Words by Samantha Bedford
Due to the negative perception of the beauty industry as reinforcing the objectification of women, it has now adapted its marketing to popularise the “natural look”, to be achieved with as many products as is possible to sell. Corporate advertisers have cleverly incorporated the language of progressivity into their marketing schemes and changed its image, showing a greater diversity of women and even incorporating male celebrities into advertising.
At the forefront of the trend are imported South Korean 10-step beauty regimens which promise an imperfection free appearance and basically the image of eternal youth. The beauty industry has, bar Kardashian look-a-like Instagram influencers, shifted its approach away from covering the skin to refining it; lip injections, botox, dermal fillers, and semi-permanent facial tattoos are becoming increasingly normalized and commonplace.
I am almost 22 — a year younger than my mother was before she married my father, and when she had already taken on her own mother’s advice of always moisturizing before bed, in the morning, and never forgetting to apply SPF before going outside. The recent expansion of my collection of organic face washes is due to adult acne that decided to turn up the second I thought I was in the clear, also partially spurred on by truly moving into proper adulthood accompanied by that niggling feeling of my biological clock ticking. I will concede that it is certainly relaxing to come home from a busy day at work or uni to slough off the day, as well as the very top layer of my skin, but what exactly am I, and many other women, compensating for here?
Prominent social theorist and originator of the philosophy of everyday life, Henri Lefebvre, wrote that it “weighs heaviest on women.” At a time when women were deprived of the ability to make meaningful social impact through political involvement, Lefebvre described the burden of quotidian mundanity and women’s relegation to social insignificance through forced domesticity. “Some,” he wrote, “are bogged down by its peculiar cloying substance… they are the subject of everyday life and its victims.” The reified production of feminine performativity is crystalised in the onus of sameness and conformity in the repetition of everyday life.
Integral to the beauty industry’s continuation is capitalizing on anxieties about the future, which seems fraught with ecological devastation, conflict, and the gradual disappearance of work-life balance. MECCA Cosmetica recently published an article titled ‘How To Practice A Little Self-Love’ which, in its long list of products to purchase, recommends 111Skin’s Celestial Black Diamond Lifting and Firming Treatment Mask ($277) and the Evercalm Ultra Comforting Rescue Mask ($63) for “stressed out skin”. Capitalising on contrived fears of conspicuous fallibility and decline, the beauty industry has turned cosmetology into an elaborate coping mechanism for the stresses and pressures of 21st century neoliberal modernity. The entire enterprise of skin care is an attempt to stave off the effects of aging, the inevitable entropy of youthful beauty — what Susan Sontag describes as the “humiliating process of gradual sexual disqualification”. With increasing female objectification in which a woman’s prettiness is a form of currency, we almost invariably become caught up in this, augmenting our appearances to fend off our own planned obsolescence like any other commodity.
The politic of self-care as resistance began with Second Wave Feminism; in 1988, Audre Lorde wrote that “caring for myself is not an act of self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”. While spending time on yourself is necessary respite, wrapping this up in a pink bow and offering self-objectification as legitimate reprieve is a mere corporate spin on this radical sentiment. The new self-care movement is part of broader trend toward social atomisation which insists on individual culpability and solutions. Turning the project of social improvement onto oneself, away from the public sphere into the domestic, individuating and internalising the struggle for pause from the strain of modern life, cannot be a meaningful form of resistance. The quick fix presented by a $20 Korean sheet mask is far more appealing than the reality of almost complete helplessness in a system in which value is supplanted to the ruling dictum of attractiveness and youth, and in which one of the few aspects of our lives that we can attempt to control is our bodies. Coupled with the rapid descent of civilisation into eco-disaster which continues due to the complacency of those most powerful, attempting the smaller and seemingly more manageable task of facial refinement is a palatable alternative to confronting the crises we collectively face.
There is an illusion of choice and being self-serving in contemporary beauty culture. We apparently choose to spend hundreds of dollars and hours on our appearance for ourselves. In actuality, the coercive force of punishment for non-conformity through social and sexual irrelevancy is a form of control and repression. Maybe superficial relief is what we truly need, but it is far more probable that spending an hour with the LEDs from Dr. Dennis Gross’ Spectralite Faceware Pro ($665) beaming red light into your epidermis is a covert form of capitulation, merely positioned as practical escapism. Fundamentally, you cannot take down a system by literally buying into it — finding solace in its spoils will simply reinforce the conditions that brought us to this point.