I feel bad for men, really I do. It's terribly unfortunate that every activity they humbly engage in to enhance their own sense of confidence and calm — shopping, grooming, going to the gym — comes under routine scrutiny. Men are constantly criticized for both their vanity and their ignorance when it comes to self-care, chastised for being too obsessed with their own appearances, or condescended to for being too dumb to realize that everything they spend their money on is a scam.
Oh, excuse me, I'm sorry: That's women. We get that.
Women and the things we love are routinely subject to that kind of finger-wagging: Don't love fashion or beauty too much, lest you be seen as vain. Work out if it makes you feel good, but don't be surprised when people assume you're really doing it to look good. And definitely don't spend hours educating yourself on something as silly as skin care, because it's probably a scam anyways and really, you're wasting your time.
At least that's what a Jan. 30 article in The Outline argues. In "The Skincare Con," writer Krithika Varagur posits that the recent popular pursuit of glowing, healthy skin isn't just a waste of time — it's bad science. The article quickly made the rounds on beauty social media, with industry voices such as Allure Editor-In-Chief Michelle Lee and Vogue UK Beauty Editor Lisa Niven weighing in.
"Perfect skin has become the thinking woman’s quest. It’s normal today for people in certain circles to brag about spending most of their paycheck on serums," Varagur writes. And then later in the article, "The skincare craze isn’t introspective, per se: it’s looking into yourself but stopping at the literal outermost layer. But all of this is a scam. It has to be. Perfect skin is unattainable because it doesn’t exist. The idea that we should both have it and want it is a waste of our time and money."
Essentially, Varagur argues that skin care has become a "militant" obsession, but it's simply another way in which women are fooling themselves into thinking they aren't being controlled by capitalism and vanity. The writer also implies that the recent uptick in skin care education and information sharing — in other words, women making themselves more knowledgable about the active ingredients in their products and sharing that knowledge — is really just women convincing themselves that they're tapping into something scientific, all while pursuing a beauty ideal.
The fact that The Outline writer addressed women exclusively is a byproduct of the fact that beauty is typically coded as feminine. However, we know by now that people of all genders can and do get taken away with the idea of healthy, glowing skin, and make it their mission to get it.
Then again, if we are going to meet this argument where it stands firmly in front of the gender binary, I do find it ~curious~ that such a notion is rarely put forth to criticize the self-care and/or vanity projects of men. I've never read an article about the "con" of men getting really good at or knowledgeable about something, only to imply that they're foolish for doing so. There's plenty of scientific skepticism around extreme fitness routines and bodybuilding supplements, an activity that is typically associated with men. Somehow, I've never read an article called, "You're Never Going To Look Like Adonis, So Stop Deadlifting And Posting About Creatine On Reddit."
What's more interesting to me, however, is that this kind of criticism is put forth now, in 2018, instead of a decade ago. From my vantage point working in media in the beauty space, it's undeniable that people are sharing and exploring skin care more than they have in the past. They're citing estheticians instead of advertisements and demanding to know what's in their products. They take care and time to organize and implement routines based on their needs. A decade ago, an interest in beauty could be easily brushed off as vain and unimportant, just another silly lady indulgence. Now that those interested in beauty have collectively decided to take their expertise and knowledge seriously, it can't be so easily brushed off any more — so naturally, the only other option is to criticize an interest in beauty as something we've all been tricked into believing. In other words, you're not self-obsessed anymore: You're just dumb.
But to me, the acquisition of this knowledge — the demand for it, and utilization of it — has actually made the beauty landscape much smarter. There are brands ditching their gendered marketing, brands developing products to target melanin-rich skin, and brands that offer skin care enthusiasts the transparent science behind their products up front. Social media and the newfound focus on comprehensive beauty reporting makes it possible for people who were otherwise excluded from learning about skin care — people who can't afford to regularly visit an esthetician, for example — to learn what the hell a glycolic acid, and what it can do for their skin. It's a more democratic beauty landscape, in that sense — not just a bunch of people who are kidding themselves.
Of course, we are all beholden to capitalism machinations, and it would be naive to say that some of my own personal interest in beauty isn't driven by my drive to compete and consume — just as is my interest in all of the other things I buy — some of which Varagur finds smart or acceptable, and others not. "Those with disposable income would, before we all lost our minds, buy books or art or beautiful shoes or literally anything that gives more pleasure than another useless exfoliant," she says. The only problem? My exfoliant and the process of using it gives me great satisfaction and pleasure — in fact, an exfoliating mask works as a great companion to reading an article about how I'm being tricked for doing so.
There's one idea that I keep coming back to, one that transcends my other points completely: I don't pursue skin care as a hobby for any other reason than because I like it. It feels good. It's relaxing. Sometimes I cancel plans to do it. I enjoy Googling acids and trying to determine how or why a Vitamin C product turned my skin red. I will wear several sheet masks in a row, moisturizing with reckless abandon. It's a hobby, for me, and one that I will happily nerd out for, without feeling a single second of regret. Reducing that enthusiastic interest and unbridled enjoyment to something that turns women into unwitting victims of their vanity — that's a con in and of itself.