The woman behind the beauty counter uses a thin black stick with a small silver ball on the tip to scoop out a hydrating waterless gel, applies a tiny amount on my face and pats it down. It feels ultra cool to the touch, almost like nothing at all, yet it costs $224. Kim (we’re already on nickname basis) doesn’t need to tell me how many hundreds of dollars this small jar of gel costs. I already know from countless times perusing expensive skin care shelves and asking how much something costs, before promptly turning on my heels and running away like Forrest Gump.
I’m a bit surprised she would put this expensive gel on my face when I was there to try the makeup. Kim tells me that it doesn’t matter what makeup you use - if you don’t prep your skin first properly, you won’t be happy with the results - your skin is everything. It is? I say out loud, touching my face in wonder. Don’t touch your face, she reminds me. I notice there’s no one else on the beauty floor of this San Francisco Barney’s department store. How did I end up here? Aside from just wandering around, feeling out of place and loudly squealing because we don’t get some of these high end brands in Australia, I felt drawn to the cool cult of the unattainable, even halfway across the world.
Each beauty product I eventually manage to justify spending money on, feels like a small victory. This is quickly followed by the gut dive of guilt, the small pang of worry - was this an unnecessary splurge? Next comes the shame, the not wanting to tell people how much it cost. It’s quickly followed by the euphoria of what turns out to be a product that actually works, or the niggling I told you so voice if it doesn’t. The cycle, of course, repeats itself and I convince myself I’m powerless to stop it. But I know there’s more to this compulsion.
As Jia Tolentino argues, skin care has become a coping mechanism. Anti-ageing isn’t a strong marketing concept anymore. Instead it’s all about “radiance and the natural look”, which feels attainable and less terrifying. Tumultuous political times you say? Bah! I’ll just put this white face sheet mask on and pretend I’m a ghost.
Japanese and Korean beauty routines are now infamous with snail mucus masks and serums only surprising the uninitiated (so, most people). There are cutely packaged face mask sheets, beauty water elixirs, cleansing oils, hyaluronic acid lotions and more. US brand Glossier has made a millennial pink branding cult out of more affordable, simply packaged products promoting the dewy, fresh-faced, skin-first movement and regularly post their skin care trials as proof that their products work. There’s a podcast called ‘Glowing Up’. Mecca has truly created a brand that spans both the low-end and the high-end like a beautiful arc, giving people something they can afford now, while also giving them something to aspire to on the high-end side, which starts to feel more reasonable the more you learn about skin care and why it matters.
I spent a lot of time in my teens and twenties devouring articles on beauty products. For a long time it was more of a theoretical obsession than anything else (how does anyone afford any of this ever?! Surely they get free samples, surely!) But the recent shift to actually spending more money and obsessing over beauty products, along with other feel good but not quite “necessity” items, is a contagious change that seems to have spread to my friends and beyond. I know I’m not alone. There’s definitely a small army of aficionados out there. Some can afford it, some can’t, but they’re all united in their knowledge and priorities, and there’s something very thrilling about that.
Much of this has been fuelled by visually driven social media like Instagram and Pinterest. It’s now common to “post your beauty shelf” which just means taking an artful shot of your beauty cabinet filled with similar cult products, a heady and quiet thrill of recognition emerges when you know about more than a few of them. This in turn leads to furiously typing messages to those friends to swap notes on what you’ve tried, what you want and what you need. There’s the more social aspect involved around investing in such products, like going in on a Glossier redirect order because they don’t deliver here or having your friends over for a party so you can try the products before you go all in. There’s also a more shared, communal solidarity behind caring about objects like this. A site like Massdrop offers products at a discount based on how much the community demand a product and for a limited time only. Their ‘beauty’ community was recently created due to popular demand.
Then there’s accessibility. A lot of these brands are now more affordable and easy to buy online. There’s more transparency through the rise of ratings and reviews and more discernible users on Reddit, YouTube reviews and tutorials and more, as well as an increase in skin care technology, with fancy new space age style gadgets that look like some kind of futuristic Black Mirror type masks.
When I was a 23-year-old copywriter, part of my job involved writing about ‘experiences’ that could be packaged up and sold. That’s how I found my Polish beautician Kate, who I’m convinced has a time capsule since she never seems to age. While applying things to my face, she’d ask about my life, my goals, what matters to me, who I am as a person. She’d talk me through the different horoscopes for people in my life and I’d look in awe (and suspicion - is this witchcraft?) at how accurate her assessments were. There was some relationship counselling with some very honest advice. Kate would recommend her favourite yoga place, meditation apps and describe natural DIY masks of honey and tea bags.
It’s a small act of rebellion, buying something seemingly fleeting when more permanent and more expensive things like houses and cars become increasingly out of reach.
But most important, Kate would remind me that I’m young and my skin is great, despite my many protestations. She would encourage taking my time with cleansing my face - a reminder to gently massage my skin and make a ritual of it, to take a few minutes out of my day that were just for me. I would emerge from her tiny salon cocoon smiling to myself, chuffed and feeling like a new woman. I couldn’t help but look in the mirror differently each time, even with a glossy, freshly peeled, raw complexion. I came to associate skin care routines with positive life affirmations and healing, looking inward and focussing on myself in a healthier way. It was also a useful reminder that skin is still an organ and you need to look after it.
Now as I’m approaching the end of my 20s, it feels less like I’m going for impulsive buys and instead opting for things I’ve carefully researched. But how will this make me feel is a question I’ll ask now. Spending time and money on beauty products is less about doubling down on serums and peels promising to reveal new layers of my skin like I’m an archaeological site, flailing in the chaos of life goals and career as it once was. It’s now something more tangible and tactile, feeling very much in the moment, holding onto something that can remind me that I’m still here. It’s a small act of rebellion, buying something seemingly fleeting when more permanent and more expensive things like houses and cars become increasingly out of reach. It’s about being able to control something and feeling more comfortable, more aware of and more intimate in my own skin. Even just for a few minutes.