Titled straightforwardly, “The Skincare Con” an article on the Outline had skincare fans responding in such a frenzy – that the resulting scuffle made Buzzfeed news. Skincare seems to be on a cultural trial of sorts once again, but at stake seems to be something much larger than beauty and industry.
Dermletter isn’t a cultural critique newsletter, but we can’t ignore the obvious: Dermatology deals with the skin, and the skin is a visible organ. It’s impossible to completely separate the realm of skincare from that of medical dermatology. When it comes to skincare, like it or not, it is inexorably intertwined with the culture and norms of beauty.
In 2018, we were told that Miss America is no longer a beauty pageant; as such, they will no longer feature the swimsuit event. However, outside of the make-belief world of TV, media, and ads, we spend a large part of our income precisely on outward appearances. Krithika Varagur writing for The Outline, critiqued the skincare industry and the culture it promotes – and got some backlash both from industry insiders as well as others. Krithika’s critique starts simple enough:
“Skin has withstood millions of years of evolution. How could we be getting it so wrong now?”
- Women are disproportionately taxed by impossible ideals of perfect skin and its material pursuit of it.
- The science of skincare, especially as it relates to various unverifiable claims, is dubious at best.
- The language and the framing (we’ve replaced “thin” with “lifestyle” “young” with “natural” and “beauty” with “self-care”) may change with time, but the underlying message remains the same – you’re not good enough…unless you buy our stuff and enhance yourself.
- In the author’s words, “skincare is looking into yourself, but stopping at the literal outermost layer.”
All in all, a scathing view of not only the beauty industry in general but of the modern woman’s milieu. Depending on your viewpoint and how you want to read into the message, it can also be seen as a critique of the wisdom of women to choose to buy into such obvious “cons.” It’s no surprise then that this starts a backlash, not only from those with a direct and indirect connection to industry (beauty editors, writers) and those who had skin conditions like acne or rosacea but also from women who felt like their personal choices were being judged unfairly – by other women, no less. “Products aside,” an editor of Vogue wrote in reply, “one thing I refuse to be told is that spending money on skincare makes me some kind of vacuous moron.2”
Skincare seems to have formed a battleground for a cultural maelstrom of feminist critique and counter-criticism and what it means for women to buy-in or opt-out of beauty commerce. The view that the whole beauty industry is little more than modern-day snake-oil is not new; grab a token man off the street, ask his opinion on the skincare industry, and there’s a decent chance that he will echo Krithika’s criticism without making the slightest reference to feminism, self-esteem, or Naomi Klein. Indeed there’s plenty of legitimate criticism to go around, and we’ve poked fun at some of the tactics that skincare marketers use on Dermletter as well.
Marketing preys on various insecurities of people – we know this, and they lie outright too! Not to descend too far into whataboutism, but marketing is just that – an activity that embellishes, and this is true in every sector. Nearly 40% of Americans take multivitamins and other supplements, and we wrote about how the evidence of efficacy is dubious at best. In the age of the Internet, alternative and complementary medicine, which is by its own admission not evidence-based, is as popular as ever. Some people buy wine and artwork at outrageous prices, and nobody seems to accuse them of misogyny or question their cultural biases. While more and more men are slowly adopting skincare, today, its market is still undeniably gendered. This complicates the issue, no doubt. For example, we can ask without too much social repercussion:
Are people who trust supplement claims or untested treatments uncritical morons?
Whatever you believe this to be true or not, we don’t have any cultural criticisms of those that choose to use untested treatments. While some may object against public funding to research dubious treatments, in terms of consuming them, we overwhelmingly agree that this is a matter of personal choice.
Culture on Warp Speed
In truth, history contradicts Krithika’s assumption that skincare is suddenly a thing today. Skincare has always existed. One might think that only people like Cleopatra could afford the opulence of something like skincare in the ancient world, but this is almost certainly untrue. We tend to have less information about the lives of the hoi polloi, but it’s fair to assume that everyone was subject to the whims of their socio-cultural norms and that people did what they could to look their best throughout human history. Sure, there weren’t 100 billion dollar industries formed around manipulating the self-esteem of the typical Ancient Roman, but attracting mates is undoubtedly a timeless pursuit.
There’s no doubt that skincare has evolved, both in terms of size and complexity, but the rest of the world has too. We’ve moved from a world where shampoo was a once-a-week affair in 1952 to 3D printing makeup and AI intelligence-led customized skincare regimens in 2018. In just a single generation, advert power is already in the process of transitioning from TV advertising led by celebrities to beauty vloggers and influencers on the Internet. Culture is also moving at warp speed. Imagine the repercussion if you were to transport the 1952 skincare ethos where skincare is apparently about “keeping you at your prettiest and ready for weekend partying anytime your husband says the word” – to today’s audience.
It can be reasonably argued that this 1952 world is both materially and culturally, more like Cleopatra’s world than our 2018 world, just 65 years later. With the world moving at warp speed, is it really a surprise that there will be some cultural clashes? Our children will undoubtedly view our generation as clothed savages, and who knows what they will or won’t be putting on their skin.
1Today, marketers will no doubt tell you that it’s about inward beauty, confidence, and how it makes you feel. This wasn’t always the case.