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Aging Ghosts in the Skincare Machine
Let me start with my skin in the game. In the four months between November 2017 and February 2018, I spent about $520 on skincare products. This number does not include makeup. It does not include shampoo or conditioner. It does not include body lotion. And it is, in all likelihood, a little low. If I pored through every receipt and every debit card transaction, the actual, shameful tally of skincare spending during these four months would hover above $600. Average it out, and that’s $125 a month, more than my $90 Con Edison or Verizon bills, and a little less than a third of my monthly college loan payment, which, at age 55, I’m still paying.
It’s a lot of money, but it’s a lot of skincare. More than a mere routine, my skincare is a baroque dance of cleansers, exfoliators, toners, essences, serums, oils, hydrators, moisturizers, sheet masks, sleeping masks, lip masks, and sunscreen. I perform it — often with the sullenness of a teen — every morning and every evening, and when I don’t, I feel a sense of guilt that I can imagine only as Catholic. My skincare practice is what New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino terms a “regime posing as a regimen.” My skincare is an army of products I’ve marshaled with a single intent: to keep aging at bay.
I am not alone. Last year, the U.S. prestige beauty market — specifically, the stuff sold at marquee makeup stores like Sephora and Ulta or from department store beauty counters — saw sales of almost $18 billion, an increase of 6 percent from 2016, according to market research firm NPD Group. Skincare alone made $5.6 billion of that total, an increase of 9 percent over the previous year. Across America, more women (and men) are anointing, slathering, dotting, patting, smoothing, and massaging their faces with more high-end unguents, elixirs, lotions, and potions than ever before. We Americans are awash in a veritable tidal wave of expensive face glop, and we are gleeful to pay for the privilege.
I have not always cared about my skin. Born in 1962, I tanned with baby oil, washed with bar soap, moisturized with drugstore creams, and daubed my lips with Vaseline. Skincare was something rich old ladies did, and I was neither rich nor old. In my thirties, worried about my forehead lines, I dabbled with vitamin C. At some point in my forties, I read something about microdermabrasion; I looked at my acne scars as I rolled the word in my mouth, as if feeling it with my tongue would invoke magic, but I never did it. I bought Frownies instead, wearing the patches to bed like an aging starlet. I hit my fifties before I felt the need to tend to my skin. This is, by the way, too late. By the time you’re 50, you’re already old.
Sephora samples seduced me into skincare. I’d taken the stance that what I could afford would be useless; the most I could hope for was utilitarian skin. Yet Sephora’s single-serving packets of luxury whispered that maybe I was wrong, maybe I could expect more, maybe my skin could get better. A little silky moisturizer here, a little syrupy serum there, a serial-killer sheet mask, some glutinous eye patches. Soon I had an arsenal of wee beauty products — minuscule pots of goo to tap into my crow’s-feet, cunning eyedroppers of healing acids, tiny chemical soldiers to hold the line against ever-advancing time. I bought it all. My bathroom began to resemble Belinda’s dressing table in Pope’s Rape of the Lock, with cabalistic products in mystic order, and I, a new acolyte of aging well, prostrate at the altar.
I want to believe, and I am but one of a legion of wannabe dewy-skinned Mulders who spend and spend in the hope of forestalling what time will inevitably give us: old skin. The skincare tsunami is, if you ask beauty industry insiders, a perfect storm of three factors: better products, wider availability, and social media. The first two are fairly clear-cut; the last is a tangled web of capitalism, impetuous purchases, and star power. Trying to get a sense of what the hell triggered this current explosion of skin products, I talked to some people who work in the industry.
Lydia Berry, an account executive for Peter Thomas Roth, a skincare brand launched in 1993, believes people are buying more skincare because it has simply gotten better. Berry says, “Advancements in medicine and chemistry in general have led to advancements in skincare.” While skincare products of yore were panaceas at best and questionable at worst, today’s beauty industry has had to play catch-up with Botox, Juvederm, Sculptra, and other injectables, and this effort has produced better efficacy. Berry says, “Some people are using topical neuropeptides, and they look like they had Botox.” Companies making products called Un-Wrinkle or Needles No More murmur that we needn’t resort to needles when there’s better looking through chemistry.
It used to be that you could find prestige beauty products only at department or specialty stores, but the internet changed that. You can buy your skincare on your Sephora app — or your Amazon app, or through independent sellers, even eBay. Moreover, free-range information on skincare ingredients, use, and sources has given consumers the confidence to shop outside the mainstream. Kate Black, who works in the beauty industry, says, “Things have become more affordable. You can investigate the ingredients on your own. I look for sister brands, brands that are cheaper than their parent companies that you may still find at a big department store counter.”
But maybe the biggest (and most pernicious) influence on the cult of skincare is social media, especially visual sites like YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, and, to a lesser extent, Facebook. Like a hydra, social media has many heads, but all of them are beautiful. Sonora Grant, an aesthetician who has worked at Sephora since 2000, says of social media’s influence, “It comes from two different directions. From one direction, it’s ‘How do I look on the camera?’ And from the other direction, it’s ‘What are my Instagram celebrity models using?’” Visual social media makes beauty act like a capitalist Krebs cycle: influencers like Huda Kattan, Kylie Jenner, and Michelle Phan extoll a product or throw a lewk; their millions of fans scramble to buy the product or tweak the lewk; their friends in turn share the product and ape the lewk; and the manufacturers of those products sit back, count their money, and pay those influencers to do it again.
Of these four social media giants, Instagram swaggers as a colossus, with the greatest reach per “influencer,” the swiftest creation of trends, and the most successful conversion from viewing to sale. Black says, “You have these girls with perfect skin because they’re 20 years old, and they’re promoting things that many of them have been paid to promote, but you also have this direct outreach from the brands. They’re hiring these girls because they know people are listening to them, whether for the right or wrong reasons.”
Marketing has long been the game of the Youngs because advertisers want to capture people’s brand allegiance early, but when what you’re marketing is skincare, you’re selling anti-aging to the unaged. It’s an eldritch venture, a cynical undertaking that uses fear and loathing to sell a performance of self-love.
In the pursuit of good skin, we feed skincare’s pyrotechnic sales, but we also spur skincare’s apotheosis. Whatever bundle of reasons — maybe it’s the prevalence of social media, maybe it’s better products, maybe it’s lower price points, maybe it’s widespread availability — impassioned, complex skincare has become culturally relevant. A quick look at Google trends will show you that “skincare” leaps like an antelope, leaping in usage since 2016. Just as skincare is no longer just for certain women of a certain age, skincare is no longer solely the purview of ladies’ mags, and skincare articles, like a 15-year-old kid’s pimples, seem to have erupted everywhere, all at once.
For example, the past eight months have seen the venerable New Yorker run six pieces on skincare (albeit two are humor, but then humor is truth, only faster). A standout critique, Tolentino’s New Yorker piece ruminates on how our Trumpian landscape pushed the 28-year-old writer to adopt a skincare regimen, affording her a salve for her soul, a hope for the future, and nice skin. The New York Times, that great gray lady, offered up an interactive tutorial on how to build your own regimen — even as thirtysomething Amanda Hess wrote about how skincare marketing evades, resists, or simply sidesteps “aging” and, in so doing, gives the message that youth is “simply natural”(emphasis original). Skincare agnostic Krithika Varagur, who graduated from Harvard in 2015, argued in her contrarian Outline piece that skincare is a “scam.” Predictably, Varagur’s piece garnered a series of rebuttals, notably on Man Repeller, Racked, and Nylon (also written by women in their twenties and thirties).
It’s a fucking fascinating thing to be a middle-aged woman writer witnessing this hot-and-cold-running cultural commentary on skincare written by young women. I imagine these women furrowing their brows over their computers as their creamy hands tap-tap-tap at their keyboards; when they look up, their brows fall blissfully blank as clean sheets of paper. I’m not saying there isn’t much to be said about skincare as a method of meditation, self-care, or wishful thinking — whatever — but when I read these pieces, I hear a piercing Munchian scream. No matter how low you turn the volume, the specter of aging wails, open-mouthed and horrified, at the core of skincare.
Sure, you may have acne or rosacea or dry skin, and that may push you to take care of your skin. But let’s face it: Good skin, as we understand it, is youthful skin. Even as Allure rejects “anti-aging” (while offering no alternative term), a cursory search of “anti-aging” brings up 354 products on Ulta and 1,677 on Sephora. Ingredients may change, technology may change, results may change, and marketing may change, but one thing in skincare remains constant: The aim is to make skin look “smoother, cleaner, whiter, clearer, and glowing.” In other words, you take care of your skin to make it look young.
Skincare articles by young writers may effectively silence the voice of the middle-aged woman, yet they fail to silence the writers’ fear of that woman. Let me point to the wrinkled elephant in the room, and that is me and younger women’s white-knuckled terror of becoming a woman like me. Female anxiety about aging is a complex rat-queen of identity, beauty standards, patriarchy, and learned beliefs. The upshot is that, no matter what they do, women are doomed to become what they fear: visibly aged. At 55, I am old, and I am getting older. Why, I wonder, am I so frightening? Why am I so frightened? And what, exactly, am I afraid of?
Susan Sontag wrote, “A woman hardly has to be anything like what would reasonably be considered old to worry about her age, to start lying (or being tempted to lie). The crises can come at any time.” She of the iconic white-streak hair, Sontag knew something of early onset aging anxiety. Sontag was 39 when she wrote her 1972 essay “The Double Standard of Aging,” a piece that delves into how men and women, despite being equally mortal, experience aging differently.
“One of the greatest tragedies of each woman’s life is simply getting older; it is certainly the longest tragedy,” Sontag writes, suggesting that aging is a peculiarly feminine tragedy. Men, Sontag argues, gain power and money with age because men’s value derives from their work, not their looks. (She does draw a distinction between aging in blue-collar and white-collar classes, and she does acknowledge that men have age-related anxiety over success.) Aging women, on the other hand, lose their main assets — their looks — because women’s value lies less in ageless work and more in static beauty standards. Because only a young woman is truly attractive, Sontag argues, every year brings erasure, a decrease in value, and an escalation of the creeping horrorsloth of old age.
Look…Sontag’s piece is dated. We can stomp our feet over current pay inequalities, but in 1972 it was rare for women to hold white-collar jobs outside of clerical, teaching, or nursing professions, and that is no longer true. The value of a woman in 2018 doesn’t derive solely from her ability to marry well, nor is it rare for women to have whole and productive careers, nor do many men find powerful women a “turnoff,” and, most germane to Sontag’s presumption of heterosexuality, women can marry other women or not marry at all. Yet these differences highlight the persisting disturbing truths of Sontag’s piece. Most of us women perform the feminine labor of looking conventionally good; most of us would reluctantly agree that a “woman’s value lies in the way she represents herself”; and, as Sontag says of her generation, we have learned “the visceral horror” of “aging female flesh.”
But 2018 is not 1972, and while we’ve not yet gotten over our collective disgust at aging women, we do have science on our side — specifically, we have Botox to help us game the system. Patented by Allergan and originally created as a treatment for facial tics and migraines, Botox derives from the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, the cause of deadly botulism, and its manufacturing process is a highly guarded secret. When it’s injected, Botox paralyzes the muscles. No movement means no wrinkles, and no wrinkles means a younger-looking face. Botox may not assuage our collective horror at female aging, but it does help some women live with their own.
Since the 1990s, Botox has been used less for tics and more for beauty, not just by people who already have wrinkles, but also by people who want to prevent wrinkles, a use known as “prophylactic Botox.” I spoke to two women who began using Botox before they turned 30 about their choices to start using it. Claudia Cho, a Korean-American small business owner, is outspoken about her Botox use. “My mom has really deep elevens—the frown lines in your forehead,” Cho said. “I noticed that I was getting the same thing, probably from scowling all the time or reading. I started getting concerned about that, and I tried Botox for the first time when I was 24.” A devotee of a rococo multistep skin regimen, Cho enjoys the beauty ritual. She unwinds with the relaxing routine, unfolds in the sensual experience of cleansing, patting, rubbing, and dabbing.
Like Cho, Enid (not her real name) started using Botox because of forehead lines. Unlike Cho, Enid, who is in her mid-thirties, doesn’t enjoy skincare and keeps her Botox a secret. Enid says, “I don’t do anything else for my skin except wash it occasionally and put moisturizer on when it feels dry. The idea of doing a 13-step skincare thing every night — what a waste of life! In some ways, I think I use Botox and Retin-A because they’re the bare amount of time that you [can give] that actually has an effect.”
In a logical spiral familiar to professional women, Enid keeps her Botox on the down low because it doesn’t look good for a serious woman to be vain, but she uses it because it helps her career. “I have a totally different standard of appearance for how I appear in person with other humans, being a human,” she says. “But in terms of how I’m going to appear as a media commodity, I wanted that media commodity not to have lines on my face.” For Enid, Botox is about straight-line utility: It’s the fastest, cheapest means to a discernible, reliable end. “Botox fucking works,” she says. “It fucking freezes your forehead.”
Equating female beauty with a dearth of facial expressions has a long, robust history that’s hard to read with a straight face. Running under the banner of “What Every Woman Should Know,” a pair of New York Times articles from November 24, 1912, explains that showing emotion has gone out of style. “Everybody knows, of course, the ‘picture postcard smile’ is out of fashion,” one article cautions, continuing, “The meaningless smirk of the lips is no longer in fashion, and smiles are not wanted in profusion.” Another article praises a “most youthful appearing woman” who, the piece notes, “is a grandmother, never smiled, and her manner was so quiet that one scarcely realized her presence, yet she was surrounded by the most brilliant men, and held their interest.”
But a lack of expression is also vexing. “Woman of 49 Regains Her Beauty of 29 By Surgery, But She Cannot Smile or Cry,” an August 1920 headline reads. “I’m just crazy with the joy about it all,” the “rejuvenated” Frenchwoman is purported to exclaim, though I’m uncertain how. I imagine her spitting the words with flat affect through grimaced lips. The article notes that the unnamed woman’s “cure” should last up to a decade, after which, at almost 60, she could once again enjoy the “luxury of laughter.” It’s interesting how the piece frames surgery as a cure and thus aging as disease. “I would never have needed an operation if I hadn’t gone around laughing and crying over nothing my whole life,” the woman laments.
Like time, beauty standards don’t stand still, and by 2002, when the FDA approved Botox for cosmetic use, there was already a backlash to “unnaturally placid expressions” caused by injecting the drug. Discussing the newly minted social event of Botox parties, another 2002 piece asks, “Isn’t there something surreal…about shooting poison into your forehead to paralyze muscles and prevent frowning for a few months?” Maybe. But isn’t it also a little too real that women are castigated both for looking too lively and for looking not lively enough? And isn’t it a little rich that women are devalued both for doing nothing about looking older and for taking action against it?
“Aging in women,” Naomi Wolf writes in her blockbuster 1991 book, The Beauty Myth, “is ‘unbeautiful’ since women grow more powerful with time, and since the links between generations of women must always be newly broken.” Age, in this way, sows division. She continues, “Older women fear young ones, young women fear old, and the beauty myth truncates for all the female life span.” Wolf ameliorates her claim slightly in her foreword to the 2002 edition of her book, saying that because of “aging role models,” women “seem somewhat less paralyzed about the dreaded approach of their fortieth or even fiftieth birthdays.” It’s not much of an improvement, and I’m not entirely sure it’s accurate. It seems to me that there is still plenty of ambient fear.
Despite more inclusive role models, despite increasing financial power, despite better careers, and despite the freedom to reject matrimony, women remain pretty freaking scared about aging in general and looking older in specific. Indeed, young women’s anxiety may stem from the fact that they’re more financially self-reliant and career-focused than ever before. As I interviewed women for this story, I asked them what they thought women feared about looking old. Lydia Berry said it was dying — a simple “signal for the end of life.” Sonora Grant said it was women’s past catching up with them; in turning to skincare, they want to “turn the clock back.” But Claudia Cho, Enid, and Kate Black each said it came down to one thing: losing their pretty privilege.
Pretty privilege seems to act similarly to Justice Potter Stewart’s 1964 definition of obscenity: You know it when you feel it. The amorphous and ambient help an attractive person gets just as a bonus for being conventionally attractive, pretty privilege seems to be everywhere and nowhere; it’s woven into the fabric of culture, of patriarchal power structures, and of human erotic drive. It’s difficult to pin down the privilege attendant to being pretty because, in part, it’s hard to define prettiness — beauty/eye/beholder and all that — but we accept the notion that being attractive gives you a boost.
“I don’t want to lose my pretty privilege,” Cho says, “because it’s currency. It’s social currency.” The idea of equating prettiness with capital is not new — Wolf calls beauty “a currency system like the gold standard,” a statement that blends money, conventional attractiveness, patriarchal privilege, the sense of limited resources, and America’s hierarchical class structure into a gendered slurry of access and exclusion. Enid sums up the beauty advantage in a few words: “It’s more profitable to be younger,” she says.
Enid is not wrong. Drawing on a 2010 study by economist David Hamermesh, Newsweek looked at the economics of the beauty advantage. “Handsome men earn, on average, 5 percent more than their less-attractive counterparts (good-looking women earn 4 percent more); pretty people get more attention from teachers, bosses, and mentors; even babies stare longer at good-looking faces (and we stare longer at good-looking babies),” Newsweek reported, and added that its survey of 202 corporate hiring managers showed that better-looking people were more likely to be hired or promoted. Women, of course, experience the beauty advantage with ambivalence, gaining less money and experiencing a “bimbo effect” where, at some indefinable point, there’s simply too much female beauty to take the woman seriously. In 2012, we saw the publication of three books of economic studies of prettiness — Hamermesh’s Beauty Pays, Deborah Rhode’s The Beauty Bias, and Catherine Hakim’s Honey Money — and each made the argument that attractive people are, quite literally, worth more.
Privilege, when you have it, acts like expensive perfume: It’s there, and it’s powerful, but you can’t see it. I have always been a conventionally attractive woman, and now I’m a conventionally attractive woman of a certain age. I know how it feels to no longer get waved into clubs (that ended around 38) or get free personal training (about the same time) or to be helped before others in electronics stores (done at 45) or to have my ass kissed in cosmetics stores (RIP circa 52), but I have no idea how it feels to traverse the landscape as anything other than a conventionally attractive woman. Chances are that I’ll be a conventionally attractive septuagenarian, should I live that long. The thing about pretty privilege: It doesn’t disappear like tears in the rain.
Which is all to say that I’m as afraid of mortality as any other human, but I’m less afraid of losing my pretty privilege than some women. Moreover, because I make my money as a writer, my pretty privilege is less imperiled than my generalized obsolescence, something that has nothing to do with my face and everything to do with my capacity to think and the style of my writing voice. And, ultimately, it doesn’t explain why young women, as Wolf suggests, would fear being in my position, postmenopausal and sliding toward my dotage yet still attractive. Nor, for that matter, does it explain my own bone-grinding terror at my aging.
At 70, Linda Rodin is one of those positive role models that Wolf points to. A style icon, Rodin has modeled for J.Crew and The Row, and having worked as a stylist and a beauty expert, Rodin has lived her professional life in the belly of the beauty industry. She recalls, “Three years ago, I looked in the mirror, and I saw that not only were my wrinkles going sideways, crow’s-feet and all that, they were also going straight down my cheeks. It was like they were going every direction. And then that was a horrifying moment.”
“I got used to that,” Rodin says of her sideways wrinkles. “And then the next thing was, oh my god, I’ve got jowls now. Every day it’s a new set of things that you didn’t notice before that just became more prominent. The choice is to fix it or to live with it. But it’s not easy to live with. I wouldn’t say to anybody, ‘Oh, I’ve earned it, I’ve earned my wrinkles.’ I’m not that happy-go-lucky about it.”
I have had those holy fuck moments—that moment when I discovered wrinkles in my upper arms, that moment when I saw a loosening of the skin of my jaw, the moment when I stumbled on a word for the skin on my chest: crepey. I have yet to find the joy. And, really, there’s no reason why you or I or Rodin should be happy about our wrinkles. I’ve long suspected that aging gracefully is just a way to make other people feel comfortable. I’m growing old, and it’s not my job to make you feel good about my wrinkles. It is, however, my responsibility to make peace with them.
Let’s talk about your skin — or mine. The skin on your eyelids is as fine as a sheet of paper, but it’s as thick as two stacked nickels on the soles of your feet. While thin, your skin is broad, about 20 square feet in total. It’s heavy—about 15 percent of your body weight—yet it feels weightless. Continually present, your skin is constantly renewing, replacing its entire surface area over the course of a month. Comprising three interlocking layers, your skin protects you, nourishes you with fat stores, produces hormones, and insulates you. The skin that you — or I — scrutinize in the mirror, agonize over, and tend to is a fraction of the integumentary system, the largest organ in our bodies. Your skin does a lot more than hold in your guts and blood and muscles, but let’s face it, this task alone is key.
“The skin is very interesting, because it’s a container,” says Dr. Lynne Zeavin, a psychotherapist with a practice in New York. “It’s an envelope, really, for the whole body. And to have there be a visible impact, like the signs of time, is very interesting.” When you think of our skin as our envelopes, that thing that holds our essential, visible self together, then it’s rational to feel anxiety over cracks in the fissure. Zeavin says, “It’s very threatening to many people, especially in our culture, where being physically attractive is the way we meet the world and is the interface by which we feel the way other people feel about us.” So fragile, our flesh, yet it holds so much.
Thin, elegant, and mysterious, envelopes are made to rip. The whole point of an envelope is to hold things in until you tear them and consume their contents. Our skin and our faces — home to all five of our senses — are our interface to the world and the first thing the world looks at. To watch our skin grow wrinkles is to see fissures in ourselves, to experience a permeability that threatens the thin membrane that holds us from bleeding out, losing our sense of self in a monolith of others. The skin, that luminous surface that holds our gaze, acts like a silver screen for projection of the self, and nowhere is this truer than in our face.
My face is me; I am my face. More than the sound of my voice, my body’s shape, or the sway of my walk, my face the thing by which you’re most likely to recognize me. It’s on my passport (American) and on my driver’s license (New York). It’s on my Facebook profile and my Instagram. It featured prominently on the Tinder account I used to meet the man who became my husband. To the people I love and to the anonymous surveillance state, my face is my synecdoche, the one vital part that stands in for my luscious whole.
My face is a fine face, a good face, an attractive face, a woman’s face, and an aging face. If you squint at my baby pictures, you’ll see my face, yet it’s a susurration of the face I have now, a whispered coming into being. I look at pictures of me as a tiny baby, a toddler, a child, a tween, and I see my features morph and coalesce. It’s as if my formless cub’s face has been licked into adult shape, and where the mythic mother bear would be there is, in its stead, time. The passage of time licks and licks, and my skin wears. I change, and my skin holds me together, wrapping me in its loosening embrace.
Your face is never just your face, and neither is mine. When I look in the mirror and prod the lilac bags under my eyes and smooth the creases in my rose-brown lids, what worries me isn’t so much how attractive I am or how much privilege I have; it’s not so much the fact that I’m going to grow even older, ever frailer, and, eventually, die; it’s not a pervasive sense of obsolescence or impending cultural irrelevance; and it’s not the sense that, at 55, I have made most of my life’s choices, that those choices weren’t actually infinite after all, and, upon review, I have regrets, more than a few.
No, what worries me, what chills my marrow, what feels absolutely clear in its alien shock and penetrating dread is this: As my face changes, I will lose myself. The skin-deep existential crisis is this: Who am I when I don’t recognize myself in my own skin? My vanity quivers and cowers in the shadow of that titanic fear. In this, my fervid skincare is 10 fingers pat-patting to stop the deluge of time. What a mercurial act, to shore up the complexity of me, my memories and my thoughts, my incongruities and my volatilities, my quirks and my kinks, with a few splats of liquid. What an absurd world. And what an unnerving wonder to lose it so slowly, and yet too quickly.