Eva Wise­man

Our makeup rou­tines do lit­tle more than plas­ter over cracks

The Observer Magazine - - Up Front - @eva­wise­man

Ionce went to an acupunc­tur­ist about my headaches. As I lay in my bra in the ma­roon­walled room, he ad­vised on a course of cup­ping ther­apy. Af­ter­wards, I met my friend for a drink, and pulled down my top to ask her if there were any marks on my back – she screamed, prop­erly screamed as if there was a ghost there, rather than a se­ries of dark red cir­cles. The bruises lasted for a week or two, but the headaches re­mained. A col­league said: “Well, did you drink the tea?” And I had drunk the tea, but only for a cou­ple of days, be­cause it was dis­gust­ing. And some­one else said: “Well, did you drink the tea in the morn­ing or the evening?” And I couldn’t re­mem­ber, and they sadly shook their heads, be­cause not only should I have drunk the whole bag of tea leaves, steeped in warm (not hot) wa­ter but I should have drunk it be­fore nine ev­ery morn­ing. I still get headaches. Some­times I won­der: should I have drunk the tea?

Two years ago, women of the west­ern world were alerted to the cleans­ing rou­tines of our Korean coun­ter­parts. First, an oil cleanser, to re­move makeup, then a foam cleanser, to re­move dirt. Then ex­fo­lia­tor, toner, “essence”, serum, boost­ers or am­poules, a face mask, an eye cream, a face cream, and fi­nally an SPF. It made sense, it made a kind of spir­i­tual, up­set­ting, rev­e­la­tory sense – of course we had blem­ishes, lines, patches of dry­ness and doubts about our re­la­tion­ships – we were filthy! These rou­tines were sold whole­sale to peo­ple like me, in­ter­ested in the sooth­ing qual­i­ties of a lovely cream, sad about our ap­pear­ance and/or the com­ing dread of death, and trained to enjoy the se­cret buzz of spend­ing £50 on a serum made with snail juice.

But in Korea, a rum­bling. This month, Korean women have been protest­ing at the ex­haust­ing beauty norms of a coun­try that boasts the most cos­metic surg­eries per capita in the world, with a move­ment called “es­cape the corset”. They’re post­ing pic­tures on so­cial me­dia of their smashed makeup and prod­ucts from 10-step skin­care regimes, some protest­ing the binds of a “misog­y­nis­tic so­ci­ety”, some ques­tion­ing the hours spent per­fect­ing them­selves, in rou­tines that have been mar­keted across the world.

It was the ap­pli­ca­tion of the prod­ucts, in that pre­cise or­der, and the way it was em­braced by so many women in the UK, that sug­gested there was more to this than just ap­pear­ance – what were we prim­ing our­selves for? These rou­tines are not ex­clu­sive to skin­care – ver­sions ap­pear in­creas­ingly across our anx­ious cul­ture, where many seem to be try­ing to un­lock a spell that will pro­tect them.

This is “well­ness”, DIY medicine to cure all ills, in­clud­ing death in its many forms. Rou­tines like these (the cup­ping, the tea, the cleans­ing, the mask) aim to re­con­nect medicine and re­li­gion, of­fer­ing rit­u­als to peo­ple with oth­er­wise chaotic lives. And, if we’re told enough times that it works, we be­lieve it. We pore over the morn­ing rou­tines of the rich and famous (Jeff Be­zos rec­om­mends do­ing “High IQ meetings” at 10am; Tim Cook wakes up at 4am; model Lily Aldridge ap­plies a sheet mask to her preg­nant belly) as if there is a se­cret to be dis­cov­ered, among the de­tails, amid the tea leaves. And there is some com­fort in this – if only we had the discipline or the money, or the time, we too could be per­fect. Even the idea of these rou­tines can of­fer a sort of calm, es­pe­cially to those who feel over­whelmed by a life on­line.

But also, no. Also, these well-mar­keted rou­tines make the per­son that re­lies on them doomed to fail. Be­cause there is al­ways an­other thing to buy, al­ways an­other alarm to set, al­ways an­other way to screw up – sim­ply by skip­ping one sa­cred el­e­ment, you’ve blown it. You’ve blown ev­ery­thing – you’ve ex­tin­guished or­der. As well as skin­care (the im­pli­ca­tions of which span de­bates on racism, ageism and the mean­ing of the word “nat­u­ral”), there are a thou­sand sup­ple­ments that we’re en­cour­aged to in­tro­duce into our well­ness rou­tines these days, from “ac­ti­vated char­coal” to vi­ta­min in­fu­sions or cof­fee en­e­mas, all of which have been de­bunked, none of which have stopped sell­ing. While the shape of the rit­u­als change, the sto­ries stay the same – hu­mans have been per­form­ing pu­rifi­ca­tion rit­u­als for cen­turies, be­liev­ing we need to atone for our sins, whether spir­i­tual or sugar-based.

Could the “es­cape the corset” protests be a tip­ping point for our re­liance on the per­fect­ing rou­tine, whether for beauty or suc­cess? Or, are we happy to be ex­ploited? In the ab­sence of re­li­gion and the se­cu­rity of a kind of faith, is there a greater need drag­ging us in, re­gard­less of what sci­ence tells us, or of the truths Korean women share? As the well­ness in­dus­try ex­pands fur­ther, play­ing on our need for ev­ery­day rit­u­als, it seems the mar­ket for ex­pen­sive magic, for spells that pro­tect us, will con­tinue to grow. ■ Af­ter cus­tomers no­ticed ref­er­ences to au­dio record­ing in the com­pany’s pri­vacy pol­icy, an Amer­i­can mat­tress com­pany has pub­licly re­as­sured peo­ple that it is not hid­ing mi­cro­phones in their beds. Please add this to the grow­ing list of ‘pub­lic state­ments for our time.’

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