Our makeup routines do little more than plaster over cracks
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.