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Why Influencers Shifted from Wellness to Skincare Content, Facial Contouring as Self-Rejection, Industralized Skincare's Self-Care Problem
Jessica Defino of The Unpublishable joins us for a one-of-a-kind interview as she breaks down beauty culture, AKA "Dewy Diet Culture"
I am SO excited for our 3rd and final part of Ditching Toxic Wellness Culture Week. Today, I want to introduceof, or, the beauty industry’s least-favorite newsletter. Jessica is a beauty writer and reporter on a mission to reform the beauty industry, and is one of the most insightful gems I’ve ever had the pleasure of speaking to. Her ability to break down society’s contradicting messages, resist really convincing ‘self care’ advertising, and connect the dots between pop culture’s biggest moments, beauty trends, and social norms, it’s all just so uncanny, and I’m so excited that she’s with us today. Plus, she’s never afraid to call someone out.
Today, she shares her wisdom with us as we cover a range of topics: influencers shifting from wellness to beauty content, what’s wrong with including beauty and skincare routines as a form of self care, and how our culture seems to have understood the effects of diet culture but have yet to fully awaken to the implications of facial modification. Here are a few examples of her work:
Without further ado, enjoy our audio conversation or the typed transcript below. Please excuse any typing or clicking I’m making during the recording, I was taking notes and didn’t realize I’d want to also include the audio! We’re DIY-in’ baby.
Lee: Hello Jessica! Thanks for chatting today. In one of our first times chatting, I remember you said you see a lot of wellness influencers leave wellness and leave diet culture, and apologize for that, and then shift their platform to skincare and beauty. That struck a chord for me because for a while I didn’t see the crossover between the two, and I even started talking about skincare on my page. Can you explain why you see such a crossover? Why is it easy for influencers to shift from wellness culture to beauty?
Jessica: Yeah. Well I think when we as a culture started grappling with diet culture and all of its implications, especially in a very mainstream commercialized way that we saw in the mainstream women’s media and on social media, we didn’t really grapple with the underlying ideologies of diet culture. We focused on the surface implications of it, like keywords that we associate with diet culture, and it was really easy to shift the focus from the body to the face, and feel like this was still an okay and safe, empowering thing to do. If we had dissected and discarded the ideology at the foundation of diet culture, it never would have shifted to beauty culture because we would have been able to identify that so many beauty standards that we apply to our face and above the neck stem from the same exact place as diet culture.
[Our society] didn’t really grapple with the underlying ideologies of diet culture. We focused on the surface implications…which is why we have shifted the focus to the face.
Lee: That is so true. It’s so funny that you say that because I remember when I was in early recovery from wellness/orthorexia/my diet journey, I remember really turning to makeup, because I was experimenting, now that I wasn’t altering the size of my body, it was around the time of Euphoria, 2019, I was getting really into the Euphoria makeup trend. Thank God it was just makeup and I was just playing around. It’s not like I did any irreversible damage to my face or went under the knife, but I could have seen that easily going that way, and this is just what happened to me, but I remember getting really into makeup and being like, “well this is fine because I love that this is just focusing on the face and I’m just focusing on this makeup color.”
Jess: Right. I want to be clear that of course there is a place in the world where makeup can be fun, and be about self expression, and can be about adorning the body and not manipulating the body, but if we are being honest with ourselves and looking at the mainstream, most promoted uses of beauty today, makeup is more often used as a tool for conformity, control, and consumerism. It can be used to express yourself and that’s fine. There is no way to know whether it’s authentic self expression unless you’re also grappling with the other possibilities. So if you’re looking at something like concealer, to me and in my work and in my research, I don’t think there is a way to use concealer as an authentic act of self-expression. Same with foundation, same with things that try to manipulate the size and shape of certain facial features. If you are contouring your nose to make it look smaller, that’s not self expression that’s self rejection. Of course there are healthy ways to use these tools, just as with any other tool, and there are really unhealthy ways to use these tools. I just believe that mainstream beauty culture encourages an unhealthy level of obsession with things like makeup and skincare.
I don’t think there is a way to use concealer as an authentic act of self-expression. If you are contouring your nose to make it look smaller, that’s not self expression, that’s self rejection.
But it makes sense that someone like you after working through your wellness and diet behaviors would be attracted to beauty behaviors, when you consider that a lot of our beauty behaviors, I call them “cosmetic coping mechanisms”, so we develop these coping mechanisms to deal with the pain and the pressure of beauty culture. The pressure of adhering to this very specific and almost inhuman ideal of beauty. So if you’re discarding one coping mechanism, be it diet culture or wellness culture behaviors, and you’re not really fully healing that underlying issue, that underlying need to control your body, and how your body appears, of course you’re going to find another coping mechanism and that’s what beauty is for so many of us, it’s a coping mechanism.
If you’re discarding one coping mechanism [diet culture] and you’re not fully healing from that underlying issue, then you’re going to pick up another coping mechanism, and that’s what beauty is for so many of us: a coping mechanism.
Lee: Yep. Even if just hearing you say the word concealer, i’m like, wow it’s actually CONCEAL. To literally conceal.
Jess: Ha, I know it’s right there.
Lee: Yeah. I know that you’ve called beauty culture “Dewy Diet Culture”. Will you break that down for us?
Jess: Yeah. I always say that beauty culture and skincare culture is just dewy diet culture, and that’s because so much of what underpins diet culture also underpin beauty culture, we just haven’t really examined some of the terms. So I think an easy way to get this message across is to do a simple swapping of words. You can do this as an exercise with social media content, online content of any type. If you swap the words “frown lines” in beauty content with “fat rolls”, how does that feel? I see all of the time magazines and influencers posting things like, “this serum is really good for lessening your frown lines and getting rid of those wrinkles!” but ideologically, there is no difference between frown lines and fat rolls. They are both normal and unavoidable physical traits. You can do the same thing for wrinkles and stretch marks.
If you would be offended by an influencer, a beauty brand, or an online magazine insinuating that your stretch marks need to be taken care of, why are you okay with the same insinuation for wrinkles? Those are, ideologically, the same thing. Same with acne and cellulite, or even just swap the words “dull skin” with “extra 5 pounds”.
None of this beauty content feels good when you swap it for a natural, normal physical trait. It’s just that we haven’t been awakened yet on a mass scale to the issues that beauty culture really triggers.
Lee: It’s like we haven’t realized how an influencer on their page can say, “I love and accept my body in all of its form. But, these frown lines gotta go!”
Jess: Exactly! I’m always shocked when I see a very vocally body positive influencer start to do paid ads for botox, or there was one that was doing an ad for a sheet mask for your chest to get rid of cleavage wrinkles.
Lee: Oh, I remember that.
Jess: I’m like, how can you do health at every size-type content, then be like, “but your boobs shouldn't have wrinkles”?!
Lee: I remember when you posted about that. That was one of the first posts that I saw of yours. I was like, “Wow, this girl is on another level”. I was like, wow, you are looking at things through a lens that I have yet to, I was just starting to see it. I was like oh my god, go off Jess!
Jess: And like, once it hits you, you really do see it everywhere.
Lee: Like with Joe Jonas (haha).
Jess: Oh my god.
Lee: Okay, next up. I’m noticing a ton of clean beauty botox salons opening up across New York. I was just walking around Soho right before the holidays, and now you can go pick up milk and eggs and get your magazine at the bodega and then you can go across the street for lip filler. It’s also wellness-y too in a weird way, where it’s like these natural girls not wearing makeup, and it’s beautiful big clear face, and it’s like “WALK-IN INJECTABLES. NO APPOINTMENT NEEDED”. You’ve also spoken a lot about women opening up about their plastic surgery as a false sense of freedom of feminism. Like, “I’m no longer hiding the fact that I did get work done” when it’s really just the patriarchy and capitalism. Where do you see this going in 2023? Do you see that awakening happening, or do you think it’s gonna get worse before it gets better?
Jess: Unfortunately I don't really see us having this great grand awakening on a mass cultural level this year. I feel like we’re very deep into this false idea of cosmetic body modification as empowerment and I do think that is going to get stronger until we reach a breaking point but I do think that it is going to become more obvious that manipulating our faces to meet a certain standard of beauty is very similar to manipulating our bodies to meet a certain standard of beauty. We’re seeing the crossover more and more. For example, we’re hearing all of this news about Ozempic, which is a diabetes drug that has the side effect of helping people lose weight. So we’re seeing a ton of celebrities using Ozempic and losing a ton of weight and we’re seeing articles like, “Heroin Chic is Back!” and “Thin is In” and it’s been very difficult for a lot of people in the media and in social media to figure out how to feel about that, because for the past 5 years we have been saying that it is “empowering to change the shape of my nose” it is “empowering for me to suck the fat out of my jawline” it is “empowering for me to reduce my wrinkles”, so now that we are seeing diet culture really come back into the spotlight in a big way, I think it’s caused a lot of confusion, and hopefully that confusion will make people think a little bit more.
I also think we’re seeing a big trend in the buccal fat in the cheek area to me, this is a salient example of the collision of beauty culture and diet culture, because what the buccal fat does is remove the fat from your face to make your cheekbones look more sculpted and your face look thinner, and I do think that's going to start to bring up a lot of questions, where we’re asking ourselves, okay if we as a culture have decided that it’s not better to be thin, that thin does not equal health, thinness does not equal beauty, then why are we supporting this fat removal procedure above the neck? So I’m hoping we’ll have deeper conversations about it but I’m not particularly hopeful that things will change immediately.
Lee: Yep, okay, well figured crossed. You have such a good eye, or, whatever, nose to the ground as they say. Okay so for someone who’s like saying, “What’s wrong with using serum? I still don’t understand what’s wrong with taking care of my face?” It’s kind of like the same argument with diet culture, people like, “What’s wrong with wanting to be healthy?” Like, that argument, which makes me so frustrated, ‘cause it’s like there is so much to unpack there, but what would you say to someone who’s like, “I’m a busy mom, and my 4-skincare routine is the only thing that gives me peace at night.” What would you to say to that. Why are we talking today about influencers talking about skincare routines? What’s wrong with that?
Jess: So the first thing I would say is that I believe self care is so important, and rituals are so important and time to yourself is so important, and I never mean to minimize those things. It is a side effect of living in capitalism and consumerism, that all of those things have been associated with product use. And if you go back, centuries and centuries before the industrial revolution, before this level of consumerism that we’re at now, care still existed. Rituals still existed. It was just that we didn’t believe we need 10 individual packaged bottles of little plastic to create those moments for ourselves.
If you go back centuries and centuries, care still existed. Rituals still existed. It was just that we didn’t believe we need 10 individual packaged bottles of little plastic to create those moments for ourselves.
I really think we need to examine why we believe that ritual, and care, and quality time must include products. And I would also say this is a big area where skincare culture and diet culture have parallels. So in both instances we have been made to believe that a certain aesthetic signifies health. And then we are sold products to help us achieve that aesthetic at the expense of our health. So if you dive into the science of the skin, rather than the science of skincare products. The skin has built-in mechanisms to do everything that we rely on products to do, pretty much itself. It self-cleanses, self-moisturizes, self-exfoliates, self-heals, self-protects, it is equipped with a microbiome, so your skin microbiome is a collection of 1 trillion microorganisms that all serve different functions to keep your skin working. For example there are microbes that eat your excess oil, like your excess sebum, microbes live off that. There are microbes that live off your dead skin cells, that’s what they feed on, so they are self-exfoliating for you. There are microbes that produce ceramides, and peptides, all these fancy ingredients that are sold to you in a bottle. There are microbes that produce antioxidants, and actually help you repair from sun damage. I always like to put a caveat in here too, I’m not saying don’t wear sunscreen. SPF can be a beautiful thing! And that is a great example of an instance where it’s like, yeah, okay, add a man-made product to your routine. But in most instances, your skin is pretty self-sufficient. It made need support in a few areas.
The same with your diet. You know? Certain people do need to avoid certain things that they’re allergic to, right? Or they have to add in a specific medication that gives that a mineral or a vitamin that they are missing. So it’s the same with skincare, we don’t need a lot. Sometimes you might need a lot. But more often than not, your skin is pretty fine. And the most fascinating thing about this research to me is the studies that show the more products we put on our faces, the more we disrupt the skin microbiome, and the more we disturb to do all of those things, to self-cleanse, moisturize, exfoliate, protect, heal. So yeah, the science is pretty clear. Industrialized skincare is actually harming the inherent health of the skin. And what skincare culture is doing is telling us that an aesthetic of manipulation, which is this unnaturally tight, shiny, pore-less, wrinkle-less is health, and that’s actually not true at all, that is not how healthy skin looks or behaves.
Lee: It’s so true. I remember you were saying how, because skin actually does all these things for you, the skincare sets are just selling you something that your skin already does. The serum, moisturizer, washing.
Jess: Yeah, I mean, it’s like, where do you think beauty brands got their ideas from in the first place? Every product you are sold, is a poor imitation of what your body inherently does for you. I often talk about industrialized skincare as extractive capitalism. Because what beauty brands are doing are literally mining our bodies for ingredients and ideas! You know, things like stem cells, ceramides, antioxidants, we produce those! That’s where the industry is getting its ideas. And then it’s selling it back to you in a bottle, and in in the process devaluing what your skin does by itself, and instilling this idea of lack and not enough-ness.
Lee: Wow yeah, I love how you break it down. Where you’re simply saying, like from what I just gathered from that answer, Yeah no, self care is important, but when it’s telling you to buy a product, and why is our self care about beautifying ourselves? Why is self care not about enriching our lives in a different way? Well thank you so much. Is there anything else you wanted to add?
Jess: I actually wanted to say something that I actually think is pretty important for that last question is to evaluate our self care routine specifically when they are focused on beauty, skincare and outward appearance and quote and quote “health” that we associate with a certain aesthetic, from a psychological point of view. It really does not make sense to associate the majority of our beauty and skincare routines with true care of the “self”, because we see in data time and time again that this all-encompassing focus on our physical appearance and our physical body actually leads increased instances of appearance-related anxiety, depression, body dysmorphia, facial dysmorphia, disordered eating, obsessive thoughts, self-harm, and even suicide.
It doesn’t make sense to associate the majority of our beauty routines with true care of the self, because we see in data that this all-encompassing focus on our physical appearance actually leads increased anxiety, depression, body dysmorphia, facial dysmorphia, disordered eating, obsessive thoughts, self-harm, even suicide.
And it is sometimes hard to tell how things are effecting us in the moment, because you might get this initial rush from your skincare regimen or your beauty routine, or a surgery or your injectables, and the initial feeling might be “ah, that’s a relief”, or “I feel really good”, but over time, the focus on the physical body, the focus on manipulating the appearance of the physical body and just keeping that in your mind as part of your “self care” actually really negatively effects our psychological wellbeing, and to me, that is the important reason that I try to educate on the differences between self care and skincare, and self care, and beauty.
Lee: Well, Jessica, I just want to thank you so, so, so much. And for any readers who are listening and wanna follow Jessica’s work, subscribe to. All of her articles are gems, and I am really excited that she was able to speak with us today. So have a great weekend, and I'll see everyone soon.