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Defying the Beauty Industrial Complex

Defying the Beauty Industrial Complex

Back in April, I did an experiment: for thirty days, I wore absolutely no makeup. I allowed myself to brush my brows and curl my lashes, but that was it. Much to my surprise - the experiment was just for fun and to give my skin a break - the experiment revolutionized how I take care of myself. I said at the time that I was going to blog about the experience, but thanks to 45 and his mess of an administration, I've been writing about other topics. No longer! It's time to talk about beauty standards, capitalism, and how I groom myself while giving the middle finger to both those social forces.

The Beauty Industrial Complex takes its name from the Prison Industrial Complex, which the abolitionist organization Critical Resistance defines as a term describing "the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems." I can't find any definitions of the Beauty Industrial Complex online, but there are a fair number of feminist publications that reference the term. It's common enough in a Google search that I know I'm not the first person to talk about this, and I sure hope I won't be the last.

Given the severity of mass incarceration, it may seem extreme to draw a comparison between the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) and the beauty industry. To be clear - the Prison Industrial Complex is an incomparably cruel and destructive system, and I'm not suggesting that the Beauty Industrial Complex is in any way as terrible. Though I'm not saying the phenomena are equally oppressive, however, they do share disturbing similarities that merit consideration. The PIC puts the government and private industry in bed together; the FDA does not require approval of cosmetics before they hit the shelves, and the cosmetics industry is one of the least-regulated in the country. The beauty industry (including cosmetics, haircare, skincare, and diet products) manufactures and reifies impossible standards to police women and and gender-nonconforming people's bodies; one writer goes so far as to characterize men's role in upholding beauty standards as both "judge and executioner." Everywhere women/GNC folks go, the male gaze simultaneously demands that we meet beauty standards and shames us for performing beauty. The white men who run the beauty industry have created a pervasive form of surveillance that effectively controls everything from our health to our wages to our physical safety. The PIC and the Beauty Industrial Complex share a legacy of racism. Both systems are designed to subordinate us to capitalism for the purpose of maintaining the current power imbalance that favors white men.

The thing is, I already knew all this before I did the no-makeup experiment. I've read The Beauty Myth and watched Miss Representation. As an eating disorder survivor, I was already well aware of the insidious ways beauty and diet culture pervade my psyche and the world around me. That's why, despite knowing how "radical" a makeup-free face can be, I didn't expect the experiment to make much of a difference in my life. Boy, was I wrong. 

A the beginning of the experiment, I found myself surprised at how uncomfortable I felt leaving the house and going to work with a bare face. I felt naked. There's nothing anti-feminist about wearing makeup, but I was clearly more dependent on it than I realized. More than half of the thirty days passed before I felt confident in my makeup-free appearance. The revelation that I'm not as independent of the beauty industry as I thought was both unsettling and inspiring. I resolved to uncover more of my dependencies and demolish them. I wanted to burn the metaphorical bra.

Since I was learning more about the zero-waste movement at the same time, skincare and haircare came next. The horrors of plastic pollution are undeniable, and I wanted to find an affordable alternative to store-bought, plastic-packaged, chemical-laden products. Furthermore, ever since reading in The Beauty Myth that most skincare products are designed purely to make money rather than to actually provide results, I'd been deeply suspicious of pretty much anything that promised to improve my skin health. I quickly found Sophie Ollis and Madeleine Olivia on YouTube, both of whom make many of their own vegan and natural beauty products.

Madeleine in particular prompted me to try the "No 'Poo Method," otherwise known as the No Shampoo Method. Conventional shampoos are full of toxins and are designed to strip away our hair's natural oils, resulting in an overproduction of oil by the scalp to compensate. The overproduction of oil makes us need to wash our hair again within a day or two. We then need to use conditioner to add moisture back to our dehydrated, over-washed hair follicles, and the cycle starts all over again. Sound familiar? Yes, it's yet another way in which the Beauty Industrial Complex manufactures false needs that it then sells products to satisfy. The transition period for no-poo is a bit rough for most, including me, since my hair had become dependent on shampoo. It's taken my hair about a month to regulate its oil production, and so I had to suffer through some greasier hair days. Coupled with my in-between hair length (I'm growing out my pixie cut), I definitely had some less than stellar looks, many of which I tried to hide with a bandanna. Now that I'm mostly through the transition, however, I love the No Poo Method and never plan to go back to conventional shampoo. (And yes, I still cleanse my hair so that it doesn't get dirty - just with different products. Details coming below.)

I don't know that I've ever felt as at peace with my appearance as I do right now. Part of that is the work I've done for my mental health, of course, but I think that abstaining from participation in the Beauty Industrial Complex has had a significant positive impact. I'm not inundated with advertisements and false promises. I don't shell out criminally large amounts of money for products that rarely work. I'm self sufficient. I don't have to stress about running to the store when I run out of something, because I can just make more. I know every single ingredient that goes onto my body, and none of them are toxic. All of these elements make me feel like I am truly taking care of myself, rather than scrubbing and polishing my body into some patriarchal idea of how I'm supposed to look. And the kicker is that not one person, even my partner, has noticed a difference in how my face, skin, and hair look, smell, or feel. Reject the Beauty Industrial Complex, feel better, and look the same? Sounds like a pretty great deal to me.

I'm sure you're curious about what my current routines are now that I've ditched the old ones, and I'll share those in a post tomorrow. Before I go, though, I want to leave you with a final note: nothing in this post means that you are wrong, anti-feminist, or any less radical if you use conventional beauty products. I also recognize that because I am white and cis, my appearance is less scrutinized than that of trans, gender-nonconforming, and non-white individuals. My intent here is to inspire you to question societal norms and beauty standards, not to make you feel bad - do what feels right for you! This just happens to be the best way for me to live. The only exception to the do-you rule consists of products that are tested on animals. Animal testing is cruel and unnecessary and there are plenty of inexpensive, widely available conventional beauty products that don't fuck with the bunnies, cats, dogs, monkeys, and other furry friends whom we love.

Go forth, do you, and be free.

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Photo by Seth Doyle on Unsplash

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