By Noor Lorist
The unthinkable happened. I am not sure when it occurred, but my face has changed. I discovered it not so long ago: what was once a signature frown has turned into a lingering line in between my eyebrows. It is slight but it is there. A wrinkle. My mother lies and says she does not see it. My boyfriend lies and then says it looks cute. It is clear to me. It is not deep, but it is definitely there.
I have always been perceived as younger than I actually am. I am twenty-four now, and until recently, I have been carded for every alcohol purchase. Lately though, not that often. At first, I thought it was just because I was doing grownup shopping: no 17-year-old would be smart enough to buy organic tofu and vegan mayo with their illegally purchased mixer. Perhaps I had just been buying better wines, or maybe it was because I had often been accompanied by my older boyfriend. But maybe, the inconceivable happened, and it is just that my face has changed.
My mom has great skin. She looks youthful for her age and the fine lines she has are natural and non-distracting. This is why I was never worried about physically ageing. I would apply moisturiser and SPF occasionally when I remembered to. Now I force myself through 30-minute ‘skincare expert’ YouTube tutorials that I really don’t care about in order to know which beauty brand I should trust with my money.
Retinols, peptides, hyaluronic acid, Botox: I contemplate it all. It’s expensive and the hypochondriac in me is afraid of the long-term effects. I don’t really want any of it, but the ‘experts’ say that if you get to it whilst you’re still young you will prevent further decay of the skin. “You cannot fix wrinkles”, I read, “only prevent them”. And so, I contemplate it.
The feminist in me wants to embrace my ageing. I am privileged to be able to age at all. No man is written off after thirty; their socio-political power only increases with age, yet women are instructed to start their skincare routine at twenty to prevent looking thirty when they are, in fact, thirty. Wrinkles signify ageing, and according to society the ageing woman is an undesirable one. Female beauty is fleeting and thus so is women’s societal value. I think of Naomi Wolf, who wrote that “ageing in women is “unbeautiful” since women grow more powerful with time,” and how our society is built to fear powerful women, lest they disrupt patriarchal standards and threaten the system (Wolf 14).
In 1988, Wolf already described how creams and oils not only offer recluse from the inescapable horror of ageing, but how they also offer an apparent grip on the female identity. This “post-feminist” school of skin-care” as Wolf dubbed it, seems to have only grown over recent years. Whereas the internet appears to be on its way in the body positive movement, openly showing and even embracing women with thighs and bellies of all sizes, adorned or not by cellulite, it simultaneously seems to have replaced this toxic view on weight with a skin-care obsession: the ‘clean’ look of shiny, smooth and poreless faces devoid of any imperfections is now the standard that women – plus-sized or otherwise – must conform to.
Branded under ‘self-care’, we now demand shiny, smooth, radiant faces from women and call it health. But, if skincare really was about health, wouldn’t its targeting be much less gendered? And if it were targeted towards health, why are we so adamant about preventing natural signs of healthy ageing? “Skincare routine!” comments demand responses from TikTok girls with spotlessly perfect faces. Excitedly, they haul the litres of products they apply to their faces daily. Face-tune and ring lights are conveniently forgotten in this discourse.
Not only is the smooth, young face romanticised, fetishized, and commodified, but the act of skincare itself has been turned into a ritual conveniently branded as ‘self-care’. If you do not spend half an hour a day rubbing various creams and oils into your face, you apparently do not care about yourself. Self-care is self-love and apparently, this results in beauty: once again emphasising that unbeautiful women must not care about themselves and must be unworthy of love.
Maybe in a few years retinols and fillers will be regarded as being equally toxic as diet pills and detox teas: harmful to female mental- and physical health for seemingly purely aesthetic reasons. As a feminist I absolutely agree that we should not strive for the hairless, skinny, smooth and poreless body of a child in order to remain appealing.
Yet, I cannot blame women for getting on board this potentially toxic trend: I do it too. The whole concept of ‘female beauty’ is a patriarchal trap and the feminist in me despises it all, yet conforms to it every morning. And in that case, what really is the difference between injectables and eyeliner? Despite intellectualizing my self-critique, my rational feminism does not eradicate my internalized misogyny. Although I recognize why conforming to the standard is problematic, I still want to benefit from conforming and instinctively desire to be perceived as conveniently attractive. Looking in the mirror, the line still bothers me. I would love to make the purposefully activist decision to leave my face entirely alone, but when coming across one of the girls I follow on Instagram getting Botox in her story, I catch myself wondering if an ampul of Botox is an appropriate Christmas wish list item. Whether or not I will put the needle to my skin will, in the end, probably depend mostly on the state of my bank account.
Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women. Chatto & Windus, UK, 1990.
Illustration by author Noor Lorist