Body Acceptance Stops At The Skin. Why?
An unpublishable interview with the Sydney Morning Herald.
The Unpublishable is a free reader-supported publication covering what the beauty industry won’t tell you — from a reporter on a mission to reform it.
“Where is the wrinkle positivity?” I asked in a 2019 article for Fashionista, just as the anti-diet culture movement was going mainstream. “The thin lip positivity? The aging positivity? Why are our faces the last frontier of self-acceptance?”
Last week, the Sydney Morning Herald attempted to answer these questions with a report titled “Why skin is the forgotten frontier of the beauty acceptance movement.” Journalist Lauren Ironmonger detailed her own intertwined experiences of psoriasis and depression, which she says “left an indelible mark on my understanding of beauty and selfhood,” and interviewed experts in the field — a dermatologist, a beauty brand founder, a model with vitiligo, and me! — to understand how the body positivity movement left our skin behind.
Ironmonger’s piece is fantastic, and you should read it. But most of my interview with her didn’t make the final cut, so I figured I’d share my full, unedited answers here on The Unpublishable. Read on for my thoughts on “good” skin, “healthy” skin, and why skin acceptance will require a dermatological reckoning. (Then reader further on for some more thoughts I couldn’t stop myself from adding!!)
The Sydney Morning Herald: Can you speak to me a little bit about skin, and what having 'good skin' represents?
Jessica DeFino (me): The phrase "good skin" implies that the aesthetic associated with "good skin" — currently: youthful, glassy, no variation in texture or tone — is an ethical ideal, a moral imperative. Someone with "good skin," then, has done everything "right." Someone with "bad skin," conversely, is somehow "wrong." Of course, this is not rooted in fact or science; it's rooted in centuries-old beauty standards that seek to keep people (and women, specifically) consuming and consumed by a false idea of "beauty."
SMH: How do you think skin, and the acceptance of diverse skin types, fits into the beauty acceptance movement. For me, it feels like the final frontier in this movement - a wave that's coming after the championing of something like diverse body types.
JD: The skin and the face were definitely left behind by the body positive movement, and they have a lot of catching up to do. I think what's still missing here is a challenge to the idea of "healthy skin" or "normal skin." The field of dermatology and the skincare industry have pathologized a lot of normal, healthy behaviors of human skin. Normal, healthy human skin experiences hyperpigmentation when it's injured, for instance. Normal, healthy human skin ages; it gets wrinkled, it loses collagen mass. Normal, healthy human skin gets dry from time-to-time. Normal, healthy human skin experiences inflammation, just like the rest of the body. Basically: Normal, healthy human skin communicates with you. That's its job. All of these things have been messaged as health issues, as flaws to be fixed, and that's simply not true. The body positivity movement has benefited immensely from challenging the idea that fat = unhealthy. We now understand that you can be healthy at any size. We now understand that BMI is not a good indicator of health. We now understand that medical professionals have been led astray — and have in turn led patients astray — because for so long, the medical establishment confused a beauty ideal (thinness) for health. The skincare space needs to have that same reckoning in order to move forward with a meaningful movement of acceptance.
SMH: When we look at the skincare industry today, there are so many products on the market to cater to just about any concern - every week it feels like there's a new thing we should be worrying about and the 'perfect' product to help us fix it. On the one hand, many people feel empowered by this development, which signals a greater awareness of these issues. However, there’s also the argument that we should be accepting our ‘flaws’, rather than constantly trying to fix them to meet a certain beauty ideal. What do you make of this?
JD: I think just the fact that normal human traits — texture, hyperpigmentation, fine lines, wrinkles, pimples — are messaged as "issues" and "flaws" says it all. Trying to medically manipulate your skin to meet some arbitrary idea of "good skin" on a daily basis is no different from trying to manipulate your body to meet an arbitrary ideal of thinness on a daily basis.
SMH: I've observed, especially since the pandemic, more people posting 'natural' selfies of their skin, baring acne, scars etc. Many celebrities have been lauded for this. I feel like it's only really influencers and celebrities who are conventionally attractive who feel comfortable doing this, or who are accepted for this. What do you think?
JD: The beauty ideal has never been one, concrete thing; the beauty ideal operates on a spectrum. It’s a set of parameters that allows for variation between a set of constantly-repositioned goalposts. It's much easier (and therefore less effective or revolutionary) for celebrities and influencers who conform to traditional beauty standards in other ways — white, thin, pouty lips, wide eyes, youthful-looking — to reveal a perceived "flaw" and still be considered beautiful.
Now that I'm really reflecting on it, the original question — why hasn’t the skin been included in the commercial1 body acceptance movement? — is probably best answered by this concept of parameters. The standard of beauty is not one static image of “perfection” but rather, a range of “acceptable” features. The boundaries of that range are renegotiated and redrawn and repositioned as time passes, as the political landscape changes, as popular culture evolves. But — and this is the key thing! — rarely are they widened. When one boundary is pushed, another almost always moves up to meet it. The former gives the illusion of freedom; the latter ensures the narrow parameters of the ideal are maintained — that political, social, and economic control over the ideal’s target audience (women, primarily) is maintained.
To wit: As anti-diet culture rhetoric became de rigueur over the past five years or so, it limited what beauty standards the (vaguely liberal) traditional beauty media and social beauty media could acceptably embrace and sell. This was touted as an “expansion” of beauty ideals. But as body-critical messaging slowed down, skin-critical messaging ramped up to replace it. Today, you don’t need to lose weight to be “beautiful” or “healthy” — at least, the mainstream media can’t explicitly say so without risking significant public backlash — but you do need to lose those wrinkles, those pimples, and that hyperpigmentation via a seven-step skincare “ritual,” quarterly injectable appointments, NASA-engineered beauty tech, “clean girl” makeup, and “radically transparent” plastic surgery.
These escalating skin- and face-focused demands are often blanketed in the language of empowerment, autonomy, health, wellness, self-care, self-expression, and “science” so as not to be seen as demands, but they are demands. (A blanket over a birdcage may keep the birds quiet, but it doesn’t disappear the cage.) As I wrote for VICE, “The normalization of cosmetic surgery, illusory makeup, and altered photos raises the baseline standard of beauty for all—a form of aesthetic inflation, if you will. It makes it harder for women and girls to opt out of spending their time, money, and energy on aesthetic labor without facing financial and social consequences.”
And so, the potential liberation of “all bodies are good bodies” was mitigated with “good skin looks like a glazed donut.”
To see this see-saw effect in action, just look to the body positive influencers who declare “every body is beautiful” but nevertheless use their platforms to promote above-the-neck beauty ideals. Katie Sturino tells followers to embrace their curves but erase their “cleavage wrinkles.” Nicolette Mason challenges the idea that thin bodies are “better” than fat bodies but says that NARS Tinted Moisturizer makes for “better” skin. Former fitness influencer Madalin Giorgetta educated her audience on the dangers of obsessing over their weight but encouraged them to obsess over their skin. From Giorgetta’s newsletter:
12 step night-time routines, everything K-beauty, Tretinoin prescriptions, hydrocolloid star shaped pimple patches… I dived in head first. But eventually I realised … I had simply replaced Diet Culture with Skincare Culture.
It isn’t only the industry and influencers, though; individuals have replaced diet culture with skincare culture, too. Consider that most beauty behaviors are “cosmetic coping mechanisms” developed to deal with the pains and pressures of beauty culture: After consciously discarding a coping mechanism one comes to see as unhealthy or fatphobic (skipping meals to lose weight, for instance), it’s understandable that one would rush to — even need to — replace it with another (learning every last scientific fact about hyaluronic acid and subjecting your skin to twice-daily applications of an ingredient it already makes on its own, perhaps).
The skin is simply a less-stigmatized (read: under-examined) area on which to exercise our need for control.
Without examining these tendencies within ourselves, we’re unable to hold the beauty industry and influencers accountable: We express outrage when Kim Kardashian endorses appetite-suppressing lollipops but buy her anti-aging skincare products until they sell out. We rail against Noom for marketing its diet app as an “anti-diet” app, but fail to see how skincare brands like Squish and Starface are marketing their anti-acne pimple patches as acne-positive.
Body positivity didn’t deliver us from beauty standards. It delivered us a Botox boom.
I’d argue most of the “body acceptance movement” is commercial now, its radical roots co-opted by publishers that make their money from advertisers and affiliate sales, influencers who make their money from sponsored social ads, and individuals parroting consumerist talking points they’ve pick up from both.