It was a Wednesday afternoon, a day after the big article hit about my former employer. I had barely slept the night before, my mind churning endlessly on thoughts and feelings of my own and the hundreds of strangers that had reached out to me throughout the day. I had spent that Tuesday at a museum, surrounded by family, checking my Twitter every few minutes to read ten, fifteen, twenty, or thirty new messages. They were pouring in and I could not keep up. It was largely supportive messages like, “Thank you for speaking out,” and “You’re so brave. We’re with you!” Regardless of all of this love, my legs barely worked due to the tremors that were freezing my muscles and choking the breath out of me. I had to sit down several times when I began to get light-headed and thought I was going to pass out.
I have a complicated history with my previous employer and my therapist has told me several times that what I experience is post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. It means that I am filled with dread each time I drive past the building, fear at each notification on my phone (particularly those that begin with, “Can we talk?”), and am brought back to the mental space of terror that I thought had been put behind me when I quit.
Exhausted, I sat down at my vanity and studied my face in the small, round mirror. It looked tired. Dry, dark circles filled out the space beneath my eyes; my cheeks were blushed from intermittent crying the night before; my skin just looked lifeless due to the small quantities of water I had drank the day before and the even smaller amounts of food I had eaten.
I picked up my tube of sunscreen (Altruist SPF 50, for the curious, which I’ve been testing for a few weeks now) and squeezed out a generous dollop. I smeared some on each cheek, then my forehead, with remainders blobbed to my nose and chin. Then I began to massage it in with slow, methodical strokes. I watched to see if it pilled in my hair or eyebrows, smoothing small streaks out with a light touch of my ring finger. I applied a second layer much the same way, focusing on my cheekbones where I tend to accumulate the most sun spots.
I looked at my face. The sunscreen was glycerin heavy and had a generous sheen, making my skin look smoother, healthier, and instantly more moisturized than it was just a few minutes earlier.
I picked up an eyebrow spoolie and brushed through my brows, noting the sunscreen particles that caked to the bristles. Carefully, I began to brush the hairs upwards and reached for the eyebrow pencil on my vanity. I drew in the shape at the bottom of my overgrown brows followed by the top. The tail of my brows came last. Another spoolie – cleaner than the first – brushed through, smoothing the harsh edges and blending the product through.
I set everything down and to the side before reaching for my concealer. Opening the pot, I tapped a small finger in to pick up a small amount of product that I pressed onto the blemishes on my upper lip, nose, forehead, and scar on my cheek – all part of the early break-outs from introducing Differin.
Eyelashes came next, my elbow steadied by the small surface of my messy vanity. I pressed the curler as far down my lashes as I could, blinking a few times to capture all of the lashes that otherwise escape the edges of the dutiful device. A few firm, but gentle squeezes, walked out from the root, and my eyes instantly looked less tired – transformed instantly by a device that can only be described like a medieval torture tool (someone close to me once affectionately described my curler as an “eyeball polisher.”)
I pulled out the drawer containing my mascara – pink, magenta, and black tubes lining the recesses – and plucked from it a hot pink tube of Japanese mascara. It was the most tear-proof mascara I owned. A few quick swipes and wiggles assured me that my eyelashes would remain curled and inky black all day, regardless of whatever catastrophe I could come up with.
I powdered down my skin of the sunscreen sheen, pressing the puff into the loose powder cap before applying it to my skin.
I leaned back from my mirror and that is when I noticed something incredible: I was calm for the first time in twenty-four hours. I could breathe normally. My mind had stopped rushing through innumerable rabbit holes. I felt completely, utterly, unequivocally normal.
In our very consumerist society, it is easy to want. It is especially easy to want when you are not only surrounded by advertisements promising unrealistic, airbrushed results, but also the sheer number of testimonials from average people who have had incredibly promising experiences with potentially unremarkable products. This leads everyone to feel a compulsion to look for the Next Big Thing, the next Holy Grail, the next product that will be Even Better.
We all have wants and needs, and we are all looking for happiness, but frequently, all of this noise and information just serves us to make us more unhappy. Countless people come into skincare community subreddits looking to overhaul their entire routines, and indeed, when you visit Amazon, you can see that the “Customers Also Bought” section beneath CeraVe Cream contains many favorites of skincare communities, such as Thayer’s Rose Witch Hazel, Aztec Secret – Indian Healing Clay Mask, CosRX Acne Pimple Patches, Innisfree cleansers, sunscreen, and Stridex in the red box. Hell, I know that a good chunk of people that read this blog as well as other blogs like it are looking for solutions to the things that make them unhappy, whether that is acne or visible nose pores. I know I am absolutely guilty of trolling YouTube, MakeupAlley, Reddit, and blogs in a desperate attempt to find that next cutting-edge ingredient that will hide dark circles, give me long eyelashes without downsides, or make my skin glow “from within” (this phrase drives me the most crazy, as a woman who cannot tolerate many antioxidant products, which are considered the “holy grail,” if there ever was one, of “lit from within” ingredients, especially when this is considered the truest marker of skin health in many online spaces).
In the pursuit of these market-driven flaws of self, I’ve told myself time and time again that I am not partaking in these unhealthy consumerist mechanisms, but “self-care.” I’ve purchased perhaps tens of thousands of dollars in makeup and skincare alone, far outpacing any of the other collections I have, all in a pursuit to try the new thing, to find a new holy grail, or solve my dark circles once and for all.
And I’m not alone. According to statista.com:
In 2016, the global cosmetic market grew an estimated of four percent in comparison to the previous year. Skincare, hair care, make-up, perfumes, toiletries and deodorants, and oral cosmetics are the main product categories of the cosmetic market. Skincare was the leading category, accounting for about 36 percent of the global market. Hair care products made up a further 23 percent, while make-up accounted for 18.2 percent in 2016. Skin care has been forecast to remain the most profitable product category, as its market value is projected to grow by 20.1 billion U.S. dollars between 2014 and 2019. As of 2016, Asia and Oceania was the industry leader, accounting for approximately 40 percent of the global market. Between 2016 and 2021, the Asia Pacific mass beauty market is projected to grow by nearly 14.9 billion U.S. dollars in sales.
The production of cosmetics and beauty products is controlled by a handful of multi-national corporations – L’Oréal, Unilever, Procter & Gamble Co. , The Estee Lauder Companies, Shiseido Company, and Lancôme to name a few. As of 2016, the French cosmetics company L’Oréal was the leading beauty manufacturer in the world, generating about 28.6 billion U.S. dollars in revenue that year. The company owns the leading personal care brand worldwide, L’Oréal Paris, valued at 23.89 billion U.S. dollars in 2017 . The market leader was also one of the leading companies in cosmetic innovation , registering a total of 314 patents in 2015.
The cosmetic industry has benefited from the increasing popularity of social media channels such as Instagram and YouTube. These platforms are not only highly influential amongst certain groups, but create a demand for beauty products and help fill the gap between cosmetics brands and consumers. As of 2015, nearly half of the beauty videos on YouTube were tutorials. These tutorials aim to teach the viewers something about beauty, whether it is how to use a particular type of product or create a style of make-up, for example. Beauty vloggers and other independent content creators in fact produce the majority of conversations and social media buzz surrounding beauty brands on YouTube – 97.4 percent as of June 2016 – with makeup videos accounting for just over 50 percent of the makeup content videos on YouTube. (Source)
As women and men, we frequently turn to cosmetics to comfort us. Just look at the theory of the “Lipstick effect,” which is the theory that lipstick sales increase in times of social distress or discomfort. In a New York Times article, “Hard Times, but Your Lips Look Great,” the chairman of Estee Lauder noted that lipstick sales increased after the 2001 terrorist attacks in the US, despite the deflated economy.
The waters around this have become even muddier as Internet brands latch onto these very personal feelings, advertising themselves to you as a concerned friend, not a global, multi-billion dollar conglomerate.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who has used as well as seen the term “treat yo self” thrown around during times of difficulty or anxiety. I’m positive I’m not the only one who has spent hundreds at the Sephora sale on yet another expensive skincare product or pricey makeup palette in the pursuit of “retail therapy” after a hard day. And I know for sure that I am not the only one who feels more self-conscious (and thus, a “need” to fix them) at the size of my pores or the zit on my upper lip when I see photo-retouched ads, despite knowing that they were retouched.
But are we actually participating in “self-care,” or are we just filling our lives with more noise and ultimately, a feeling of disappointment when whatever we purchase cannot fill the hole of socially-constructed “need” in ourselves?
This is a question that I ask myself each time I pick up a new product, and frankly, while it has saved me a lot of money, it has also made me feel outside of the “in” groups on skincare spaces. The pressure is always there.
As soon as my PC turns on, an old browser window pops up. It’s my YouTube homepage, which is flooded with recommendations like, “3 Days of Foundations,” “New Skin Smoothing Concealer,” “Skincare Routine 2018,” and “Travel Skin Care Empties.” Most of these are in caps, vying for my undivided attention and clicks. It’s a list curated by the browsing habits that I’ve found myself in during the last two weeks.
I’ve talked briefly about my anxiety, depression, and panic disorders before on this blog, but I’ve never really talked about why skincare – and makeup, by extension – have been important to me, nor have I really explored the truest sense of caring for one’s self.
For those who have never experienced mental illnesses, it can mean that you disassociate from your body (imagine an experience where something happened that seemed so surreal to you that you felt like you left your body and were looking down at the situation – this is disassociation). It can mean that you catastrophize the smallest of situations into the largest of catastrophes (“I can’t remember this term for the exam” -> “My life is over. I’m a failure. I’ll always be a failure that no one will ever love.”). It can mean that you neglect showering for days or weeks at a time while your mind shouts at you about how worthless you are.
It’s extremely difficult to pull yourself out of these mental distortions and for me personally, it results in persistent tremors and panic attacks that become a bit of a self-reinforcing cycle.
I’ve seen many people on Reddit and elsewhere describe how skincare or even makeup “saved them.” Indeed, we are creatures of habit, and routines are extremely important to our own sanity and mental health. I had always discounted these experiences to just that: routines that had given people something to look forward to and build upon in times where it is impossibly difficult to hold onto anything concrete. That skincare and thus, caring for one’s self translated to growing into other healthy habits, such as cooking or just eating meals consistently – something that is challenging when you are fighting an uphill battle against your own mind.
As I sat back from my vanity, an epiphany hit me. Something so obvious and so “duh” that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it before. For years, I had spent so much money and time on skincare and makeup – something that I still love deeply to this day. Indeed, the last few times I moved, I had to carefully pack and insure my makeup and my tenderly curated skincare collection. Both were more precious to me than anything else that I took with me in the long trip from Texas to California. Both held not only significant monetary value but also emotional value.
Both were my escape from my mental illnesses. Both were some of my most important tools of the truest form of self-care. Whether I had felt shaky or simply sad, both had given me comfort, steadiness, and assurance, regardless of if I was mixing lipstick or facial oils.
At each nexus point in my life, I have found comfort in my routine. The steady rhythm of application drowning out the doubts and fears that screeched in my mind. Each dotting of Differin, each emulsified mixture of oils, each methodical measurement of sunscreen. The texture of the product rubbed through my hands, the redness of my rosacea rescinding. The appearance of my reflection that assured me that I was not only okay, but safe.
This is the comfort I derive from skincare. This is the passion that drives me to write, to care, to learn, and to educate. This is my version of “self-care,” and one that I think is much more honest and pure than anything that someone can try to sell you.