#MakeupMonday: Skin Care as Coping Mechanism and Catalyst

One of my favorite writers, Jia Tolentino, wrote a piece in The New Yorker recently, The Year Skin Care Became a Coping Mechanism, that spoke to me deeply.  Read this excerpt (actually read the whole thing–every word is brilliant) and you’ll see why:

“There’s … something perversely, unexpectedly hopeful about skin care in today’s political context. Traditionally, skin care represents an attempt to deny the inevitability of the future. For me, right now, it functions as part of a basic dream in which the future simply exists. I recently wrote about the embattled millennial generation, whose members overwhelmingly do not believe that we will receive the Social Security benefits that we are paying for, and for whom conversations about having children commonly invoke fears of climate destruction and violent nationalism and nuclear war. I wonder if women my age are less afraid of looking older than we are of the possibility that there will be no functional world to look old in. Sontag wrote, about anti-aging, “The collapse of the project is only a matter of time.” At the moment, that thought applies much more broadly.

The idea of beauty as a site of resistance rather than capitulation is often traced back to Audre Lorde, who, in 1988, wrote, “Caring for myself is not an act of self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” The context for these words is Lorde’s fight against liver cancer as well as the intersectional politics that she theorized as a black lesbian feminist. But her thought, in a much diluted iteration, has led to the popular idea of “self-care,” in which there is moral and political utility in relaxing with your sheet mask. [bolding added]

This is the core query surrounding makeup and skin care for someone like me: is spending a pretty substantial amount of money on products to look better really any kind of way to resist the current political hellscape of predatory capitalism and its handmaidens of racism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia, and assault on non-billionaires?  Is this form of self care any way to empower oneself and others?

Tolentino quotes writer Arabelle Sicardi: “I think a lot about beauty as propaganda for a success story…We want to be able to not have our suffering visible.”  By looking fresh and glowy in this time of existential despair, am I actually engaging in a form of dishonesty about its impact on me, and on others?

But Sicardi goes on, in Tolentino’s piece: Beauty is a tool that tends to serve those in power, she suggests, and, at the same time, “it fundamentally involves acts of witnessing the body, helping it to endure its conditions.”

Read that again:  “Beauty is a tool that tends to serve those in power…and at the same time, it fundamentally involves acts of witnessing the body, helping it to endure its conditions”

What I have found, for myself  — and I emphatically make no claims with regard to anyone else —  is that attending to my body through dance, clothes, skin care, and makeup has allowed me to better endure what would otherwise be debilitating political conditions.

For me, right now, it functions as part of a basic dream in which the future simply exists.”

This did not happen all at once, and it started earlier than 2017. I began doing skin care intensively in 2014, as a result of growing numbers of invitations to speak on campuses and conferences nationally and internationally. There would always be a photo, and I did not like what I was seeing.

This coincided with my friend Adeline Koh starting her Sabbatical Beauty skincare business.  Already familiar with excellent East Asian skin care regimes from my many years in Japan, I thought, I will kill two birds with one stone: get the kinds of products I know and trust, while supporting the new business venture of a fellow former academic.

I present to you the results, in selfies:







Guys.  Look at my skin. I don’t think it’s amiss to say that it seems to be aging backward.

How many people can say that they look better at 53 than the did at 49 (without any surgical interventions!)?  This is entirely the result of a Sabbatical Beauty regimen faithfully applied twice a day for three years.

[[By the way: please see below for the  list of products I use, if you are curious. And, Adeline Koh is kindly offering 10% off your first order, as a Professor Is In reader, if you visit the site through the link on this page. Disclosure: i will get some reward points if you make any purchases. That is not, however, why I wrote this post!  I wrote it to tell a skin care and politics story, inspired by Jia Tolentino’s essay. But in telling this story, I want to support a fellow feminist entrepreneur by directing readers to her business. Incidentally, because there are a lot of SB products to choose from, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed, you might want to consider also joining her incredibly active and supportive SB Facebook Page to learn more and engage with her highly diverse group of intersectional feminist and academic followers.]]

My skin transformation is also the result of serious study of makeup that began in 2015 (the inspiration for this #MakeupMonday series) which I’ve found helps minimize some of the issues that are beyond the reach of skin care, lol.

And Full Disclosure: It’s also the result of dancing 4 days a week with a group of spectacular women who love and support one another–which is huge for my physical and emotional well-being, and is, I’m sure, reflected in my skin!  And of course: doing work that engages me and feeds my spirit and feels deeply meaningful through The Professor Is In–these things matter also!

But back to this post: why do I share this story and these selfies now?

Because, as Jia Tolentino says, a “beauty project” like this — especially since the cataclysm of the 2016 election — has been about “enduring the conditions” of my current despair.  I have been cast into a frightening level of despondency in the face of assaults on our core democratic institutions, and more personally on women, LGBTQ people, Jews, immigrants, and people of color – which all impact my immediate family.

“There’s something perversely, unexpectedly hopeful about skin care…”

As I explained when I launched #MakeupMonday, dealing in the aesthetic pleasures of color, shimmer, and glow, and the tactile pleasures of serums, and scrubs, and creams, and the slowing-down pleasures of masks, experimentation, and- yes- reading product reviews on Sephora, Ulta, beauty blogs, and indie beauty businesses, has absolutely, 100%, without question, helped me to combat post-election depression.  It has somehow, in some alchemy I can’t explain, helped me to be more bold, more fearless, and more simply delighted to be in the public eye, speaking out against growing racism and authoritarianism.

It is somehow, in a way I can’t explain, related to my determination to stand on a traffic island weekly with a core group of fellow protestors, and protest the Trump administration, in a series of bold lipcolors.

It is related to my desire to be VISIBLE, on terms that I like.

It is even related…in ways I’m still contemplating deeply… in my impulse to launch the Sexual Harassment in the Academy survey.

Is there irony that skin care and makeup would inspire work exposing sexual harassment?  Yes, I’d say so.

Is it strange?  Yes.

Does it seem frivolous that the unprecedented teal color I chose for my manicure with my daughter yesterday would somehow directly result from the Sexual Harassment in the Academy survey and indicate, for me: Fuck the Patriarchy?*


But that doesn’t mean these things are not true.  I look in the mirror every day, and I like what I see. My spirits lift, and I am energized to do more.

Yes, this is participation in consumerism. Yes it’s entirely absorbed in capitalist logic. Yes this is a capitulation to a neoliberal ethos of individual self-care.  And… it is also a pleasure, a joy, a field of accomplishment, a source of connection with my daughter and other women, a means of supporting women entrepreneurs, and most of all, a catalyst to greater protest, greater resistance, greater activism and greater public visibility in the service of the causes I believe in.

Tolentino writes:  “it’s up to us to reframe beauty as the means to something, rather than, as the market would have it, an end in itself.”

So, I will keep on with my creams and masks.  And in conclusion: what I wish for all of you is that you find the things that feed, inspire and energize you, and hang on to them for dear life… because we’ve never needed them more.

*Miyako asked: “Uh oh. Is my ballet pink a capitulation to the patriarchy??”

Sabbatical Beauty products that I use daily, as part of the multi-step regimen that is standard in East Asian skin care, as I learned it in Japan:

  • Goat Milk and Rice Cleanser (day and night)
  • Dorian Gray Anti-Aging Serum (day)
  • Asian Powerhouse Serum (day)
  • Marine Serum (day)
  • Camel Milk Moisturizing Cream (day)
  • Sleeping Beauty Oil (night)
  • Sake and Rice Sleeping Mask (night)
  • Sake Kasu Mask (bi-weekly)

I use two other products daily to target my formerly chronically puffy, saggy under-eye area which I get super-cheap at TJ Maxx (I’m allergic to the Sabbatical Beauty undereye oil and to almost all other eye products, so these two are the outcome of long and dedicated searching):

An exfoliating cleanser that I use every few days to brighten and clarify my skin:

Acure Brightening Facial Scrub

Plus under-eye masks as needed to deal with seasonal allergies, sleep deprivation, etc. etc.  I’ve tried many and these are the best:

SpaLife Anti-Aging Under Eye Treatment (Diamond)

*My regular intro:

Welcome to #MakeupMonday, my weekly series on makeup; academic and postacademic job market and productivity posts will continue on Tuesday and Friday as usual.

Here is my weekly reminder:  I will not engage with makeup-shaming here or on any Facebook or Twitter comment threads. I support your right to not wear makeup, and anyone who dislikes makeup, disapproves of makeup, or wants to argue that no academic woman should be judged on the basis of makeup (which nobody is claiming anyway), I suggest you come back for my other posts on other topics.

For previous posts, see the following:

Similar Posts:

About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


#MakeupMonday: Skin Care as Coping Mechanism and Catalyst — 7 Comments

  1. Tell Miyako that looks like Millennial Pink to me! Totally patriarchy-resistant!

    “I think that sort of subtle pink is in many ways a loud appropriation of the color pink. Millennial Pink, or Tumblr Pink, as I’ve also heard it called, is a political appropriation of color. Pink has a history of being such a polarizing color, relegated to Barbies and bubble gum, and that’s changing for political reasons as opposed to aesthetic ones. … ” https://www.thecut.com/2017/03/why-millennial-pink-refuses-to-go-away.html

    P.S. Thank you for the inspiration as always!

  2. Pingback: #MakeupMonday: How I Got My Lashes Back | The Professor Is In

  3. Great read. I absolutely love this. I suffer from PTSD and have been in and out of the hospital for different surgeries and etc for the past three years. Skin care has saved my life, as silly as this sounds. I look forward to getting up every morning and going to bed every evening. I used to struggle with insomnia and crippling anxiety about getting out of bed in the morning due to agoraphobia. Because of skin care I find myself able to wind down at night, and do something for me every single morning. It has helped me time and time again– and even now as I’m typing this while waiting for my facial mask to dry. lol! I must say you look absolutely stunning! Glad to hear I am not the only one who has found skin care to be an amazing and life changing coping skill. Best Wishes

    • This makes me so happy! I too find the wind-down with my nighttime routine really soothing. And sometimes it’s just “doing my makeup” that catalyzes me to actually get out of the house! So, I get it!

      I also have to ask—do you hang with the Sabbatical Beauty FB crowd? Because they are great. No pressure from me to buy– they are just a cool bunhc of intersectional feminist academic women (to a large extent) who love skin care!

  4. I wish I had something profound to say, but even so I wanted to comment. Basically…YESSSSS. Thank you for posting this. You’re one of my favorite authors/critic of academia/LGBTQ role model who’s only slightly older than I am, so seeing that you’re also struggling with (and subsequently rocking) the issues of personal appearance, consumerism, aging, feeling good about yourself, etc. etc….well, it inspires me to give my hair a second chance, change out of my sweat pants, track down that lip stain shade I loved in undergrad, keep writing/thinking/questioning, and regret none of this. Also, based on the pics, you seem to be really GOOD at this–I’ve opened the “makeup basics” post to read next. Exciting in very strange ways. Thank you!

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