| Arts & Culture
Style What Is “Skin-First” Beauty Actually Selling?
Rebranding beauty rituals as self-acceptance does nothing to remove the obligation that says we must aspire to be beautiful.
When I was a teenager, I was not familiar with this concept of “good” skin. The terminology didn’t exist in my mid-aughts Southern California high school. You either had acne or you didn’t. If you were the former, you got your Proactiv trio, slapped on some Maybelline Dream Matte Mousse, and hoped for the best. Even if you were the latter, you could give your face a whole new color or texture just for kicks. Either way, you did not wear sunscreen.
At some point in my young adulthood, we began questioning if caking our face in makeup was all that good for us, physically or emotionally. What if we took care of our skin rather than cover it up? As skin care became more popular in American media in the mid-2010s, “good” skin became a commodity worth celebrating. Into the Gloss , the beauty blog that led to the founding of the OG “skin-first” makeup brand Glossier, began its “ Top Shelf ” series, showcasing the skin-care products used by beautiful faces. The Cut , an ostensibly progressive answer to women’s glossies, ran with “ Why Is Your Skin So Good ,” in which celebrities and normal-but-dewy people are interviewed about their elaborate skin-care routines.
By now, it is no longer enough to simply not have acne. There are levels to this shit. Good skin, dewy skin, jelly skin, glazed-donut skin. Skin-care enthusiasts want to show off the results of their labors, and makeup brands have responded accordingly; skin tints, this generation’s answer to BB creams and tinted moisturizers, are all the rage. Proclaiming you like a “natural” makeup look is standard verbiage in makeup tutorials from the likes of Hailey Bieber ; the same people that often advocate “natural” looks have (allegedly) had copious amounts of plastic surgery to achieve those looks.
What’s curious to me is not this trend cycle of products or makeup styles, but that we have come to accept this current state of things as empowering in some way. “Foundation Is Dead . . . A new era is ushering in a wave of self-acceptance,” proclaimed The New York Times in 2022, citing the fresh-faced cast of Euphoria wearing just light skin tints on set. The makeup brand Laura Mercier is also welcoming “self-acceptance” with new products that allow “the wearer’s natural nuances to shine through,” said Vogue Business . “Learning to love our most ‘naked’ self is key I believe,” the noted makeup artist Violette said in an Instagram post showing a model with glowing even skin, wearing just a moisturizing spray from her eponymous makeup brand.
Let us be honest. The foundation-free movement does not promote self-acceptance. If anything, it does the opposite: It raises the beauty standard to more impossible ideals. It puts an even higher value on “good” skin that doesn’t “need” makeup. It’s no longer enough to mimic perfection with face spackle and go about your life. We must be perfect underneath the most minimal of skin tints, at all times. Sure, you can wear some complexion products, but we need to see skin texture poking through so we know you’re not completely faking it. This is a strange era of beauty doublespeak. One that says, it’s not about looking pretty—it’s about looking like yourself! But wouldn’t it be nicer if yourself looked a little prettier, a little more perfect?
On a surface level, the “skin-care-first” approach to beauty seems egalitarian: It’s “you, but better,” rather than the prescriptive conformity of makeup. But as Amanda Mull wrote in The Atlantic in 2019, “good” skin is not as inclusive as brands make it out to be: Your propensity for acne, fine lines, or under-eye bags are largely a matter of genetics, and your ability to do anything about them a matter of economics. Those who experienced early-2000s women’s glossy magazines will recognize a parallel here, in which an exclusive ideal is upheld as the norm to which we should all aspire. It’s why beauty critic Jessica DeFino calls modern beauty parlance “ dewy diet culture .”
And in some ways, the beauty industry learned directly from the diet industry how to perform this it’s-not-about-looking-good-it’s-about-feeling-good bait and switch. “‘Weight loss’ was a pursuit that had, somehow, landed on the wrong side of political correctness,” wrote Taffy Brodesser-Akner in 2017, in a feature in The New York Times Magazine about Weight Watchers’ rebranding as a “wellness” company . “People wanted nothing to do with it. Except that many of them did: They wanted to be thinner. They wanted to be not quite so fat. Not that there was anything wrong with being fat! They just wanted to call dieting something else entirely.”
The beauty industry learned directly from the diet industry how to perform this it’s-not-about-looking-good-it’s-about-feeling-good bait and switch.
That same year, Allure made a bold stance: the beauty magazine would no longer use the term anti-aging . Brands have since adopted the same tactic of eschewing anti-aging language , even as they are still selling the same products—only now with a friendly “come as you are” approach. That sure sounds nice. But “come as you are” only seems to work if you have plump, dewy, even skin.
The broader shift to inclusive language in beauty marketing did, however, open a significant opportunity for me. I first started writing about beauty when I was an editor for Hypebeast, one of the few corners of fashion media made primarily for straight men. Though I was always interested in beauty as a consumer, I hadn’t had the chance to cover it professionally until then. This evolution in marketing tactics in the beauty industry meant, to me at least, that we had a mandate to cover it for a straight male audience, which brands were also catering to more explicitly.
In my initial coverage, I wasn’t especially concerned with how progressive language could make oppressive standards more palatable. Men after all are, by and large, able to consume beauty products without the same weight of beauty norms to which women are held. (The embarrassing “IT’S FOR MEN” products are another matter.) Only when I went freelance in 2021 and began writing for a more general beauty audience did I feel the full onslaught of beauty’s new bent, with the nonstop press releases from beauty brands claiming to be about feeling good rather than looking good taking over my inbox and my brainspace. (Full disclosure: I now also contribute to Allure as a freelancer.)
It also made me question when in my lifetime I first began to see this rhetoric. The rise in skin-first beauty did not begin with anti-anti-aging language or even Glossier, which hit the market in 2014; it goes back to the earlier days of makeup-free celebrity photo shoots. In April 2009, French Elle showcased a sensual but casual makeup-free photo of Monica Bellucci with “ Stars sans fards ” (Stars without makeup) emblazoned across the cover. The genre has since become a mainstay. Kim Kardashian posed for the cover of Vogue España in 2015 without makeup . The same year, Demi Lovato posed for a “spontaneous” makeup-free shoot for Vanity Fair . People ’s “Most Beautiful” issue now regularly includes a makeup-free section, showing beautifully lit stars with makeup-free faces sprinkled with feel-good quotes. “I think being makeup-free stands for loving myself how I am,” said model Kate Upton in the 2021 iteration , shown with a nearly poreless visage.
Ostensibly, the goal is for the celebrity to demonstrate their bravery at displaying their bare face and offer a more “realistic” beauty standard. But instead they are raising the bar for what constitutes beauty. The increase in makeup-free photo shoots coincided with a democratization of makeup skills, thanks largely to YouTube where early beauty vloggers showcased detailed tutorials on contouring techniques and full-coverage foundation (a look that reached its zenith in what is now parodied on TikTok as “ 2016-style makeup ”). If regular people can mimic the beauty seen in magazines with foundation and powder, then perhaps beauty is too accessible. Perhaps “real beauty” should be reserved for those who possess such flawless skin that it doesn’t “need” makeup. At least when Beyoncé sings “I woke up like this,” she is, in fact, openly taunting us.
While the pursuit of flawless skin is a global phenomenon, with many trends and technologies originating in South Korea that generated the K-beauty wave , there’s a certain American need to spin the ritual of skin care into a mode of self-empowerment, rather than a pragmatic way to improve one’s appearance. And if your “good” skin is “earned” through hard work, then you deserve all the positive attention that comes your way. “America has long emphasized rugged self-help, which is a decidedly American phenomenon, born of Puritan values,” writes Rina Raphael in her 2022 book The Gospel of Wellness . “We’re a country founded on meritocracy; she who works the hardest wins.”
Now, it is easy for me to say all this from my vantage point. I am white, thin, able-bodied, conventionally feminine, and young (for now); normative beauty has always been within easy reach for me. (Now that I’ve aligned myself as conventionally beautiful, I’m sure some sad man will pop in to say, actually, I look like a beluga whale and should go back to the Arctic Sea where I belong.) Who am I to say that others should not strive for beauty, that actually we should throw the whole thing out?
But as long as beauty holds currency, there will always be losers. “Our so-called counternarratives about beauty and what they demand of us cannot be divorced from the fact that beauty is contingent on capitalism,” writes the sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom in her essay “In the Name of Beauty,” published in her 2019 book Thick . In the essay, McMillan Cottom outlines her choice to opt out of the system that demands she strive to be accepted as “beautiful” as a dark-skinned Black woman. She writes, “Even our resistance becomes a means to commodify, and what is commodified is always, always stratified. There is simply no other way. To coerce, beauty must exclude. Exclusion can be part of a certain kind of liberation, where one dominant regime is overthrown for another, but it cannot be universal.”
But “good” skin, many will argue, is a matter of health . It’s not a frivolous vanity like makeup. And sure, it’s tempting to feel like my even, smooth skin is a reflection of my healthy diet and commitment to moisturizing, that it makes me virtuous, that if other people just did what I did, they could achieve this too. The same way in which the Kardashian-Jenners righteously defend that they have “worked hard” for their toned bodies and are merely acting as a paragon of health.
“We get up, we do the work. We work out,” Kim Kardashian told Andy Cohen in response to whether or not her family promotes unrealistic beauty standards . “The only thing we’re really trying to represent is being the most healthy version of yourself,” chimed Kendall Jenner. Beauty is health and hard work, you see, and therefore something to which we can (and should) all aspire. The flip side, that our social status was acquired through random luck of the draw or economic exploitation, is not such a nice feeling.
Perhaps this seems like an exaggerated response to the fact that a couple of brands are pushing skin tints. And it is fair to say that I think about these things more than the average person. As a journalist covering beauty and fashion, I not only analyze these topics obsessively; I also benefit from the constantly expanding interest in beauty and skin care. Every new trend and product is potential fodder for a story and income for me. From that vantage point, I find series like The Cut ’s “Why Is Your Skin So Good” to be absolutely brilliant pieces of IP, or the Times article on the “foundation-free era” a clever framing of how new products tie into cultural norms.
I will admit that, at times, I’ve had a chip on my shoulder about the perception of my chosen beat. There are some who believe that what I cover is, at best, fluff; at worst, actively harmful, particularly to women. I understand the motivation then to justify the existence of beauty media through narratives of empowerment; look, this skin-care brand shows people with acne in their ads , isn’t that lovely? No matter that the express purpose of their products is to eradicate acne.
As far as the accusations of fluff, well, I’ll concede I’ve written my share of that. There is a troublingly fuzzy line between journalism and PR in fashion and beauty media; publications often can’t afford to be critical of a potential advertiser. There are article quotas to fulfill, affiliate links to profit off of, and business relationships to maintain, so we constantly need a new narrative to promote the latest releases. In that sense, 2016 full-beat makeup or skin-care-first beauty are largely the same: a chance to shill new products like color correctors and finishing sprays or double cleansing and slugging routines. These things will not, in fact, sell themselves.
The reliance on simplistic narratives and product placement rankles me because there is so much more that can be mined from beauty: Beauty is a lens through which we can look at the world. Even if you aren’t consuming BeautyTok or shopping at Sephora, you too make a choice every day about how to present your face to the world. Those who profess not to “care” about beauty, or fashion for that matter, can do so because their preferred self-presentation happens to match up with what is expected of someone of their gender, or race, or class (or at least aligned enough to seem unremarkable). Our choices do not happen in a vacuum, but they are choices nonetheless.
I choose to wear makeup more often than not, and usually in a minimal style not far off from Glossier models or Hailey Bieber. The style suits my preference for makeup that can be applied with my fingers and elevates a natural asset. (Alas, the South Korean trend for “cute” under-eye bags, aegyo sal , never really took off here.)
There’s a certain American need to spin the ritual of skin care into a mode of self-empowerment, rather than a pragmatic way to improve one’s appearance.
But how much of that is really my innate personal preference is hard to parse. There are many times I’ve felt that the desire to be beautiful is shameful, shallow, a mark of insufficient character or intellect. I was afraid of experimenting with makeup until my young adulthood; it felt at odds with my image of myself as a nerdy straight-A student. But of course I wanted to be seen as attractive. What can I say? I came of age in the culmination of the “ cool girl ,” wherein hotness is indisputably valuable but indulging in feminine tactics like makeup to achieve it is distasteful.
The skin-care-as-self-acceptance rhetoric offers an attractive compromise: It’s the access to the social capital that beauty provides without the shameful tinge of vanity assigned to heavy makeup. It lets us subsume the desire for beauty into a more “worthwhile” pursuit, like health or self-care, while still reaping the benefits of beauty.
In fact, it gives us access to an even better, more valuable class of beauty because it appears “natural.” By contrast, artificial beauty created through makeup is subject to the cruelty of “take her swimming on the first date” jokes, while any beauty crafted through plastic surgery must be vehemently denied . It lets us look like that “cool girl” who just happens to be hot without resorting to manipulation.
It’s a tight needle to thread. And yet rebranding beauty rituals as self-acceptance does nothing to remove the obligation that we aspire to be beautiful. It does not change the fact that men often dehumanize women whom they don’t consider attractive . I don’t begrudge anyone for the choices they make in order to feel most comfortable in their skin—to even feel safe in public. But when we see the beauty goalposts have been changed and sold back to us as empowerment, let us name those new rules for what they are.
The more I write about beauty, the more I have to grapple with the ethics of what I choose to cover. Where is the line between covering a new trend or product and explicitly endorsing it, for example? I am fortunate to have found editors who are open to critical and nuanced takes on the topic. As I’m not on staff, I’m not forced to grasp for a quick narrative in order to fulfill unsustainable article quotas. I still have bills to pay, of course, and it’s a challenge to find sufficient work without compromising my values; I have not always succeeded in that. But I am hopeful: I think there is ample room for us to write about beauty without falling into the trap of reinforcing harmful standards. I think there is an audience for such coverage. This is just the tip of the iceberg. I invite others to plunge deeper with me.