Injury As A Beauty Ideal
But first, my viral Kardashian tweet.
Whoops, I went viral.
Mhmm, yes, it’s all true. I was an assistant editor on the Official Kardashian-Jenner Apps in 2015! I loved it. And then I woke up.
I watched as the most famous women in the world Frankensteined an impossible standard of beauty, pushed the rest of us to “keep up” with them, weaponized that standard of beauty to sell products, and still never felt good enough. I decided to pivot into beauty media to help change the industry — to right my editorial wrongs! to apologize for my complicity! — and quickly realized how fucked up and exploitative that world was. It’s why I eventually started The Unpublishable.
Here are some things I’ve learned after almost a decade in the beauty space (from launching the Kardashian-Jenner Apps, to working as a staff writer at a beauty publication, to reporting as a freelancer for outlets like the New York Times and Vogue):
Beauty standards are the products of patriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism, and capitalism. What the beauty industry sells isn’t actually beauty. Beauty culture is diet culture’s face-focused fraternal twin. Skincare culture is dewy diet culture. Both are public health concerns. The “science” of skincare is actually the “science” of aesthetic manipulation. Your skin doesn’t need skincare products. (Here’s how to quit.) Skincare isn’t self-care. It’s more like extractive capitalism. The entire concept of anti-aging is a scam. Erasing your wrinkles isn’t empowerment. Sheet masks are the new plastic straws. Clean beauty still sells toxic beauty standards. Consumerism is the latest standard of beauty. “Beauty” is meaningless, anyway. It’s an inherently spiritual concept that’s been limited to the physical dimension, which is why all of this shit is so unsatisfying. Beauty products can only replace the confidence that beauty standards stole. You need your dead skin cells. And your skin barrier. And your skin microbiome. And your pores. (Skincare products damage all of the above.) Marketing made ‘oil-free’ a thing. There’s no such thing as “normal” skin or skin types. Your brain and your skin are inherently interconnected. You can breathe your way to healthier skin. You can meditate your way to healthier skin. You can orgasm your way to healthier skin. Saying “thank you” helps, too. I know it’s hard to believe these things sometimes, but that’s because the colonizer mindset is so deeply embedded in beauty culture. If your skincare hurts, it’s hurting your skin. Products shouldn’t “sink into” your skin. “Non-skincare skincare” is always available to you. The celebrities need to be stopped. The beauty industry is an MLM. Beauty can be a tool for self-expression… but it’s more often a tool for consumerism, conformity, and complacency. Performing beauty asks you to sacrifice your actual sources of power — time, effort, headspace, money — to get the surface-level look of “empowerment.” The beauty industry is powered by a lot of people in a lot of pain, who truly believe that becoming more “beautiful” will heal them (and you). It’s time for a paradigm shift. I’m kind of an asshole, but only because I love you.
(Click the links for further explanations, obviously.)
ALSO! I don’t expect or want you to agree with everything I write. I can almost guarantee you won’t, actually. I just want you — me, everyone, all of us — to be open to a new way of thinking about beauty.
Whew. OK. Now that my little get-to-know-me spiel is out of the way, here’s what I really wanted to share with subscribers today: I was interviewed by Julie Gallagher of weightless! (weightless is a newsletter about diet culture and eating disorder recovery. If you like my work, you will love weightless. Subscribe here.)
We talked about the parallels between diet culture and skincare culture, how injury became a beauty ideal, the existential dread of “anti-aging,” how colorism and classism created the tanning craze, skincare as a coping mechanism, divesting from beauty standards, slugging, and so much more. I excerpted bits and pieces of our chat below, but you can click over to weightless to read the full interview. (It is LONG and INVOLVED and RAW and JUICY and offers a great overview of my whole deal for anyone who’s new here.)
JULIE GALLAGHER: One of your taglines is “skincare culture is just dewy diet culture.” Can you talk about what you mean by that?
JESSICA DEFINO (ME): Sure, I think people are pretty familiar with diet culture and what it is after the past 5 to 10 years, with the body positivity movement and the work being done by fat activists. And I find that's a really good framework for explaining skincare culture, as well. In the same way that diet culture is not about health — it's just about making your body look a certain way to conform to cultural appearance ideals — that's what skincare culture is. Nothing we're really taught by beauty media or beauty culture has anything to do with the actual health of the skin and everything to do with making it conform to a certain standard that somebody, somewhere, made up one day, like: clear skin, skin that looks like glass, skin that never has a breakout or an allergic reaction or a rash. That's not how human skin is supposed to behave. And in trying to eliminate those communications from your body and make your skin look as inhuman as possible… First of all, “glass skin” or “[glazed] donut skin,” that is the definition of self-objectification. We're trying to turn ourselves into an object, rather than embracing our humanity. And just like diet culture, when you indulge too much in topical skincare and trying to make your skin look a certain way, you actually degrade its health, you actually overwrite your skin's inherent functions to self-cleanse, self-moisturize, self-exfoliate, self-heal, self-protect, so you're actually damaging your skin's health in order to make it look this certain way, which I think has a lot of overlap with diet culture.
JG: Oh, yeah, for sure. Dieting or engaging in disordered eating behaviors can have serious physical impacts on your body over time and degrade the function of your metabolism, nervous system, etc. (Julie’s editing note: to learn more about this, read Sick Enough by Dr. Jennifer Gaudiani). To me, diet culture and beauty culture kind of stem from the same societal ideals: thinness, whiteness, high socioeconomic status. What is your interpretation of where this all comes from and why is it so problematic?
ME: I did a lot of research on the anthropology of beauty standards and where this stuff all started and where it all stemmed from. From my research, I have identified beauty culture stemming from four main forces: patriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism and capitalism. Basically, any standard that you can point out stems from one or two or all of those, which is very similar to Western culture in general. A lot of our ideals across the political spectrum, the education system, the health care system, diet culture, they all stem from those four tenets. And then from there is where you see things like classism, colorism, ageism, sexism, ableism, the gender binary, those all stem from there, too. So beauty standards come from those forces. I like to describe them as not separate from classism or colorism or sexism, they are those things distilled into physical form. Beauty standards are how those things are dispersed throughout society. Beauty standards are how white supremacy is dispersed throughout society. It is how sexism is dispersed throughout society. So these things aren't separate. And sometimes I feel like, “ugh, am I making too big of a deal out of beauty standards by comparing it to white supremacy?” But the more I research, no, it's not wrong to conflate those two, because the two are the same thing. Beauty standards are just one way of communicating white supremacy.
JG: Can you give me an example of a beauty ideal or standard we have that can be traced back to those things?
ME: I think the easiest way to communicate the link between white supremacy and beauty is to look at the foundation shade ranges at Sephora or Ulta, or any beauty brand. There's a very clear standard. In a 40-shade lineup, there will usually be 25 for lighter skin tones. And then the whole spectrum of brown and black skin gets shoved into 10-15 shades. That's a very easy, visual way to see that. I also have to use the example of tanning as a really easy visual to represent classism and beauty standards. So for a really long time, for much of history, it was desirable to have really white, pale skin because workers, the lower-class people and slaves were outside working, and they would get tanned by the sun. So having darker skin was a class marker. It basically showed you were of a lower caste, a lower class, you were outside laboring. And the wealthy people were indoors, protected from the sun and didn't have to do that type of labor. So pale skin became the ideal. And you can see that everywhere from the ancient Egyptians to Europe in the 17th century, women were powdering their faces with white powder to look as pale as possible. You see that shift after the Industrial Revolution, when that class dynamic really changed and workers were inside factories. And so the lower class people were inside. They weren't tan, they were pale. And the wealthy were now the leisure class, they had the money to go on vacation to leisure about outside, to be on boats — Coco Chanel was kind of the first person to make the “tan” very fashionable. Now, it's very chic to have tan skin and pale skin is almost not desirable anymore. And that's a class marker. And I think that's such a great example because we see the beauty standards shift over time. So it's a great example because these things are not ingrained and human. They're not biological, it's not just humans by default love a tan. It really shows how social structures influence what we find beautiful and why.
JG: What is the impact on individuals who absorb these standards and ideals? Whether that's skincare, beauty or diet culture standards, what impact does that have on a person?
ME: It's always messaged to us that if we adhere to these standards, you're going to feel more beautiful, you're going to feel confident, you're going to have self esteem, but the data tells us a much different story. Beauty culture is associated with anxiety, depression, body dysmorphia, facial dysmorphia, eating disorders, self harm, even suicide. So the impact on our mental health is huge. Personally, I think a lot of that stems from this all-encompassing focus on the physical form, when that's just a fraction of what we are as human beings. So on a spiritual level, I think it's traumatic to be flattened to this one physical dimension that you really have very little control over and that's how your value is judged in society. That is like a spiritually traumatic thing to be like, “wait, no, I'm this whole dynamic soul. And I'm full of love and beauty. And the world that I'm currently inhabiting is judging me based on this small portion of what I am.”
JG: So often we’re told to think critically and be mindful about the things we consume and the things that we ingest. But I don't think we always get the tools or told how to think critically. It’s particularly difficult in the world of social media, where every influencer “just like us” is selling us a product or telling us to do something. So, what is your advice?"
ME: It's really tough. I would say the first thing to do is just consider the source. Who is telling you this? And what financial motives do they have? Are they a brand owner? Are they an influencer who's selling you a product? Are they an esthetician who needs you in their chair? These things will all influence what someone believes. And I think it's important to note here, too, I'm not saying any of these people have nefarious motives. They're not trying to get you. This is what they believe is necessary for healthy skin most of the time, because it's what they've been taught and through confirmation bias and conflict of interest. We have a ton of psychology that shows us that, say, me as a journalist were to accept a gift from a brand and then write an article about it… I can say in my conscious mind, “oh, this didn't influence my opinion at all.” But we have tons of psychology and research to show that subconsciously it does. And so that's why in journalism those kinds of things are not allowed, because it does influence your opinion, whether you realize it or not. So, a lot of the people that we are trusting to give us unbiased information about our skin health are completely biased. So just consider where the information is coming from and where did they learn the information. Most of this skin science is not real science, it is product science. Most of the skin science on Instagram and TikTok is funneled down through brands, through marketing campaigns, even through dermatologists. We have to look at dermatology the same way that we look at doctors who are trained medical professionals and are using BMI or weight as a marker of health. Those things aren't health markers, they are appearance ideals that got absorbed into health care. That is the same exact thing that happens with skin and dermatologists. Dermatologists are often pushing appearance ideals through these medications and prescriptions. They’ll say, “here's how we can make your skin look this certain way, with this ingredient or this pill,” without asking, “should the skin look a certain way?” These health care providers are maybe well intentioned, but the industry and the field of dermatology is built on beauty standards first, rather than health first.
JG: Generally speaking, we trust doctors to know what's best for us. But it’s kind of shocking to learn how much health care information is clouded by arbitrary beauty and body size standards. And that can really impact the quality of your care. It’s kind of a mind fuck.
ME: Yeah, it's such a mind fuck. And I always want to put a caveat here: visit your dermatologist yearly for your skin cancer screening. Skin cancer is an actual illness and a sickness that you need to screen for. But most of the time, with our daily skincare, we're pathologizing things that are not problems. They are communication; they are natural consequences of our lifestyles. The skin is supposed to have a pimple when something is imbalanced inside. The point is not to erase the pimple entirely. The point is listen to your body and your skin and ask, “Hmm, what’s imbalanced? And where is this having an effect on me elsewhere?” Because usually, by the time a symptom reaches your skin, it's affecting you somewhere else as well. For example, all sorts of gut disorders have skin components. So Celiac disease will have a gluten intolerance in the skin as well sometimes. Leaky gut syndrome also affects this skin barrier, and dermatologists are now calling it “leaky skin.” So by the time it reaches your face, it's probably affecting your wellbeing and how good you feel in your body day to day elsewhere. So it really benefits you to look at root cause rather than “I have to get rid of this pimple entirely.”
JG: I think that's a good reminder that your health is holistic. And just because you have glowing skin, that does not mean that you are healthy, or vice versa, if you have imperfections on your face, that does not mean you are unhealthy. So I think that's a very good personal reminder, at least.
ME: I always say my skin is far from perfect. I put it through the wringer for years, especially with topical steroids, which really affected how my skin functions and what it can do. So I still break out from time to time. My skin doesn't like naturally produce enough oil on its own because I was on Accutane for a long time, which damages your sebaceous glands. So you wouldn't necessarily look at my skin and be like, “Oh, that's healthy skin.” But I say my skin is healthy because it communicates with me. It is giving me all of this information about what's happening. Not only in my body, but in in my mind; stress is a huge trigger for skin issues. So it's healthy if it's communicating with you, because the skin's job is to communicate with you. And when you take that away, for instance, if your skin looks like glass from your products, that's not healthy skin. That's a sign of inflammation. Skin is not supposed to look like that. We have glamorized injury as a beauty standard.
JG: I mean, that shows up in so many different ways. Idealized appearances are linked to unhealthy behaviors or patterns or illnesses all the time.
ME: That's a perfect diet culture parallel. We glamorized what an eating disorder looked like in the ‘90s. Those models were not healthy, but that became the standard of beauty. It's the exact same with shiny, tight, glowing skin. That's not actually functioning skin. That's a glamorized health issue.
There is soooo much more to this interview! If you’re interested, continue reading it over on weightless.
P.S. Substack (the platform that hosts this newsletter) launched an app! I’ve been testing it for a few weeks and it’s a really great reading experience, particularly if you want to cut down on emails.
It’s currently available for iOS. If you don’t have an Apple device, you can join the Android waitlist here.