Health & Lifestyle

Skincare in the Age of Pop Feminism

By Ziz Murphy ’19

Media Analyst

When we assign feminism to products and people, we are bound to lose. In Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, bell hooks suggests that we proffer the phrase “I advocate feminism” over “I am a feminist.” The former understands feminism as a continuous, dynamic commitment; the latter holds feminism as an identity, stagnating it and reducing it to stereotype. This the disturbing trend of the pop feminism of today- a brand of feminism that is just that, a brand. It’s using feminism to move product, to limit one’s concept of feminism to one’s own body as a site of struggle, as opposed to a body working in conjunction– and sometimes opposition– with those around it. Pop feminism represents one of the greatest roadblocks to phenomena and sells the idea of individualized womanhood, but fails to interrogate the structures of oppression that continue to bind even the most “empowered” women.

I often associate pop feminism with the realm of makeup. The connection was most visible circa 2014 when phrases such as “weaponize your femininity” reached their peak. It was in this moment that Beyoncé’s self-titled album introduced the song “***Flawless,” which samples writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie giving her own definition of what makes a feminist. Beyoncé’s use of feminist rhetoric in a capitalist musical enterprise represents a microcosm of 2014’s pop feminism, the moment that feminism was mainstreamed and so, commodified. In order to do so, the work of feminism, the “advocacy,” had to be taken out to make room for this false notion of liberated individualism. You can’t sell action and coalition.You can, however, sell “eyeliner sharp enough to kill a man.” For the price of a tube of lipstick, swaths of young girls were indoctrinated to the notion that their salvation lay not in deconstructing femininity but instead, in making an armor out of it and never questioning the integrity of its metal.

And now, in 2018, the question becomes: is the same thing happening with skincare?

Krithika Varagur of The Outline argues this point in her recent piece, “The Skincare Con.” Taking aim at both specific brands and even the general concept of skin needing “care,” she argues that capitalism and societal structures have elevated “perfect skin” to a both desired and unattainable level only possible of glimpsing through lengthy routines and chemical violence. I see a lot of merit in her viewpoint, earning particular favor from me for its quoting of Scripps’ favorite Discipline and Punish. We understand burning sensations, stinging, and inflammation to signify that a product is “working.”

As Julie Beck writes in her The Atlantic article “How St. Ives’s Apricot Scrub Plays on People’s Shame,” “Acne is inevitably a public affliction and in its its gnarliest forms can breen shame and low self esteem… It makes me feel ugly. It makes me feel like I’m dirty and I need to be scrubbed raw to be clean again.” Varagur sees skincare as only promoting beauty through the pain exemplified by Beck’s experience. There is no potential healing, only a stripping away in the hope that something presentable might be uncovered.

Varagur rightly caught a lot of backlash for her piece, particularly among those who best understand that looks really do matter: folks who spent years on accutane just to feel comfortable, dark-skinned women constantly confronted with Eurocentric beauty standards, and anyone who was bothered by her patronizing tone and what Janet Mock once called “pretty privilege.” But I do think her argument can’t just be thrown away. Varagur brings up an important, if polemic, point: we need to acknowledge that skincare exists at the nexus of self-hate, self-care and capitalism. No side of that triangle can be ignored. However, there are far more options than “do nothing” and “scrub away your face on a regular basis.”

And that’s where this column – my attempt at a beauty/wellness/health corner, if you will, for which I already have an interview lined up (stay tuned!) – will hopefully intervene. I do not claim to be the expert on any of this, but I love critical analysis, and will do my best to make this a useful, healing space for learning to take care of ourselves as we dismantle what that has come to embody.