay or 5 Must-Try Herbal Teas for Self-Care Domination offer copious amounts of vapid platitudes, and stress the importance of creature comforts like long, hot baths, and fancy meals accompanied by expensive candles, or indulging in beauty rituals like facials and manicures, or sometimes something more ostensibly pragmatic like yoga or pilates. We are invited to “treat yo’self” to chocolates, massages, flowers, and other items that in the past were usually given as gifts from someone else.

And indeed, this is one version of self-care. Treating yourself like a treasured lover is necessary, especially when so many of us have self-deprecating records playing non-stop in our brains. But what these feel-good articles rarely do is illuminate the dark corners of self-care—the hard, gritty, uncomfortable work of truly taking care of ourselves. Going to work even when we don’t want to. Paying bills. Taking our meds. Ending toxic relationships.

If we ignore such fundamental self-care practices in favor of the whimsical, fun, or beautiful, self-care can run headlong into self-indulgence. And there’s no special glory in that.

When it comes to skincare specifically, social media has taught us that self-care is both product-based and photogenic. Attractive packaging and color-coordinated routines make for great Instagram photos, and when we tag them #self-care perhaps we are tricking ourselves into believing that what we’re doing actually is gracious and necessary and uplifting. For so many, the message seems to be, “It comes in a pretty bottle! It made me feel good so I bought it and I’m sharing it with you!”

But you know what? I think for the most part that’s fake. It isn’t real. It’s curated. It’s edited. It’s not the whole skincare picture—it’s just the parts that are awe-inspiring, beautiful, and—dare I say it?—jealousy-inducing.

And I think it’s hurting us as a whole.

After all, where are the photos of the sulfur solution that’s great for acne but comes in an ugly plastic jar and cost $5.99 from Walgreen’s? Where’s the super unattractive tube of jock itch cream that sufferers of perioral dermatitis use to calm the rashes?

Skincare: Widening the social divide?

There’s a certain kind of beautiful dishonesty that accompanies these lovely “routine” photos. And it doesn’t stop with just product photos. It touches our actual faces, too.

I remember a high school friend reminiscing about her time in London. Off-handedly, she said, “You know, Americans joke about the English having bad teeth. Obsessing over teeth is such a weirdly American phenomenon. Even as a kid, I could tell when someone’s family had money, because they had straight teeth, meaning braces. Straight teeth are a symbol of class. Poor kids don’t have straight teeth in America. But anybody with money does.”

Sometimes I wonder if aging with flawless skin will also become an indicator of class. All other things being equal, those who can afford—not just in terms of money, but also time and mental energy—to care for their skin will surely age more “gracefully” than those without.

There's a certain beautiful dishonesty in skincare social media. And it's as detrimental as it is addictive. Click To Tweet

“Beauty is pain, beauty is labor, and beauty is money, ” writes Constance Grady in her Vox article on the recent skincare wars. Extensive beauty treatments like Fraxel and medical-grade peels are not only expensive, but also have a high opportunity cost. Women take off work during those treatments and sometimes for days after. That speaks to a level of comfort and security that many women simply don’t have. Those who have the resources to take time away from work and/or tending to their families will fare better than those who don’t. And as our desire to be youthful and radiant and well-cared for grows, so too does the divide between the haves and the have-nots.

Yes, skincare is an investment: after all, you only get one face, so it behooves you to care for it. But I do wonder: at what cost?

The costs and benefits of our skincare mania

I participate in “Skincare Twitter” and follow a bevy of skincare bloggers on Instagram. And I’ve seen, many times, people claiming they just “have to buy the new Drunk Elephant!” or “the new Sunday Riley!” even though it means, by their own admission, they’re going to be eating ramen for a month. Or skipping nights out with friends. And I have to ask, how on Earth is that self-care? When our obsession with keeping up with the Joneses causes us to neglect friends and food or any of the less “sexy” part of self-care, well… that’s not care. That’s carelessness.

I adore seeing other people’s beauty regimens. I love hearing about which oils give the best glow. I love a good haul video or post as much of the next visually-stimulated ogler. But in our desire to be seen, our need to conspicuously and publicly “care” for ourselves, I can’t help but be chagrined by our lack of honesty among our proclamations. Do we continue to laud certain products because they photograph well? Because they’re expensive and make us look fashionable? Because they’re trendy and sure to garner likes?

When self-care practices favor only the whimsical, fun, or beautiful, self-care runs headlong into self-indulgence. And there's no special glory in that. Click To Tweet

There’s a lot to applaud within the online skincare community. I myself have been saved multiple trips to a dermatologist because a fellow skincare advocate recognized symptoms I complained of and offered remedies that worked. I’ve seen notable improvements in my skin by following routines that I otherwise wouldn’t have adopted with the help of online communities. Our shared passion has allowed us to build connections and friendships with people we otherwise would never have met. We’ve met likeminded people with whom to share our struggles and our victories. And those things are vitally important for one’s well-being. Active participation in your chosen community is absolutely necessary in self-care.

Are we racing toward the unobtainable?

But there’s also a shadow aspect to that. If we aren’t careful, we call fall prone to obsession and overspending as wet try to stay abreast of trends and capture that elusive “good skin day.” It’s too easy to compare ourselves not only to other people but to past versions of ourselves, as though skin doesn’t age, change, and fluctuate due to any number of variables. We carefully document our progress in photos and videos, which can absolutely be useful and motivating, but can similarly be detrimental. Nothing is guaranteed or eternal, least of all “glass” skin (all the rage right now!) And how many of us, when suffering a skin set-back, feel even worse than we normally would because we’ve spent the past 6 months sharing our glorious routines and our fantastic results?

I do. I feel worse.

And I know how this all comes to be. On some level, we believe that if we’re actually good at something—as we should be after dedicating so many hours and dollars to this hobby—that we should have something to show for it. We should have the clear, brilliant skin that we can display like a trophy that says, “I did it! I know what I’m talking about! My investments have been valid because I look like this now!”

Beauty is not a trophy, and there are no guarantees

Some of that is self-inflicted. Some of it comes from external sources. People can be mean and shitty. It’s easy to be sensitive about a hobby of skincare, especially when it’s at once hyper-trendy yet also perceived as the pinnacle is self-centeredness. Of course we want to prove to ourselves and others that it hasn’t all been a giant waste of time, energy, and money.

But skincare, like other forms of self-care, is not always objective. There’s no telling what my skin would look like if I weren’t caring for it. I recall a friend cheekily telling my daughter, “Of course all left-handed people aren’t smarter than all right-handed people. But left-handers are smarter than they would have been had they been born right-handed!”

It’s tongue in cheek, of course, but that applies to skincare, too. Your skin might not be better than those of people who do nothing but chain smoke cigarettes and pound vodka all weekend, but it’s better than it would have been had you done nothing. And that’s all you can ask for. There are no guarantees. But doing nothing would have been worse.

I’ll never shame anyone for her skincare passions. But I do request greater honesty and acceptance. I do ask that we share the ugly, shadowy aspects of this self-care ritual and that we speak truthfully about our experiences. Skincare isn’t all glamour, and to be conspicuous, vocal proponents of what I consider an essential practice, we should be honest about all that goes into it. What we’ve given up for it, what it costs, how it hurts, and when it’s ugly.

Because we can’t always treat ourselves. Somebody’s gotta pay these damn bills.

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