Uh-Oh, Am I An Asshole?
Do I have a bad attitude? Or does the beauty industry have a bad foundation?
A well-known beauty reporter recently called me out on her Instagram Stories for being “negative.” She has a bad attitude!, she said. She wants to destroy the beauty industry!
First, I felt gut-punched. Misunderstood. I know my work can come off as contrarian, extreme — aggressive, even. But to me, it seems so obvious that the end goal is positivity. The end goal is love. The end goal is freedom — freedom from the patriarchal, capitalist, colonialist structures that support the beauty industry! Freedom from the boxes (both literal and metaphorical) that keep us small! Freedom from unattainable ideals! Cultural conditioning! Manipulative marketing! Freedom from the thought that self-esteem is injectable, that Amazon can deliver empowerment, that external beauty has anything to do with your inherent worth! There is a wild, open, soul-deep type of beauty beyond the industry of beauty, a type of beauty that can’t be bought and sold. That’s what I’m after.
How could this woman not see that??
Then, I got over it. I understood. Perhaps a misplaced syringe caused a case of Botox droopy eye (sorry, just kidding, bad joke), but she was only seeing half the truth.
I do want to tear down the beauty industry — but only to build you up.
Destruction may look bad, but it clears the way for something better.
I can come off as an asshole, but I mean well.
With that, I thought I’d share a couple questions/criticisms I’ve gotten lately, just in case you’ve also been wondering why I’m such a goddamn asshole. 🙃
I’m so glad to have writers like you calling out brands that are not walking the walk, but it would be meaningful to those of us who are trying to be the change in this industry to know that you see us, too! I worry that people think all beauty and skincare brands are evil and deceptive, when actually there is good stuff happening in the industry, even if it’s on a small scale.
I totally hear what you're saying and I’ve been getting this kind of feedback from brand owners a lot. (Lol.)
I created a ton of content around wonderful brands I that believe in for the first few years of my career. I’ve pivoted away from that kind of coverage because I’m being called in a different direction, soul-wise, if that makes sense. A phrase I keep coming back to is, "There is no construction without deconstruction." I see and acknowledge all the ways the beauty industry is trying/seeming to change in order to be more inclusive, more empowering, safer, better, etc. etc. etc. — but in my heart, I feel like it's all being built on an old, crumbly foundation of patriarchy, capitalism, colonialism, consumerism, white supremacy, fear, and misunderstanding about how our skin and bodies actually work.
Of course, I see that there are brands in the space doing great things! And I appreciate that they’re there and doing the work! But I feel like my role — at least right now — is to help deconstruct, to tear down that foundation. I know my approach is a little extreme, but I really, truly believe that we need to see extreme examples of what divesting from consumer culture could look like in order to inch closer to actual change. Like... Most people will not go to the extreme of rejecting all products, but will settle into a place in between "don't use anything" and "change your face/body completely." By pushing the upper limit a little higher with my own extreme approach, maybe I can help the average person settle into an in-between place that's closer to true liberation from beauty standards and further away from reliance on products??
Also, there are so many beauty editors/writers/influencers/bloggers out there who cover products. So, so many. Most of them, really! And the typical reader will not get their information from one place or one person. There is no one out there who takes what I say as gospel and disregards all other content, nor should there be — my POV is just one of many taken into consideration. Because I know that readers can get that info elsewhere, I don't feel the need to be in the product recommendation space as well.
Finally, I have too much on my plate to dedicate time to writing anything that I'm not personally FIRED THE HELL UP about. And I'm not fired the hell up about brands and products at this particular moment of my life. I'm sure I will be in the future. I just don't know when, exactly, that will be. I’m a human being, not a content creation machine, and I'm letting my soul guide my writing for now.
It makes me sad/mad/frustrated that you’ve pivoted away from writing about brands and products. I don’t think it’ll be good for your career, BTW — ignoring brands/products isn’t the way to succeed in this industry.
As a reporter, my loyalty is to individuals, not to the industry. I am interested in supporting people, not products and I think we have confused taking care of ourselves as people to taking care of ourselves with products. Those are not the same thing. We have not been dropped into this existence, on this earth, to buy stuff. But because the content we consume (movies, TV, editorial content, social media) is inextricably tied to the products we consume (product placements, commercials, advertisements, brand sponsorships), it can feel like products are a necessary part of the beauty/wellness/health equation. They aren’t.
I recently got a PR email promoting a product-heavy skincare routine that said something along the lines of “spending more time with your skin is really just a way of nurturing a connection between yourself and your body.” Reader, I. Screamed. If “spending more time with your skin” involves a product, it is nurturing a connection between yourself and a product. Products can serve other (lovely) purposes — soap can help remove dirt if you’ve rolled in the mud, oil can help moisturize skin that’s been stripped of its sebum, a facial massage tool can help move lymphatic fluid. Products can provide a living for farmers and formulators and founders, they can make consumers’ lives easier, they can alter your appearance. I even think that DIYing with natural ingredients like crushed herbs can nurture a connection between you and nature. Those are fine purposes! But they are not “nurturing a connection between yourself and your body.” You are already connected to your skin and your body! Fostering those existing connections need not involve anything/anyone else! If someone is telling you a product will nurture that relationship, I can guarantee you they are profiting from that product in one way or another.
Again, as I stated in my last newsletter, this is not to say that products are “bad.” Pointing out that a bottle of serum has nothing to do with your actual being is not a diss!! And if your initial reaction is, “But my skincare products have really helped me with self-care/loving myself, etc,” I’ve been there, too — and I would urge us all to fully explore that reaction, each time it comes up (because it will continually come up). Like: What are the ways in which you’ve been led to believe you can buy happiness/confidence/self-esteem/insert-feeling-here? Have you ever been able to really buy that feeling? (As I like to say, “Beauty products can only replace the confidence that beauty standards stole.”) Or, if you’re a brand owner/marketer/influencer: How do you want these products to impact the people who buy them? Do you want them to impart happiness/confidence/self-esteem/etc? If so, do you really think that people can purchase that feeling? Is there a way you can market your products based on their actual purpose (see above: removing dirt, moisturizing, etc.) instead of an un-purchasable feeling? Here is a helpful guide to analyzing the deeper “why” behind your products (whether you’re buying or selling or writing or reporting on them).
You write a lot about being anti-product and anti-consumerism, but you obviously must use skincare products and be a consumer yourself. You write about “clean beauty” meaning nothing, but I’m guessing you use products that are marketed as clean. Are you just a hypocrite? Or is there terminology that you think falls outside of toxic beauty standards AND meaningless marketing ploys? How would you explain to someone why you use the products you use?
I promise I’m not lying to you! I actually don’t buy pre-packaged skincare “products”! (I have in the past, maybe I will in the future, and there are some I like that I’ve been gifted, which I’ve talked about here and here and here.) I mostly use single-ingredient naturals — plain jojoba oil, Mānuka honey, rose water, yogurt — and only when my skin asks for it.
When I say words like “clean” and “science-backed” are meaningless, I’m not saying “don’t buy products that use these words.” I’m not saying these words are unethical, or that brands that use them are actively trying to deceive you. I’m very simply saying that they have no definition. Please don’t let your own opinions and perception assign meaning to my words — or anyone’s words — that isn’t there.
As for my personal preferences, my article on “supportive skincare” should help clear that up a little bit — but basically, my goal is to support what my skin already knows how to do. It self-cleanses, self-moisturizes, self-exfoliates, self-protects, and self-heals. Most of my support comes from diet, lifestyle, and mindfulness practices. The truth is that the skin doesn’t require much topical support at all. That’s why my mission is to help people lessen their reliance on products, period — whether “clean”, “science-backed”, “natural”, “synthetic”, whatever. You don’t need as much as you think you do — and I don’t use as much as you think I do ;)
We all need to make a living and as brand founders we need to use the tactics you describe here to bring our products to life, and we shouldn't feel guilty about it.
Yes, I hear you — that’s why when I described how media platforms make money in my last newsletter, I made sure to add, “Which is not to say that all content is misinformed or manipulative or pandering — there is a lot of great content out there!! — or that all products are “bad”. I’m juuust explaining how things happen.”
You’re right, brand founders shouldn’t feel guilty for participating — it’s just how the industry works — but the fact that beauty publications depend on advertisers and affiliates to turn a profit is pertinent information for readers to know. Coming from a reporter who’s had many, many stories killed, softened, edited, or unpublished to appease advertisers or preserve brand relationships (I’ve even had a company threaten legal action against me for attempting to report on its ingredients), all of this 100% influences the content that’s out there. I promise you, it does. Readers deserve to know the mechanics of the media in order to factor that into their reading comprehension and purchasing decisions. (Like, Hmm, this article makes XYZ product sound amazing! But, the brand advertises pretty heavily on this platform, so let me check out some Reddit reviews, or whatever.) Sharing the truth is not the same as shaming. However, if someone plainly stating the truth about how the beauty industry operates makes you, as a participant, feel guilty… maybe that’s something to explore?
I have bought Manuka Honey from the affiliate links in your articles. You shouldn't feel bad about earning a commission or promoting products you care about or trust and care about founders who conceived them with a mission to change the beauty industry.
First: Any links used in articles I’ve written for major publications (Vogue, Allure, Business Insider, etc) are not “my” affiliate links. I do not earn commission from the clicks in articles I write. That $$ goes directly to the platform. Again, that’s just how media works, so it doesn’t bother me — just wanted to make it clear!
Second: As a journalist and not a brand or influencer, it would be unethical for me to make money from product commissions! It is a journalistic conflict of interest. So when I do share product links through Instagram, my newsletter, etc., please know that I do not use affiliate links myself. I make no commission. HOWEVER, this is murky territory in “beauty journalism”, an area where the large majority of reporters also moonlight as brand consultants, ghostwriters for brand blogs, influencers partnering with brands on campaigns, and sponsored affiliates. And even though these are all technically conflicts of interest, they’re also all kinda, sorta necessary to make a living as a beauty writer (because let me tell ya, reporting does not pay). I totally understand why beauty writers do it. I have done it myself in the past. Luckily, I’m in a place where I no longer have to align myself with brands/products/campaigns to earn a living, so I don’t. It’s become more important to me to maintain distance (especially monetary distance) from any brand/product affiliations. Again, I don’t say this to shame any beauty writers who do make $$ on the side from partnering with brands in any way. I say this in the name of transparency. Readers simply deserve to understand the mechanics of the media in order to factor that into their reading comprehension and purchasing decisions. (Like, Hmm, this Instagram post from this beauty reporter makes XYZ product sound amazing! But, this writer also blogs for the brand and earns a commission off sales, so let me check out some Reddit reviews, or whatever.) I’m also drawing and redrawing this line for myself all the time. I’ve gone on all-expenses paid press trips with brands I love. I sometimes accept free samples from brands I’m curious about. I don’t have a strict code in place for myself. I just feel into each opportunity as it comes.
Third: Obviously, since you mentioned you bought Manuka honey off of my “affiliate links” — which, again, it is not an affiliate link that makes me $$ if it comes from my own platform! — I do share the “products” that I personally use and I do not feel bad about that. The reason I don’t share products that much is because I don’t use products that much. It’s not like I’m hiding a pile of products that I slather all over my own skin over here, refusing to share them with readers out of some warped sense of guilt, lol. I really, truly use next to nothing!
Paywall will never make a living for any publisher or independent writer because over the years people got used to the fact that content is free. If people like you won't back up independent brands and be open and transparent about getting a commission who will?
Again, I personally see it as a conflict of interest to earn a commission from the brands I report on — even if they’re independent, safe, ethically-produced, wonderful brands that I believe in. As far as never being able to make a living off of a paywalled newsletter… I’m still writing for other platforms! I’m still very much an active freelancer, and that’s how I make money. I still save my “best” ideas for the big publications, because like I’ve said, my goal is reach the widest audience. That’s why this newsletter is called “The Unpublishable” — these are the scraps that mainstream pubs aren’t publishing. But I’m still trying ;)
Another point about paywalled content, though… I believe that change is possible. I believe that capitalism is not the only way. I believe that there are other options for media on the horizon. Just because we can’t see them or articulate them yet doesn’t mean we should just keep doing things the way they’ve always been done. People get “used to” things and they can get un-used to them. The first step is understanding that content has never been free — we have always paid a price. That price is advertising, marketing, spon-con, even the content itself. Our brains take in this information and we internalize it. It affects how we see ourselves and how we see the world — sociologists call this The Cultivation Theory. (Note: Straight, cis, wealthy white men still largely control advertising and media and thus, the information we take in.) Those influences get funneled into the culture, and culture continuously creates and recreates cultural beauty ideals, which psychologists say are almost impossible to separate from our own thoughts about what’s beautiful. We slowly adopt society’s desires and disconnect from our own desires. Pressures society puts on us become pressures we put on ourselves. This is the price we pay. (So honestly, $5 a month for ad-free content created by someone whose values align with yours is pretty affordable.)
I also keep thinking about how the “making a living” comment relates to fifth wave feminism, which Mary Retta wrote about in her Substack newsletter, Close But Not Quite: “While second and third wave feminists fought hard for women to be included in the workplace, many fifth wave feminists today embrace an anti-work framework, believing that people should not have to perform endless meaningless labor in order to be able to afford housing, food, education, health insurance, or other social and essential goods. Fifth wave feminists … do not believe any job, even one that is conceived as powerful or ‘empowering,’ can bring about liberation.” I try to apply this framework to consumerism, too. I don’t believe we can bring about empowerment and liberation by buying “better” products. I don’t believe we can buy sustainability or political change or anything truly meaningful at all.
So even though there are great products and brands to support out there, I don’t personally feel called to write about them. Product promotion doesn’t align with my goals at this particular moment. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect or even consume that kind of content. I do!
It’s just that I can’t cover all of it myself, and I would appreciate it if people would stop giving me shit for not shoving the entire human experience of beauty into every single article I write :)
Ugh, does that make me an asshole?? Maybe. But I’m an asshole who just wants you to find that wild, open, soul-deep kind of beauty that can’t be bottled. I’m an asshole who loves you.
I respect your integrity and your ideas really resonate with me.
If you are an asshole, you are my favorite one. Keep at it.