Bustle Exclusive

How Much Would You Spend To Look “Flawless”?

Beauty offers mobility beyond one’s original upbringing and class. That’s how you can know for sure that beauty is power — no one bothers to gate keep things that aren’t.

by Sable Yong
In this excerpt adapted from Sable Yong’s new essay collection, Die Hot with a Vengeance, the former beauty editor dives deep into the industry’s obsession with “flawlessness,” and the connection between beauty treatments and wealth and power.

It took years of being a beauty writer and editor before I had anything injected into my face. Four months into my position at Allure, lured by the exciting novelty of complimentary lip filler (occupational perk), I hauled myself from Brooklyn to the Upper East Side, where the fanciest plastic surgeons set up shop. I don’t think anyone who stumbled into this lobby would assume this was a medical facility at all — it looked more like a luxury boutique hotel or a town house. The place was upholstered, wallpapered, and appointed to reflect the comfort of a well-designed home. Any distaste for the body mods being performed there is easily cushioned with bouclé upholstery and Gucci wallpaper — that’s the luxury of cognitive dissonance. You know you’re in a fancy-pants establishment when it doesn’t look like what it is at all. So charmed was I by the original crown molding and Georgia O’Keefe hanging on the wall that I almost forgot why I was there, until I was presented with a medical intake form by a cheerful receptionist (lest we not forget that acquiring DSLs also requires medical intervention).

My injector, a lovely American Board of Plastic Surgery-certified (very accomplished) doctor, perhaps sensing my nerves, insisted that there is no way to overfill a lip unintentionally because the injector can see exactly how much they’re injecting and where — the stuff doesn’t swell up like spray foam insulation.

Pink gloves on, the doc slathered my mouth with a lidocaine gel that soon made my lips numb to the touch; they felt like two dead slugs, mobile but unfeeling. I poked and pinched at my lips making sure I couldn’t feel anything before we got down to business. I sat still like a stone in the chair, doing my best impression of a human pincushion, head leaned back against the chair as a bright overhead spotlight shone onto my face, blinding me to anything beyond its halo.

It took less than ten minutes to have my mouth sensually buttressed with hyaluronic acid fantasies. I didn’t notice it in the moment, but I must’ve been nervous because my underarms were soaked when I got up. Soon I was on my way back to the office with a branded tiny pink pillowy ice pack to ward off swelling. Later that afternoon at my desk, once the lidocaine wore off, I was very aware of my mouth. Pressing my lips together, I could feel soft little lumps squidging around. It’s just the swelling, they said there would be swelling! I reminded myself. And when the swelling subsided, those lumps remained because they were indeed filler. Just massage them gently and they should melt into your lips so you don’t feel them anymore, the dermatologist suggested. She’d used Restylane Silk (the “Rolls-Royce of filler,” as I was told at the time). It’s a kind of filler with a firmer texture — great for shifting the shape of lips, making cupid’s bows a bit more peaked and the overall outline a bit more tented. But liquid scaffolding that it is, you can feel it in your lips. Also, to my mild horror, they were slightly uneven. Other dermatologists would turn their noses up at the mention of Restylane, shaking their heads that they’d never use that kind (meanwhile their practice is affiliated with a competing filler brand). The tragically redundant part of this whole event is that in the end, I didn’t even look that different. You fill, you learn.

The tragically redundant part of this whole event is that in the end, I didn’t even look that different. You fill, you learn.

In practice, you can’t really tell most of the time when people have had injectables, unless they want you to be able to tell (and that may be a regional spectrum of what is aesthetically considered able to pass for “natural”). In a city that demands you grind yourself half to dust just to get by, the tackiest thing you can do in the eyes of the New York elite is appear to be trying too hard. There, plastic surgery’s greatest stigma is often its obviousness; the “best” work is largely invisible. In New York City, the tolerance for artificial beauty is mostly limited to its discretion. Wealth affords the most sophisticated kinds of cosmetic treatments that mask any trace of artifice, as well as all the products and maintenance to keep up with it. That’s why “effortless” beauty aesthetics are always a traditional aspiration; effortlessness conveys the kind of life of leisure and ease that privilege and wealth grant, and conversely, visible effort reveals that not only is beauty a construction, but it also emphasizes the amount of labor required to achieve it. Effortlessness is less about actual effort and more about proximity to class.

The Flawless Industrial Complex is what I call our current era of late-stage capitalist beauty culture, where achieving beauty standards is championed as aspirational, and self-optimization is framed as self-empowerment (both of which have become access points to social cachet and economic success). Meanwhile, the divide between the filled and the filled-nots grows wider by the cost and class barriers between them. It’s a structure built from our massive interconnectedness through visual-based digital platforms, hyper-individualistic culture, and the socioeconomic rewards that give us all incentive to continue the feedback loop where we all perform beauty at each other to the effect of intensifying beauty’s urgency, potency, and relevance.

This is where beauty is seized by Beauty™ — where looks are sponsored by capitalism, multiplied through algorithms, and achieved through a rigorous dedication to a specific kind of aspirational conformity that grants status or at least proximity to it. It’s reflective of the kind of industrial expansion of high-rise condos cropping up at record pace in major cities; they share the same sleek, ultra-modern architecture and design that communicates luxury over taste. With status as the aesthetic goal, the result is a tell-tale homogenous signature of its own that undermines the meaning of status itself; it’s a very earnest class cosplay. With that in mind, aspirational beauty is not necessarily meant to look natural as much as it is to look expensive.

Beauty offers mobility beyond one’s original upbringing and class. That’s how you can know for sure that beauty is power — no one bothers to gate keep things that aren’t. But beauty’s empowerment is mired in a constant negotiation between individual benefit and communal care. One can only girlboss their way so far past the centuries of white supremacist and patriarchal rule that define our culture’s values, before some real-world scenario knocks your ass back into our current time line where natural hair is politicized, and the amount of melanin in your skin and your body fat percentage can influence how much of a salary you’re offered.

That’s how you can know for sure that beauty is power — no one bothers to gate keep things that aren’t.

We appraise beauty so granularly now — uneven skin texture, visible pores, loss of elasticity — that corrective measures have all advanced accordingly to apply to all ages, doled out in demographically friendly forms that live in your medicine cabinet to caress your mortal anxieties away twice a day. What flaws a retinol serum can’t solve, a microcurrent device can, and what a microcurrent device can’t solve, an injection will. Flaws include anything that indicates you’re a live human in a flesh vessel subject to the erosion of time and biology. It all becomes a bit of a dark comedy once you realize that the origin of error is simply remaining alive. Even for the very wealthy and privileged, the passage of time on a body is something to be obscured from view. And with more easily accessible solutions to the visual evidence of one’s years, there is less reason to tolerate these alleged defects.

Cosmetic surgery’s generally cost-prohibitive nature has spawned a whole new trend of semipermanent beauty treatments like laser facials, chemical peels, lash lifts, lash extensions, microblading (getting eyebrows realistically tattooed on), and even lip blushing (a lip color tattoo) — basically, expensive but not bankrupting beauty treatments to make one’s lifestyle that much more “I woke up like this” for a time. It’s high-maintenance beauty for a low-maintenance lifestyle, the only difference between the two being who you ask and how much money they have.

Flawlessness easily becomes a sunk-cost fallacy because it’s a forever moving target — these days more than ever. At some point, you have to check yourself. Throwing all your money at aesthetic treatments and beauty products may boost your confidence temporarily but in the long run relying on mercurial external metrics for validation doesn’t bring you lasting comfort. But the tricky thing is how difficult it is to have confidence in a constantly changing landscape of beauty that exerts marketing where meaningful cultural changes would serve a greater good, rather than just some corporate bottomline. Also, nobody can anticipate how they’re going to feel in the future. It’s entirely possible that you just won’t care after a while. Most of the insecurities I had in my teens and twenties (flat chest, no thigh gap, crooked teeth, et cetera) I barely ever think about now.

When I find myself deafened by the cacophonous echo chamber of gua sha tutorials, before-and-afters, injectable content, GRWM videos, and any #hotgirl content, to the point that my brain starts to disassociate from my body, I have to just log off for a bit. It bears reminding that trends change, and that whatever is popular now won’t be popular forever.

Who knows — maybe in the next couple of years, things will shift once more and some Brutalist-inspired beauty aesthetic will take hold of the zeitgeist, giving my LEGO-shaped face a turn on the aspirational charts. Sometimes patience is the best way to deal with flaws. Lots of times you’ll come to realize that what’s flawed was your perception.

Excerpted from DIE HOT WITH A VENGEANCE, provided courtesy of Dey Street/HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2024 by Sable Yong.