putting the sting back in skincare
Good morning, dear Substack friends. I hope by the time you read this I’ll be in finer spirits, but at the moment I’m in a bad, bad mood. This tends to happen around my birthday, which I mention only because I’m a Scorpio…which I mention only because Scorpios seem to have a terrible rep when it comes to anger and, naturally, stinging reproaches.
Among a number of things that have riled me (this account being the stinging reproach): A podcast episode in which the show’s host confessed to a smart and talented beauty editor that she hates her aging appearance and then proceeded to whine about there being little she could do about it. Except try products—recommended by the aforementioned smart and talented beauty editor—that don’t work or don’t work to prevent the precise issues the host complained about. The stuff blowing out of my ears? Steam. Please, please take a look at yourself in the mirror. Like this.
And by the way, if you want a terrific podcast that covers the beauty industry in a sensitive, well-reported, and thoughtful way, listen to Fat Mascara. It consistently delivers deft and thorough coverage of product news and even some woke analysis. (I was a guest on episode 299; humbly, there are more entertaining episodes.)
On the subject of beauty coverage and woke analysis, I recently had the pleasure of spending an hour on the phone with Jessica DeFino, a journalist who focuses on the beauty industry and who writes about it in her own Substack newsletter, The Unpublishable. (She offers a sample of truth serum with every subscription.)
This kid, this kid! She’s 32, so from my point of view she’s barely thrown one leg over the side of the crib. Nevertheless, I’ve called her a journalist who covers the beauty industry the way Woodward and Bernstein covered Watergate. She points out— relentlessly, perceptively, and often humorously—the many ways the industry betrays the very people who support it, namely us. She writes about toxic (and non-toxic) ingredients; the parallels between diet and beauty culture; the environmental devastation resulting from plastic packaging; capitalism, paternalism, and colonialism as they relate to beauty; and more. She already has an impressive platform. But the more recognition, the better, because she’s the voice of uncompromised honesty—which is why I’m sharing tidbits from our conversation.
The way I see it, our goal is the same: to provide a service for readers struggling with issues related to beauty. But while I hope to give you respite from the storm, Jessica sends you, well-armored and full of fire, into the eye (then she kindly admonishes, “Be gentle with yourself!”). If her responses below motivate you to learn more about an industry that isn’t recognized nearly enough for its enormous, often damaging impact on our quality of life, consider subscribing to her newsletter.
On how she became aware of the dark side
“I went to work for the Kardashians as assistant editor for their apps, which is where I was introduced to the beauty industry. It was fun, but the experience opened my eyes to the behind-the-scenes shenanigans—to how the industry leverages false promises and results to make money off people who will never achieve them.”
On why she might thank dermatitis for her success today
“Because of stress and product overuse, I developed this skin condition for which I was prescribed steroids. I used them for several years, which only worsened the problem and caused my skin to atrophy; eventually, I couldn’t even splash water on my face. So I started researching the effects of nourishment, stress, and lifestyle on the skin, and came to the conclusion that, for me, changing behavior would be a more successful route to healing than using products. That basically began my career writing about the beauty industry the way I do now. Psychodermatology, that’s my jam.”
On why she calls her very publishable newsletter The Unpublishable
“The Unpublishable is what the beauty industry won’t tell you, from a reporter on a mission to reform it. Sometimes for advertising purposes and sometimes to preserve brand relationships, there’s lots of misinformation out there masquerading as truth and it’s hard for the layperson to tell the difference. I try to clarify all of that.
I want to help people realize that what the industry sells is not beauty; beauty is this expansive energetic force like freedom and truth. What the beauty industry sells is tools that are supposed to transform us into a cultural ideal. The industry is run for the most part by people who believe that helping women try to adhere to unrealistic beauty standards is the best way to heal the hurt caused by those very beauty standards.”
On how brown hands pushed her agenda forward
“For a long time, I tried to pitch a story I called Where Are All the Brown Hands? about racism in the nail care industry. No one would publish it. I reasoned it was because the story would interfere with ad relationships, so I published it in my newsletter. Two months later George Floyd was murdered. And then suddenly people started holding brands to account for racism; my story showed up everywhere. What did I learn? That when it’s in the industry’s financial interest to publish a story, they will.”
On the three radical moves the beauty industry should make right now
“Start thinking about beauty culture the way you think about diet culture. If you wouldn’t recommend weight-loss pills, don’t recommend wrinkle-reducing serum either.
Research the origins of Western beauty standards, most of which stem from patriarchy and other oppressive dogma in some way.
Introduce some kind of spiritual healing for those working in an industry that profits from people’s unhealthy yearning.”
On what her flag in the beauty culture parade would say
“Destroy the system! Rage against the beauty marketing machine!”
And because some of Jessica’s blazingly righteous posts are so good that I want to send them to all my friends, I’m posting an excerpt from one of my favorites here. It’s her glorious take on Goop’s How to Get A Just-Had-An-Orgasm Glow.
“…what followed [under the headline] was a horror worse than anything I had imagined: a nine-step regimen featuring twenty-two…products. There was an at-home chemical peel. A vitamin C serum. Moisturizer, mascara, lip and cheek tint, bronzer, highlighter, makeup setting spray. Hyaluronic acid serum...There was even a vibrating facial massager…all to evoke a look that needs no products at all. At least, ahem, no skincare products.
The answer to ‘How To Get A Just-Had-An-Orgasm Glow’ is, of course, just have an orgasm.
I know, I know. It’s easy to roll your eyes at the idea that orgasming could impact the health of your skin in any real, measurable way. (The same goes for all simple, free, built-into-human-physiology practices: breathing, sleeping, thinking, exercise, facial massage… ) But consider the possibility that this knee-jerk reaction of disbelief, doubt—distrust in your own mind, body, and skin—has been deliberately conditioned into you by consumer culture.
It benefits corporations when you think, ‘I am powerless compared to products.’
It benefits capitalism when you think, ‘These all-natural assholes are privileged/out-of-touch/delusional/whatever.’
It benefits the beauty industry when you think, ‘Of course an orgasmic glow necessitates 22 separate purchases!’
It benefits you when you think, ‘Hey, maybe this whole skincare thing is easier and cheaper and more accessible than a $140-billion-dollar industry wants me to believe.’ Not to mention, more enjoyable. I mean, would you rather spend 20 minutes applying makeup or 20 minutes masturbating?
…After some deep-dive research, I did find a link between consistent orgasm and clearer, brighter, younger-look skin. In the ‘90s, Researcher David Weeks studied 3,500 people and found that women who had three orgasms a week looked, on average, 10 years younger than those who only had two. Furthermore, recent studies prove that female orgasm releases hormones that benefit skin (like estrogen, which helps maintain collagen), lowers cortisol levels (the stress hormone that can wreak havoc on skin), and boosts blood circulation, which stimulates and repairs collagen. I started to think of orgasming as a really, really fun version of retinol.
…At this point you may be thinking, If orgasms are so good for my skin, why haven’t I heard about this before? ‘Because orgasms are free,’ says Regena Thomashauer, author of Pussy: A Reclamation…”
One last thing about Jessica’s newsletter. She often signs off with, You’re gonna die someday no matter how young you look. I’d say the same, if I weren’t inclined to let you off gently (as I am, always).
Val Asks You
Don’t be shy! What’s your most vexing or intractable appearance issue? Send me your beauty-related questions. If I don’t have a good answer, I’ll find someone who does.