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Skin care is nothing new — so stop shaming women for doing it

Taking a look at history shows us that skin care is in no way “new.”
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/ Source: TODAY

It's 2018 and women are still looking for what Virginia Woolf called "a room of one's own," a private space with a lock where she can tend to herself. Maybe the bathroom is that room, judging by the billions of dollars women are pouring into skin care.

Spending on prestige beauty in the U.S. has been growing steadily and now comes to $17 billion a year, according to the NPD Group — nearly all of it driven by women. As the skin care industry has boomed, the bathroom has become a place where women take care of their physical bodies and their emotional health. For many, it's armor against a world that tells women they should put down the cleansers and peels to give their time to someone else: putting their family or their job or their kids or their parents or anyone else ahead of them.

There's no one right way to be a woman, so let's stop insisting that there is.

One publication made a splash earlier this week when it called this "New Skincare" as a frivolous, ineffective fad in which women waste their money and punish themselves with "chemical violence" caused by exfoliating acids. The overall implication of the piece is that skin care as it's currently practiced can only come from self-loathing and brainwashing, and if women really loved themselves they would do nothing to their skin. Let's just say skin care advocates on social media reacted ... strongly.

That's a double standard as old as human civilization: Women should be beautiful, but shouldn't reveal how they've worked at it, or else they're a vamp or a Jezebel (or being duped, apparently). Yes, women should have the option to do nothing to their skin. If a woman wants to wash her face with water alone, she should be able to do so. If she wants to put 12 serums on her face, she should also be able to do it. If she swears by mashed tomato face masks, that's her prerogative. There's no one right way to be a woman, so let's stop insisting that there is.

The smartphone created a revolution. Women quickly used online and social media platforms to take people "behind the scenes" of what went into their looks for the first time in history. Early on, there was a trend toward heavy, almost theatrical, makeup, led by Kim Kardashian and her passion for contouring, that launched thousands of YouTube tutorials. Now that confidence manifests in women publicly pampering their skin — talking over YouTube, blogs and text messages about lactic acids and snail-mucin masks.

It's a conversation in which women are talking to each other, literally exposed, with clean skin, complete with freckles, pimples, dark spots and all their flaws in the open. In the world of skin care discussion, on blogs or on YouTube or Instagram, women are frank and confessional about their struggles with acne or wrinkles or stress.

The "New Skincare" means women continue to post pictures of themselves with positive captions, a revolutionary public act of self-assertion in a world in which impossible beauty standards could keep women feeling ugly and mostly silent. And they share their tips freely; they're proud of what they've learned and want other women to have good experiences, whether it's about products or diet or routine. If the "New Skincare" exists, it's mostly about a sense of community and pride in taking care of oneself.

That's why I believe the debate that popped up about skin care isn't really about the virtues of protecting the skin's barrier in an optimal way. It's about judging women's choices, and shaming women for them. It's one of the oldest cultural sports in the world.

History of Skin Care

Taking a look at history shows us that skin care is in no way “new.” Personal appearance has long been considered a public responsibility, and existed well before “Korean skin care” became buzzy or the first Sephora store opened.

Cosmetic spoon in ancient Egypt
This cosmetic spoon, carved in the form of a young woman in a papyrus thicket supporting a vessel, was used in ancient Egypt, circa 1375 B.C.Getty Images

Ancient Egyptians, who lived under a punishing sun that required good skin care, valued personal care so highly that they combined it with religion: They forbade anyone from speaking magical or religious spells unless the person was fully clean and oiled; fashionable Egyptians made sure their favorite serums were in their tombs to ease their path into the afterlife.

More than 5,000 years ago, an Indian form of alternative medicine called Ayurveda advised not only using plants for good health, but to prevent skin from aging. Eight centuries before Christ, Babylonians carved seashells and used them as containers to mix and hold skin care ointments and makeup.

Tridacna shell carved
This Tridacna shell with carved decorations served as a container for cosmetics.The British Museum

The Bible makes ample mention of ointments and perfumes, including the famous story of Mary showing Jesus respect by oiling his feet with expensive perfume. Roman baths were communal places, compared to modern country clubs, where the men and women of an entire town might bathe and discuss politics and gossip all in one place. (Icelandic geothermal pools and Finnish saunas, in which business deals can be negotiated in the nude, still function similarly.)

The societies of Western Europe during and after the Renaissance always prized good skin, and often drank arsenic or tea-grounds to achieve it.

Not surprisingly, satirists throughout history often made a target of women’s elaborate skin care and grooming rituals, from the Roman writer Juvenal to Jonathan Swift, who bawdily satirized women’s beauty routines as the backbreaking work of five hours a day.

More than a century later, the famous Irish beauty and courtesan Lola Montez provided some advice on the importance of skin care: “Nor is it any wonder that woman should exhaust all her resources in this pursuit (of a beautiful complexion) because her face is such a public thing that there is no hiding the least deformity in it.” (Montez also praised Parisian women for wrapping their faces with slices of beef to avoid wrinkles, and cites the invention, in 1857, of ready-made face masks cut from cloth and saturated with moisturizers and oils — a forerunner of today’s sheet-mask trend.)

And let’s be sensible: Skin care for women can also be a form of economic survival. Many women have been taught to fear aging, and to expect to be sidelined or invisible after a certain age. Daniel S. Hamermesh’s book "Beauty Pays" shows that better-looking people get paid more and do better at work. When women look aged, in particular, they are not assumed to be wiser; instead, they may face greater discrimination and financial penalties at work than men.

Still, it has also long been a group sport to make fun of anything women take an interest in.

Fashion was once an interest shared by both men and women — check out King Louis XIV’s chic red high heels. Then Beau Brummell, a 19th century style icon, convinced men that dressing simply was more elegant, which left fashion to women for nearly a hundred years while men wore simple suits. Once men took up a role as tastemakers of fashion again as designers — from Charles Worth to Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent to Karl Lagerfeld — then fashion became the artistic stuff of elaborate museum exhibits, deep cultural commentary and expensive coffee table books.

Portrait of Louis XIV of France
Louis XIV of France, known as Louis the Great or the Sun King poses in 1701. Quite fashionable, indeed. Getty Images

The skin care industry is also one of the few that centers around women as its customers and primary revenue source. Skin care is one of the few industries that responds to women and asks them what they want. That could mean different ingredients, like eliminating sulfates from shampoos or formaldehyde from nail polish.

Does that mean skin care, as it currently exists, is perfect? Far from it. We could use better regulation of skin care products. Magical claims and quasi-science abound. Addressing those concerns is important, pressing and would improve skin care immensely.

But to get better products, that means first taking skin care seriously. And that, in turn, means taking women seriously. Now that would be new.