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'Barbie' Will Be Bad For Beauty Culture
The Don't Buy List: Issue #49
Hello, dewy dust bunnies, and welcome to another edition of the The Don’t Buy List! I happened upon a street fair in my fair state of New Jersey this weekend — blocks and blocks of handcrafted candles, one-of-a-kind artworks, food trucks, fried Oreos, and, of course, reminders that I could be more beautiful, and should be, and that embodying a very particular vision of beauty (thin, smooth, scrubbed, serumed) would make me a better person. Pure, honest, good. And hot! Always hot.
Clockwise from top left:
Semaglutide (also known as Ozempic) being advertised for “weight loss” rather than, you know, “diabetes” or “as prescribed by your doctor,” further (falsely) conflating thinness/beauty and health/wellness
The “Clean Temple” soap company pushing the old “cleanliness is next to godliness” thing — as if soap-scummed pores were some portal to heaven!
A waxing place called “Wax Honest,” suggesting that an honest, authentic, real woman is one who performs significant and painful aesthetic labor to rid herself of basic human traits like body hair (as human is incompatible with the construct of woman, and it is the duty of a good woman to not only uphold this construct but obscure its construction)
A hair salon implying that to be good and do good is to look good, positioning beauty as an ethical ideal and its services (which can only address the “look good” part of that equation) as a moral obligation
Not pictured: A sign at a skincare booth that read “Unleash your inner badass!” — an attempt to frame consumption in pursuit of beauty standards as an act of rebellion and embodiment
Lest you think this all ruined my day — it’s come to my attention that some readers imagine I am upset about cosmetic corporations all of the time, forgoing blush for the flush of perpetual anger — it did not. I ordered a cold, mayo-loaded lobster roll from the lobster roll truck! I ate it on a park bench with a lovely man who makes me laugh! Later, I went to the beach and read a book in the sun and when a swan swam by, I cried a little bit at the beauty of it all!!
I snapped pictures of the signs not because they’re outrageous, but because they’re ordinary, and they’re everywhere, even your local New Jersey craft fair. The messages embedded within them are the same messages beauty culture has sent us for centuries, messages that seep into our subconscious and influence our everyday behaviors. Like…
Beauty culture conditioning in the style of the “Clean Temple” soap company might manifest as ritualizing a seven-step skincare regimen like a goddamn Catholic mass in response to anxiety or overwhelm, when what you really need is community, or therapy, or rest, or God (whoever she is to you!)
Beauty culture conditioning in the style of “Wax Honest” might manifest as getting work done — Botox, fillers, whatever — and denying or not disclosing it
Beauty culture conditioning in the style of “Be Good Do Good Look Good” might manifest as apologizing for “looking like a mess” when you run into a friend, as if a lopsided ponytail were some moral transgression requiring forgiveness
We need to become conscious of these messages — and yes, I’m sorry, analyze them to the point of pretentiousness! — in order to dismantle beauty culture. (As for why we need to dismantle beauty culture? Beyond the social, financial, and political consequences of not meeting its demands, you mean? And the fact that it functions as scaffolding for patriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism, and capitalism? Because the bigger the distance between our bodies and our understanding of beauty — and the bigger the cultural emphasis on being or feeling beautiful as a pathway to happiness, actualization, or embodiment — the bigger the risk to our physical, psychological, and psycho-spiritual wellbeing, and the smaller the opportunity for happiness, actualization, or embodiment. Basically, unattainable standard of beauty + cultural obsession with beauty = lower quality of life.)
Now, onto the links!
“When I first started working in the beauty industry, I was afraid to wear my nails long,” Tembe Denton-Hurst writes in The Cut. “I was terrified that my acrylics, the ones that made my hands look beautiful, would signal something about me I didn’t want to communicate: that I was ‘ghetto,’ ‘loud,’ or didn’t fit in. I was afraid of that characterization and the ways it might pigeonhole me while being acutely aware of how this consideration was an attempt to separate myself from a kind of Blackness I assumed couldn’t succeed.” The essay is an excellent example of how appearance ideals intersect with everything — professionalism, racism, sexism, identity.
Attention, skinfluencers: If you want to get your skin out of the game, ex-influencer Lee Tilghman — writer of the Offline Time newsletter and the subject of this Times article on “life after influencing” — has opened applications for her next “Goodbye Influencing” workshop.
“A big thing for me is that consumerism is inherently individualistic,” Mull says. “It seeks to make every individual’s decisions around how they live their lives a transaction, whether it’s with companies, or with markets. Seeing that as a system imposed on us, and not the natural order of things, might make us less individualistic, and more community-minded... Are you capable of solving all of your own problems with only the current constellation of products and services available to you? Or are there other ways of solving these problems?”
Read it here.
“The beauty industry is still booming, despite inflation” reports the Washington Post, noting this “reflects a subtle but significant shift in the beauty business, which experts say has become synonymous with wellness.” The Jeff Bezos-owned newspaper embraces such “expert” analysis without pushback. It goes on to categorize moisturizer as self-care, body oil as instant relaxation, and beauty regimens as a source of comfort and confidence. Missing are mentions of the appearance-related anxiety, depression, facial dysmorphia, body dysmorphia, disordered eating, self-harm, and cosmetic debt that stem from the beauty standards perpetuated by these in-demand products, rates of which are rising in lockstep with the beauty industry’s growth. (Totally unrelated: One of Jeff Bezos’s other properties, Amazon, is the number one online retailer for beauty, with a remarkable 36% of the market share.)
Cosmetic obsession is a sort of sickness all its own, or can develop into one. “If you are constantly thinking about buying skincare, spending lots of money, and putting yourself in a financial bind, having guilty feelings after spending or relationship difficulties [as a result of it], then it might be time to seek help,” says Dr. Evan Rieder in a recent Allure article on skincare addiction.
The Barbie trailer dropped and I have to say it: This movie will be bad for beauty culture! Or good for beauty culture? Whichever one means “will compound the pressures of beauty culture.” Based on this synopsis of the plot…
“After being expelled from ‘Barbieland’ for being a less-than-perfect doll, Barbie sets off for the human world to find true happiness.”
…it seems writer and director Greta Gerwig intends to subvert everything the Mattel toy symbolizes in American culture: conformity, compliance, doll-like perfection, the objectification of women. It’s more fulfilling to be an imperfect human than a perfect doll! Being real is the only way to be happy! That sort of thing. However! Much like we saw with Don’t Worry Darling and Blonde, you cannot separate the politics of Barbie from the beauty standards of Barbie. The story may promote being an imperfect human, but the visuals still promote a stifling standard of aesthetic perfection. (Yes, Gerwig’s cast is diverse, but it’s diverse in the seemingly expansive/ultimately narrow way of modern beauty marketing — white skin and brown skin, but always clear skin; thin bodies and big bodies, but always hourglass bodies; red lips and bare lips, but always full lips; younger actresses and older actresses, but always wrinkle-free actresses.) As proof, a small sampling of PR emails I’ve received over the past few months:
Barbie Core your Beauty Cabinet
Barbiecore Is Trending And MAKE UP FOR EVER Has The Perfect Pink Products You Need
Trying to channel your inner Barbie? [Try the] Forever Glow Anti-Aging Face Mask — Formulated to help prolong a youthful appearance, this hydrating face mask diminishes the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
Great picks for keeping your hair a perfect shade of Barbie Blonde!
For Barbies who want the best blonde!
BarbieCore Beauty Buys
Barbie trailer causes worldwide searches for 'blonde hair dye' to skyrocket 157% (via Flaunt Your Fashion)
“Google searches for blonde hair dye tripled overnight after the debut [of the Barbie trailer],” Business of Fashion confirms. “Minutes after the trailer dropped, Isle of Paradise pushed its tanning drops with a ‘she’s Barbie and he’s Tan!’ email promotion.” Vogue India suggests Too Faced Lip Injection gloss for “pouty” Barbiecore lips. Literal doctors are promoting “Barbie Arm Botox.” I don’t know. I just don’t think you can effectively challenge an oppressive ideology and adopt its aesthetics. That’s not how aesthetic communication works!! The movie may be a “feminist” reclamation of the Barbie narrative in spirit, but its material effect on society looks the same as subjugation. Blonder, tanner, thinner, smoother, static, plastic.
Have you read “Is Therapy Speak Making Us Selfish?” The buzzed-about Bustle article investigates how Insta-Therapist-approved language is infiltrating our personal relationships — more people are ending friendships with the HR-esque “I’m at capacity” text, for example, or cutting off family members with blanket “I’m setting a boundary” explanations. I’m not interested in the specific interpersonal issues the article explores so much as (what seems to be) our eager adoption of robotic templates for human interaction popularized by the Instagram algorithm. It reminds me of modern beauty standards! I mean, what is Instagram Face if not the eager adoption of a robotic template for beauty popularized by the Instagram algorithm? Emotionally and aesthetically, I fear we are becoming a homogenous blob of post-human computer-people!!
PopSugar released a content package aimed at diversifying the beauty space by destigmatizing cosmetic procedures in Latinx communities. Again, this is not “diversity.” This is co-opting a moral framework (inclusivity) to promote an immoral cause (beauty culture). This is not “destigmatizing” cosmetic procedures. It is further stigmatizing unmodified faces. In the case of a couple of the articles — “When Latinxs Should Start Botox, According to a Dermatologist,” “Latinas Are Becoming Less Hush-Hush About Getting Botox and Fillers” — what PopSugar is suggesting is that the solution to certain forms of discrimination (racism, colorism) is another (ageism). The industry keeps doing this and I don’t even know what to say anymore except: Read Kimberlé Crenshaw! Read Audre Lorde! Read Clare Chambers!
Call it the Biologique Recherche Lotion P50 effect — the beloved beauty product stings the skin and stinks like garbage water — but I think the modern corollary to “beauty means pain” is “repulsive means results.” Both false of course, and unsavory “beauty” treatments have been around forever, but like... LOOK at these stills from an Instagram ad I saw the other day!
They are objectively disgusting. There is zero visual appeal here. The only way this makes for successful marketing is if customers have been conditioned to translate “this is gross” to “this is good for my face.” I cannot help but lol.
More recommended reading:
“Brooke Shields and the Curse of Great Beauty” by Rhonda Garelick for The New York Times
“What Is ‘Natural Beauty,’ Anyway?” by Ling Ling Huang for The Cut
“We’ve Lost The Plot” by Megan Garber for The Atlantic
“In Celebration of Unloveliness” by Michael Glover for Hyperallergic
Finally, I’ll leave you with this tweet:
You’re Gonna Die Someday No Matter How Young You Look,