The Skin As An Antidote To Consumerism
An unpublishable interview.
A while back, I was interviewed for a Shondaland article about consumerism in the beauty industry, but most of my quotes didn’t make the final (wonderful) piece. Naturally, I figured I’d publish the rest of my unpublishable ramblings for you here!
To be honest with you, though: I’ve had a weird couple weeks, and the articles I’ve been working on lately — on the “aesthetic realm”! on whether critiquing the beauty industry “tears women down”! on misplaced shame! on the difference between beauty and fashion! and beauty and art! on the beauty industry as a maladaptation to beauty culture!!! — feel too big for me to finish now and finish well. So I started looking for something else to send out today, and came across the below email interview. It’s over a year old but my answers, sadly, are still relevant. Maybe even more relevant. I mean, yes, the beauty media is starting to acknowledge the climate crisis… but it’s mostly doing so by encouraging us to shop our way out of the climate crisis. You know, 42 Sustainable Beauty Brands! 17 Eco-Friendly Moisturizers! How Climate Change Is Harming Your Skin — & 135 Products That Help! That sort of thing. It’s an improvement, I guess, but not by much. “Sustainable” consumerism is still consumerism, and consumerism is still killing us.
Anyway, you can find the full interview below. Read on for more on dismantling beauty standards as an act of sustainability, healing my emotional attachment to stuff, and the scam of skincare supplements.
Shondaland: When you think about the current state of consumption in the beauty industry (which, for the sake of this article, includes makeup, skincare, haircare, and even things like supplements), what comes to mind?
Jessica DeFino (me): I think of capitalism and consumer culture, and how we've been made to believe that we can buy our way into happiness and fulfillment. I think of how so many of the “problems” solved by beauty products are problems caused by other beauty products: scalp care to address the buildup of haircare, for example, or moisturizers to make up for cleansers that strip the skin’s natural oils. I think of how so many products exist solely to alter the appearance — often under the false, medicalized guise of “health” — and how that reinforces unrealistic and harmful beauty standards. Mostly, I think about how far we've drifted from actual beauty. Beauty is a force that exists beyond the industry of beauty. The industry has taken our inherently human desire to live a life full of beauty, and repackaged and refocused it on a narrow understanding of physical beauty. On a spiritual level (as in, of the human spirit — not the “religious” sense of spiritual), this is not the type of beauty we crave, so we're left wanting more and, conveniently for the industry, buying more.
SL: As marketers inundate people with messages about “needing” the hot new product of the day, how do you feel that’s shaping our shopping/purchasing habits?
JD: It's interesting, I feel like there is a little bit of a rebellion brewing against consumer culture, against the idea that you “need” to buy a certain product or look a certain way. But marketers are savvy, and have co-opted this rebellion to find sneakier ways to sell us stuff. A great example of this is the skin positivity movement. Skin positivity is wonderful for individuals, but it doesn't really work once it's been “branded.” There are “skin-positive” brands now that use models with acne, hyperpigmentation, and scarring with taglines like “all skin is good skin” and “acne is normal.” Yet, these brands are ultimately selling products to get rid of your acne, hyperpigmentation, and scarring. Different marketing, same underlying message. It's the same with the recent trend of “skinimalism.” The ethos behind skinimalism is to use fewer products, but brands are co-opting that to sell consumers more “minimalist” products. It's a whole new consumer category now, which defeats the point of skinimalism. It's not always the obvious “you need this!” messaging that fuels consumer culture. At this point in American history, consumer culture is embedded in our brains, I think. It's already shaped our shopping habits. It's almost instinctual to hear “I need this!,” even if a brand doesn't explicitly say “you need this!”
SL: In your own life, how have you adjusted your consumer behavior?
JD: I don't really buy beauty products anymore. I sometimes DIY my own face oils, mists, and masks though! I always look for multiple use items, too. One bottle of jojoba oil is my makeup remover, oil cleanser, facial moisturizer, and body moisturizer. One jar of Mānuka honey is my face wash, face mask, and spot treatment. One bottle of Castile soap works as body wash, hand wash, dish washing soap, and laundry detergent. I use them all sparingly, not every day, only when needed.
I've also done a lot of inner healing work around my relationship to beauty. I've examined why I turned to “retail therapy” when I felt inadequate, unworthy, anxious, or lesser-than. I've let go of the ingrained belief that products are the answer to everything. I no longer have an emotional attachment to beauty products, so I'm not compelled to buy something unless I actually need it or it adds value to my life.
SL: Have you edited your personal beauty routine to include less stuff? If so, what did that look like? What kind of questions did you ask yourself to cut back?
JD: Skincare was my personal poison back in the day. I couldn’t care less about makeup or hair care, but I had an entire four-tier closet packed with skincare products at one point in my life. The first step to using less was learning about how the skin actually works. The skin does almost everything we rely on products to do all by itself. It has built-in mechanisms for self-cleansing, self-moisturizing, self-exfoliating, self-healing, and self-protecting. Once I realized that the power built into my own skin cells was so much greater than the power of skincare products, I felt less compelled to smother it in skincare products. My own skin was the antidote to consumerism, in a sense. Now, the few products I do use are there to support those inherent mechanisms when and where they could use some support, rather than overwrite them. It makes taking care of my skin so much easier, too, because I'm not fighting against it — I'm working with it.
SL: Do you have any memorable anecdotes associated with beauty overconsumption that you can share? A time in your life or a specific moment when the light bulb went off and you realized something had to change?
JD: I started experiencing severe acne at 15 and I was diagnosed with dermatitis at 27. For over a decade, I did everything my dermatologists told me to — I was put on birth control, Accutane, antibiotics, steroid creams, retinoids, all of it — and bought every product that beauty magazines and facialists promised would heal my skin. No matter what I did, my skin never got better; it was actually consistently getting “worse.” I was paying so, so much money for it to get worse, too! One day I thought, ‘If doing everything didn't work, maybe doing nothing will?’ So I stopped using everything — only water touched my face for weeks — and my skin improved more in those weeks than it had in the previous 12 years. As a reporter, I dove into research to understand what was happening here, and I found all of this data on how the skin actually functions, and how certain products and prescriptions can interfere with those functions. Once I left my face alone, its inherent abilities to moisturize, exfoliate, and heal itself took over. My mind was blown, but it’s a data-backed approach that hasn't let me down since.
SL: What’s your advice for people looking to reduce their beauty product consumption? Where do they start? What should they look for?
JD: I always say that dismantling beauty standards is the key to sustainability. Western beauty standards stem from patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism, colonialism and they reinforce racism, colorism, sexism, ageism, ableism, classism, and gender norms. They are unrealistic and unattainable by design. Things like “anti-aging,” hairless bodies, glass skin... these are all physically impossible. That serves a purpose for the industry; it keeps you in the consumer cycle forever, because in order to inch closer to meeting these impossible standards, you have to keep buying and applying products. What would happen if we decided to not to buy products that dehumanize us — as in, products that promise to defy the realities of the human body — but instead focused on products that support the inherent functions of our skin, hair, and bodies? We'd buy 99% fewer products.
EDITOR’S NOTE: I often get the question: “Isn’t it still participating in beauty culture to be preoccupied with how the skin functions? Why is that a ‘better’ goal than beauty?” This is a great question and one I ask myself a lot! My conclusion (for now) is: The reason beauty culture is so powerful is because it co-opts our instincts. The skin, evolutionarily, functions as a communication device, and those communications let us know when something in our internal or external environment is imbalanced or amiss in a potential dangerous way. Sunburn tells you it's time to seek shade. Hives tell you you're allergic to something. Pimples can signal inflammation (which may affect quality of life in so many ways, from physical health to mental health) or hormonal issues (which can indicate fertility issues or health issues like PCOS). Paying attention to these surface-level symptoms — and then tending to the root imbalances they stem from — can be life-saving and health-preserving. It can help us lead easier, richer, more fulfilling lives. The instinct to pay attention is built into our bodies and brains. The problem is that beauty culture has completely co-opted this instinct and made it so that we no longer see these symptoms as morally-neutral environmental cues, but as “ugly cues” or “unworthiness” cues. That is the part we need to divest from. Supporting your skin in being functional and self-sufficient — fostering a diverse microbiome that helps protect you from sun exposure and pollution by using fewer skincare products, for example — is not giving in to beauty culture, just as avoiding bananas because you're allergic to them or because they make you constipated is not giving in to diet culture. It’s also important to consider that so many skin conditions are painful! No one should have to put up with painful conditions just to say that they’re “resisting beauty culture.” Rosacea can burn, eczema can itch. My dermatitis was excruciating. (In college, I once went to the emergency room for a pimple because it was SO HUGE AND PAINFUL AND PUS-FILLED that I thought there was no way it could be a pimple and had to be some sort of flesh-eating disease… It was a pimple.) So, if there's a way to manage some of these painful, uncomfortable conditions by focusing on skin function rather than skin aesthetic —which there is! — I’m all for it. One last thing to mention here is that the microbiome and skin barrier are part of the immune system. The skin is actually the first line of immune defense for the entire body. Making sure these two features of the skin are as functional as possible helps protect against colds, flus, viruses, bacteria, and more.
SL: As an example, I could buy collagen, selenium, hyaluronic acid, silica, biotin all by themselves, or I could get a formula that comes in just one package versus five. Is buying just that one really a buy-less-stuff “solution” in your eyes?
JD: The solution to that particular scenario, in my eyes — especially if you’re someone with the means and access to buy these typically-expensive skincare supplements anyway, as implied by the question — is to not buy any of them at all and instead get those “supplements” via food. You have to eat anyway, and doctors agree that the body receives nutrients more efficiently through foods than isolated (and often under-regulated) supplements. If you're curious about a new magnesium or biotin supplement for skin function, look up what foods are rich in those vitamins and minerals and incorporate them into your meals. This doesn’t have to mean pricey farmer’s market produce, either! For example: Beans are full of skin-supportive nutrients like protein (which is essential for building protective collagen), magnesium, and selenium. Sunflower seeds are rich in biotin. It really can be that easy.
SL: Looking to the future, what would you like to see more of in the beauty industry when it comes to the products it makes and sells?
JD: I'd like to see more mindfulness from brands, beauty editors, and beauty experts — mindfulness in terms of how products affect our physical health, our mental and emotional health, and the health of the planet. Currently, beauty culture negatively impacts all of the above. I'd also like to see more honesty. Right now, we tell ourselves a lot of nice-sounding lies in the beauty industry. We constantly call anti-aging products and procedures “empowering;” in reality, they reinforce harmful beauty standards and fear around the natural process of aging. We call recyclable packaging “sustainable;” in reality, most recyclable plastic doesn't actually get recycled. Telling the truth should be the baseline.