In the beauty space, a vibe shift is not enough.
Lately, the beauty industry is giving me American pharmaceutical commercial vibes. The music is upbeat! The main character is frolicking in a field of flowers! But the voiceover is saying, “Side effects include extreme diarrhea, brain damage, and, in 97% of patients, a tragic and untimely death.” You know what I mean?
Take “acne-positive” brands like Starface and Squish. The marketing language sounds so refreshing: Pimples are fine and even cool! (Vibe shift!) The product, though, sends an all-too-familiar message: Eliminate pimples ASAP. (No vibe shift.)
I’ve been noticing this dissonance more and more over the past two weeks — for instance, in the new Revealer Skin Improving Foundation from clean beauty brand Kosas. The item name seems to acknowledge that “concealing” is not a very empowering thing. (Vibe shift!) But ultimately, the item is concealing; Kosas just calls it “revealing” instead. (No vibe shift.)
Then there’s this article from Dazed Beauty, which proclaims we should “stop viewing acne — and other health issues the wellness industry demonizes — as a personal or moral failure and view it for what it is: an unfair part of the hormonal and genetic lottery.” But referring to acne as “unfair” demonizes it in the same way the industry always has, even if the overall “vibe” of this particular article feels different.
I don’t think the vibe is the problem. I think the paradigm is the problem.
As we collectively realize that our beauty beliefs are a bunch of culturally-conditioned bullshit, we’ve started to rebel against these beliefs by idealizing the exact opposite thing. Embracing a standard’s polar opposite only keeps us tethered to the standard, though — reactive to it, stuck inside its orbit, trapped within the original beauty culture paradigm. It doesn’t materially change things. If we want change (and truth, and freedom), we need to think beyond the paradigm.
The Dazed article, for example, challenges the belief that “acne is your fault and within your control” by presenting the counter-argument that “acne is not your fault and not within your control” — but the argument still exists within the overarching paradigm of “acne is an unfortunate thing to have.” In truth, acne is not unfortunate. It’s not “unfair.” It is a value-neutral communication from your body — sometimes in response to something you can easily control, and sometimes in response to something you can’t (won’t, don’t) understand how to control, if only because the human body is a complicated thing. The entire paradigm has got to go!
I feel this way about L’Oreal’s new “Lessons of Worth” campaign, too, which features a selection of cosmetically-enhanced celebrities talking about how beauty is not an indicator of worth, blah blah blah. It challenges the belief that “your worth is determined by your beauty” with the counter-argument that “your worth is determined by your confidence” — but within the paradigm of beauty products as a portal to self-worth. This is a false paradigm! The same way products can’t impart actual beauty, products can’t impart actual confidence.
A new Washington Post article offers another example, by explaining body neutrality1 with a quote from Jameela Jamil: “Imagine just not thinking about your body … You’re just a floating head.” It’s an attempt to challenge the belief that “your physical being is all that matters” with the counter-argument that “your psychological being is all that matters” — but within the paradigm of separateness. This, again, is a false paradigm! It’s dissociation! Focusing solely on your mind is just as unfulfilling as focusing solely on your body. You are all of it! Separateness is an illusion!
Apply this framework to almost any two-sided debate in the beauty community and you’ll find that though the vibe is different on either end, the overall paradigm is the same. The battle between clean skincare and conventional skincare exists within the false paradigm of “your skin needs products.” The truth lies in another paradigm — another dimension! — entirely: Your skin is pretty much self-sufficient, and both clean and conventional products can disrupt your skin barrier and microbiome. Or the idea that facial massage is a “natural alternative” to Botox. Ideologically, it doesn’t really matter if you go for gua sha or injectables2 — both perpetuate the false paradigm of “wrinkles are bad/youth is beauty.”
Perhaps the most prevalent paradigm in the beauty industry — the macro belief system that gives birth to all these smaller belief systems, if you will — is extremism. The Dazed headline asks, “Do anti-acne diets work or cause eating disorders?” I mean… If those are the only two options your brain is allowed to accept, you will never arrive at a satisfying answer. Enlightenment does not exist within a paradigm of extremes!
The same goes for the emerging backlash against the concept of “health.” Consider this headline, which Mikala Jamison of Body Type critiqued in her latest newsletter: “If My Daughter Wanted to ‘Eat Healthier,’ I Would Respond Like She Wanted to Smoke Cigarettes.” Listen, I get it. After decades of being force-fed an idealized, standardized, fatphobic, oppressive vision of “health” as thinness, as youth, as a moral imperative, it totally makes sense that we’d want to move as far away from that as humanly possible — but is rejecting “health” altogether any different in spirit? “Eating healthy = smoking cigarettes = bad” is just as delusional as “eating healthy = being skinny = good.” Demonizing health is just as physically and psychologically damaging as glorifying it. Health is a basic human right! People deserve access to information about their health! Of course we need to overhaul our collective understanding of what constitutes “health” in the first place, but installing a new vibe in an old paradigm isn’t the way to do it. We have to transcend the paradigm, people!!
Anyway, I don’t fully understand what the hell I’m talking about yet either, these are just some thoughts I’ve been working through, but I think it’s time to move past the vibe shift and into the paradigm shift, yeah?
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To be fair, I do think the concept of body/skin neutrality is beneficial and a more worthwhile goal than body/skin positivity. I’ve written about it before! But what WaPo and Jameela Jamil describe in this specific quote is not body neutrality — it’s dissociation.
Let the record show that I do support facial massage for lymphatic drainage, improved circulation, and overall skin health (as these support the skin’s function as a protective layer/part of your immune system)! I’m speaking strictly to the motivation behind the massage here — the paradigm that influences your behavior. If you’re massaging to get rid of wrinkles, you’re stuck in the beauty culture paradigm. Conversely, if you’re getting Botox to help with migraines or jaw tension, you’re outside of the beauty culture paradigm, and the framework doesn’t apply. Don’t come for me!