Earlier this week, The Outline put up a story provokingly titled “The Skincare Con.” In it, writer Krithika Varagur argues that the modern beauty-industrial complex is a brilliant scam, one that dupes women into thinking they need to spend money to attain something that doesn’t even exist: perfect skin. The internet’s reaction machine whirred to life shortly thereafter, dispensing response piece after response piece debating the merits of Varagur’s claims. It was all we could talk about yesterday in the office, so we decided to publish our resulting Slack conversation. Read it below, and let us know what you think in the comments.
Harling Ross: Did everyone see that Outline story Haley shared on Slack?
Haley Nahman: I love The Outline. They’re always coming with the smart, contrarian take. This quote from the story particularly resonated with me: “Before you start a militant skincare regimen, it’s instructive to think about why you want one and why it seems like an intrinsic good.” I think it could be applied to a few areas of the beauty industry (i.e. the idea that the pursuit of conventional beauty is an intrinsically worthy pursuit/is somehow empowering).
Leandra Medine: Much more interesting, I thought, was the conversation (feud?) that erupted as a result. I love the internet because a story isn’t just a story anymore; it’s a jumping off point that often elicits a much more interesting or worthy conversation.
Kate Barnett: As someone who’s had acne since my teens, never grew out of it, and currently has deep acne scars from picking that I’m extremely eager to un-do, I appreciate the approach that perfect skin doesn’t exist, and the acknowledgement that “a blemish seems like a referendum on who you are as a person.”
Haley: Right, as something that “MUST” be fixed.
Harling: I definitely didn’t expect things to get so heated. I knew people were passionate about skincare (hence the article), but it’s amazing how the internet has made people so KNOWLEDGEABLE about topics that used to just be hobbies. I think that’s part of what fueled the reaction machine, in this case.
Leandra: Well, I don’t think it’s fair to assume they weren’t knowledgeable prior — just didn’t have the platform to impart the wisdom?
Harling: I think the internet has made that knowledge a lot more accessible, though (reddit forums, etc.).
Haley: Agreed, Harls, everyone has become a skin expert! It’s interesting. That’s why I liked that The Outline was basically saying, “Whoa whoa whoa slow down…do we really need this many steps in our routines?” That said, did anyone have a favorite counter response?
Harling: I really liked Cheryl Wischhover’s response on Racked. She’s their senior beauty reporter.
Leandra: That piece was solid and informative. I love Racked.
Harling: ME TOO.
Haley: Racked is so consistently good!
Harling: Cheryl did a great job of debunking some of the science-related errors in The Outline‘s story. She writes, “I’m technically a member of the Beauty Capitalist Complex. My job is to write about makeup and skincare. I love, use, and believe in skincare. So I suppose that makes me biased. But let’s focus on the science (more to come on this, because — yes! there! is! science!), the BS, and how to use things properly.”
Haley: I liked this point she made, too: “At the crux of [The Outline] article is the argument that we — mostly women, mind you! — are all a bunch of silly pawns with no agency to overcome the stupidity of skincare thrust upon us by the industry. Trust me, I know what I’m getting myself into. Skincare has spawned a community of (mostly) women talking about it and bonding over it. It’s provided common ground. And it’s provided the chance for small victories, even if just over your wily pores.”
Harling: Nylon made a similar argument (that skincare critiques often have a misogynistic bent) in its response piece. There’s an underlying implication that women aren’t savvy enough to see through the B.S.
Haley: It’s an argument that reminds me of Jaya Saxena’s TASTE piece on how things women love are often maligned unfairly. And I do really appreciate that perspective — but I also think the beauty industry overall hasn’t been self-critical enough. As feminism has entered the mainstream cultural consciousness, a lot of excuses have been made for these measures we take for the sake of beauty. Skincare is positioned as healthy; makeup is positioned as empowering. But at the root of it…aren’t we still just spending money, time and energy on our appearance? If these things make us feel better about ourselves simply because we’re told so much of our value is in our looks…then are we ACTUALLY feeling better? Or is that just a shitty consolation prize with no longevity?
Leandra: A couple things — because on the one hand, I feel strongly that there are crevices of genuine empowerment provoked by the beauty industry. My brother used to tell me that I’m so lucky to be a woman because I could wear heels without judgement, and because he’s short, he wished that he could, too. I think about that remark in the context of beauty, and the way in which some men are super uncomfortable asserting their masculinity under the guise of…CONCEALER OR LIP GLOSS even though they’re compelled to try it. Also, we use products as mechanisms to enhance our faces, right? To make us look and therefore feel and thus ultimately BE better.
But!!! On the other hand, I do also think there is a lot of unlearning that we have to do, that we have started to do in the wake of Harvey Weinstein-gate. (I had a conversation with a friend who’s been working in film for a couple of decades and she mentioned that previously, you kind of just knew who to stay away from at holiday parties, who the sexual predators were and how to avoid them, whereas today, we’re thankfully being conditioned to stop in our tracks instead and say, “NO THAT IS NOT OKAY.”) So how much of our feeling empowered by makeup is a function of the actual makeup vs. what we have accepted as fact about How to Be Beautiful? I don’t wear that much makeup, I’ve written about it ad nauseam, and even now when I catch my reflection (and I’m not wearing anything on my face), I think to myself, Man I could use some concealer. How much of that is learned behavior vs. actually thinking I need concealer?
Kate: So, I think there’s a distinction between skincare and makeup, and with makeup, similar to fashion, it can be a mode of self-expression, or simply presenting yourself the way you want to be seen. The piece in The Outline did make me pause in the sense that, well, are you trying to make people feel silly for not wanting acne?
Haley: Yes! I really like these last points. I understand the very real self-esteem boost that can come from feeling like you look “better” — but I can’t help but imagine a world where those measures weren’t so societally defined. Because ultimately…if you have to put on a bunch of makeup (or have perfect skin via chemicals) to feel good about yourself, do you really feel good about yourself? Or does that actually…on a deeper level…diminish your self-worth? Like you are a problem to be fixed.
And I agree, Kate — having a lot of acne or a debilitating skin situation that, say, distracts people when you’re talking, is the part that doesn’t fit into this narrative. I suppose I think more of the skincare craze in terms of the pursuit of “perfect” skin — because that probably doesn’t even exist, and only entered our purview via photoshop.
Kate: Well, I don’t think that’s true. “Perfect skin” exists.
Harling: But the idea of what “perfection” should look like in regards to skin is a social construct!
Haley: Also fair.
Kate: Do you think if more commercial models had visible acne that would change anything?
Harling: I do. A good example is how the bare-faced look is more “acceptable” now that it’s trendy. Trends and the visibility that comes with them definitely have the power to shape our perceptions.
Haley: I think so, too! I always think of Piggs, and how beautiful she makes acne look.
Leandra: That was the point of our acne shoot, too — to normalize it/make it look beautiful! But I don’t want to digress too much. We are living through such a unique time to be writers on the internet!!! Do you remember how in 2014 you could just pen an opinion piece and have it start at the intro and end at the conclusion? Lol if that were to happen today.
Haley: I can’t even imagine.
Harling: I WISH.
Leandra: I don’t wish! I am so inspired by how opinionated we’ve all become, but sometimes I also think: Are we actually opinionated? Or do we just feel like we need to comment? And how aware are we that we feel like we need to comment, as opposed to our actually being triggered?
Harling: True. I shouldn’t say “I wish,” because I do think the current climate makes for better writers. You have to be so much more thorough because the internet holds you so accountable, which is a good thing by and large, though it can feel overwhelming at times.
Haley: I’ve been thinking about this Susan Sontag quote a lot: “The writer’s first job is not to have opinions but to tell the truth… and refuse to be an accomplice of lies and misinformation. Literature is the house of nuance and contrariness against the voices of simplification.”
The internet has become SO reactionary, to a fault. We aren’t letting things absorb and metabolize long enough.
Leandra: No, we’re not. And sometimes, we turn small potatoes into gigantic potato farms. Where do we draw the line between “this is morally conflicting” and “we’re talking about fucking socks here”?
Kate: Is the escalation of “small potatoes” a result of first-person narrative, though? We’re not journalists or novelists.
Leandra: Or essayists!
Harling: Haley and I were talking about this just the other day — how personal essays published online really changed the “ethics” of journalism.
Leandra: Do you think Joan Didion had any idea this would happen when she first started injecting a personal narrative into her reporting?
Haley: Ha. Probably not…
Kate: I think she would have expected more thorough fact checking on The Outline’s piece.
Haley: I think the problem with reacting too fast is that everyone’s first instinct is to defend what they already believe. It’s human, but it halts the conversation. Or makes it become a fruitless, endless debate. Whereas if you wait it out, often your second and third reactions are more open and nuanced.
Harling: Especially since algorithms are often serving you what you already believe in the first place.
Kate: It also (maybe unfairly) favors cleverness, like this sentence in The Outline piece: “Rich people used to build castles and museums; today they buy clunky smartwatches and personalized vitamins.” She got me with that, that’s a great sentence.
Leandra: Haley, I think you made a great point. Our first products, always, are never as good as second/third takes.
Haley: Yes…that’s why I like that Man Repeller isn’t afraid to come in late with an opinion.
Leandra: Even though Malcolm Gladwell would argue otherwise (he has this theory about varying degrees and prototypes of genius, how some mull and mull and mull and others, like Picasso, just say YOLO and throw until something sticks).
Haley: But maybe that theory is better applied to the writing process — throwing things and throwing things — rather than actually HITTING PUBLISH immediately.
Harling: It’s interesting that sometimes you really do have to let a convo rest before you can fully weigh in, even though the impulse is to jump in immediately. Cold take > hot take.
Leandra: The problem with writing for the internet is that sometimes if you’re too late, your opinion is obsolete.
Haley: Yeah, such a toxic cycle! I see why it continues.
Leandra: But I guess if and when that’s the case, you know for sure the initial subject matter was not necessarily a moral conflict and probably fell into that “we’re talking about socks” bucket. Here’s a question: What do you feel your responsibility is as a writer and an employee of Man Repeller, when it comes to what you share and how you share it?
Haley: I think about this all the time. Because I really don’t want to get caught up in the rat race of reacting, of checking that box of reacting, and of moving on as if that’s enough. It’s hard to know what’s most helpful right now, which is why I’ve started to lean more into living what I believe (in action) rather than just touting it (in words). On social media, for instance, it’s had to take a stand without making it about yourself, and in the wrong hands, that can come off so performative, you know? I don’t have the answer though — I debate myself on this all the time.
But more broadly, I know media has a greater responsibility. As Amelia wrote yesterday: Words very much matter. Not being silent matters! I guess we just have to be willing to mess up in that pursuit, because NOT speaking up can be worse sometimes. I just hope we continue to prioritize quality and thoughtfulness over speed. I love that about Man Repeller.
Harling: For me, I think it’s not putting something up on the internet unless I would feel comfortable defending it. And that’s not something I do in a vacuum — the editing process that Man Repeller has in place (every piece is read twice by two different editors before going live on the site) is crucial in that effort.
Haley: Agreed, Harls!! But I also think that, if the pace isn’t going to slow down, people also have to be able to publicly learn and change their minds. How else will change happen? To that end, I hope The Outline piece gives people something to chew on and question beyond its viral 24 hours, even if everyone doesn’t fully agree with it. I would love to push the conversation around beauty further, but in a way that feels curious and open, and enables all of us to change our minds (multiple times!) if we want to.
Leandra: I think I have a tendency to want to indoctrinate others/impart my belief system on them because I am such a passionate person and when I stand for something, I want everyone else to stand for it. But that is really limiting and does not celebrate perspective or opinion. Lately, I feel like my responsibility at Man Repeller is to not allow myself to fall into the pigeonhole of my own echo chamber or soapbox, and to instead force myself to see outside the parameters of my own vision. That effort is important in my writing, but moreso as a leader, particularly because we are hiring for like, five roles right now, and action is crucial. Saying “we celebrate diverse perspective” isn’t enough, but I think I have leaned on it for a long time. Which is a long-winded way of saying: Similarly to the way in which Man Repeller has always touted creative self-expression in all permutations, right now my responsibility feels like owning up to moral, political, cultural expression in all its permutations, too.
Feature photo by Edith Young.