I spend a lot of time reading feminist websites and listening to podcasts, especially the ones made by women and trans* people in their 20s. It’s one of the ways I stave off curmudgeon territory (and why I found myself using the word “woke” non-ironically a couple of weeks ago). In the past few months, I keep tripping over huge discussions about women — especially millennial women — and the growing trend for elaborate, expensive skincare routines. What is happening with this?
Last week, there was a piece on slate debating the merits of using intricate spreadsheets or apps to track your inventory of skincare products and the impact of different routines. There was a recent piece on The Cut about why “everyone is obsessed with skincare“. The New Yorker, Jezebel, the Guardian, the NY Times and others have all written about millennials and skincare, and skin care as “a religious routine.” The 12 step “asian” routine — especially Korean (K-beauty) — is seen as the grail. (Even the sitcom Kim’s Convenience had a recent storyline about capitalizing on smuggled Korean beauty products).
Skincare is no longer a private routine, but very public. There are multiple online forums where people talk about products and routines (reddit is the hugest), and much of it is swirled up with selfie culture — a quick instagram search for #facemask turned up more than 1.5 million hits.
What the heck is this all about? Is skincare a “coping mechanism,” as the New Yorker described it? Two of my favourite feminist podcasts — Stuff Mom Never Told You (SMNTY) and Slate’s DoubleX Gabfest — recently had focused episodes on whether this obsession with skincare was a feminist act of self-care.
The argument seems to go like this: a complex skincare routine is a kind of self-help, something women can can do to soothe themselves in a chaotic world. (One of the most common hashtags accompanying #skincare is #selfcare). In the world of Trump, women feel like things are out of their control, and expensive, complicated regimens — and tracking them in apps or spreadsheets — give the illusion of control. (One of the young women on SMNTY joked that when she was unemployed, skincare was her “full time job).
Where skincare used to be an attempt to stave off aging, in this uncertain world, a young woman using retin-A is an affirmative act that she will outlive this time in history, that there is a promising future — a “basic dream in which the future exists.” There is much made of the fact that the aspirational goal of all of this skincare is to be “glowy” — i.e, natural and healthy, enhanced by organic and natural ingredients, not botox or surgery or makeup. Some argue that millennials are being “smart” by preventing age damage rather than trying to repair it after it happens.
There is an accompanying feminist critique embedded in this narrative, of course, questioning whether conditioning about anxiety about the undesirability of wrinkles is taking hold for 27 year olds, and underlining that, as always, industry is capitalizing and cashing in on women’s desire for self-care. And the most important question, of course, is whether caring for one’s own skin in expensive, time-consuming, self-centred ways and public ways (“hashtag it up,” as one woman put it), is a distraction and a diversion from mobilizing for true change. As one blogger put it: When the world is chaos, it makes sense for society to take an introspective turn. But the skincare craze isn’t introspective per se: it’s looking into yourself but stopping at the literal outermost layer.
For me, the thought of a 12 step skincare routine is exhausting. I already don’t do the bedtime routines I feel like I should do, including meditating and turning off the screens early enough. I enjoyed having a soothing facial as one of my treatments on my recent holiday where a massage or suchlike every day was included in the package — but I balked at the $180 price tag on the emollient they tried to sell me at the end.
I have a sort of skincare plan: I spend maybe $250 dollars a year on moisturizer, toner and cleanser, all one brand, which I’ve been using for years, from the Bay — the brand that gives you cute little bags of free stuff when you go in on the right day. My routine barely deserves the name: I wash my face with the cleanser in the shower in the morning, then slather a moisturizer with SPF on my super dry skin before I start my day. I add drugstore sunscreen in the summer. Sometimes, if I’ve had makeup on or been really sweaty, I remember to wash my face and MAYBE use toner and moisturizer before bed. That’s it.
I’m not going to judge where anyone else spends their time or money. This seems to be one of those prime areas for “you do you.” If rubbing nice smelling stuff into your skin gives you pleasure and calms you down so you sleep better, go for it. But I will admit that the notion of this much money, energy and time going into something so oriented toward what feels like yet another unrealistic beauty ideal — and where there is no evidence that any of this stuff makes any real difference — makes me uneasy. What about you?
Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, a 53 year old with wrinkles, dry skin, a history of minor skin cancer and an aversion to routine.