Open Thread: Beauty As A Coping Mechanism

This is a public discussion thread for anyone on The Unpublishable mailing list — free subscribers, paid subscribers, everyone!


A couple months ago, I wrote this in a newsletter and lost ~40 subscribers:

So many of the beauty standards society foists upon on us are products of patriarchy (and white supremacy, and colonialism, and capitalism). As a coping mechanism, we learn to adopt them as our own, and we perform them well, and it feels good to perform them well, because we’ve been conditioned to see beauty as a moral imperative, and because performing it is a form of productivity, and so we confuse this feeling of a duty fulfilled for pleasure or joy or love.

The following week, I posted this tweet and gained ~50.

Clearly, we’re conflicted about coping mechanisms!

Listen, I get that we sometimes need cosmetic coping mechanisms to deal with the pain and pressure of beauty culture. I get the need for controlled routines and rituals. These things can be helpful and necessary! But I also think we need to release the idea that the aesthetic manipulation of our physical features fits into the category of “healthy coping mechanism.” Besides the adverse physical effects — like skincare’s disruption of the skin microbiome and skin barrier, which can cause more skin issues down the road and trigger the increased policing of our faces and the buying and applying of even more products — there are the psychological effects to consider. An outsize focus on the physical form can actually amplify the out-of-control feelings that prompt “stress-relieving” beauty routines in the first place: anxiety, depression, dysmorphia, obsessive thoughts about appearance. The cycle continues. The skin suffers. The psyche suffers. The industry thrives.

The challenge is recognizing which of our beauty behaviors are coping mechanisms (obviously, not all of them are), understanding the underlying issues you’re coping with, and addressing those issues in order to heal and ultimately release any unhealthy coping behaviors (beauty-related or otherwise).

My question to you: How have you used beauty as a coping mechanism?

I’ll go first! I was painfully shy in college — later I realized I was dealing with extreme social anxiety — and I wore a full face of makeup every day to create an external “character.” My look was ‘50s pinup, 24/7: foundation, concealer, bronzer, blush, eyeshadow, cat-eye liner, mascara, a fake Marilyn Monroe mole, and long-wear red lipstick. Being her seemed easier than being me. It allowed me to feel “seen” without having to talk or interact with anyone. (“Seen” in quotations because, of course, this facade was not actually me.) Once, a guy I’d sat next to in class all semester said hi in the elevator. I said hi back, and he was shocked — he assumed I’d have a Russian accent for some reason. He’d never heard me speak before, he said. “Everyone just knows you as the girl with the red lipstick.”

When my dermatitis was at its worst, I spent so much money on serums, moisturizers, masks, peels, spritzes, oils, everything. None of it helped. What my skin needed was time off from products, time to calm down and re-regulate. But waiting for my skin to heal, just sitting with the pain of feeling ugly and awful and worthless and doing nothing about it, was so unbearable that I continued to buy and apply product after product after product. It made me feel like I was doing something — like I was in control, even though I very much was not. (All those products made things worse.)

I still regularly get my eyebrows microbladed to cope with my trichotillomania (a mental disorder marked by the all-consuming urge to pull one’s hair out). When I go out, I still wear concealer to temporarily alleviate appearance anxiety about my acne scars. I mean, I started shaving to cope with my fellow middle-schoolers making fun of my hairy Italian legs! Almost all of my beauty behaviors can be traced back to some sort of formative shame.

What about you?

Let it all out in the thread below! This is a public discussion area where we can comment and respond to each other — like a big, virtual vent sesh. (Here’s the last open thread if you wanna check out what it’s like.) And please don’t be shy! Getting honest with ourselves and each other about beauty culture is how we start changing beauty culture.

Aaaand… GO!