An excerpt on obsessive beauty culture from new Australian release, ‘Skin Deep’


An exclusive excerpt from Phillipa McGuinness’ new book.

Teenage Makeup Heist may not be a movie you’ve heard of, but it’s showing nearby. I watched it play before my eyes a few months ago in a Mecca Cosmetica emporium within an upscale shopping mall. This Mecca is directly opposite Sephora, down from Aesop, Aveda, The Body Shop, Jurlique, Kiehls, L’Occitane en Provence and M.A.C.

From there, your nose might lead you to the acres of department-store beauty counters overflowing with Clarins, Dior, Guerlain, Lancôme, SK-II and so, so many others. Working through my Christmas list, I happened to step into Mecca at the same time as a group of teenage girls, all around thirteen years old. I wouldn’t have noticed them were it not for their voluble excitement and the many branded shopping bags they had hooked over their adolescent arms, excessive enough to seem ridiculous.

We like nosy people. Don’t be shy, head to our Beauty section for more. 

‘Wow, those girls are really spending up,’ I thought. I was wrong. Within minutes the security alarm sounded. They came, they stole, they fled. It’s possible that all those bags they carried were empty decoys. Perhaps an employee felt compelled to chase them, perhaps not. After this mini-drama, I dutifully lined up to pay for my purchases: Zincredible tinted moisturiser for my sister and a M.A.C lipstick, in the shade Syrup, for me.

While I stood there, I eavesdropped on the store manager talking to a security guard, repeating lines from a no doubt oft-rehearsed script: “They were young – actually, really young. It’s hard to describe what they looked like. They were carrying lots of bags.” The shoplifters were White, the best disguise possible. As I handed over my credit card at the register, I asked the assistant what she reckoned they stole. She shrugged. “Could have been anything,” she said, gesturing to the thousands of products displayed around her. “Whatever they can grab.”

We might say they were like kids in a candy store. But only if said candy store were a flagship of its industry, like this shop. The beauty industry itself lies within the wellness-industrial complex. Throughout thousands of enormous retail centres like the one I was in, and across the world of online shopping, the beauty and wellness industries manifest in products that promise to empower you to become the person you deserve to be, the best version of yourself.

Let you live your best life. Realise your desires. Ensure your skin is properly hydrated, at last. Achieve your skin goals. Give you that dewy glow. Brands that share your commitment to stopping the march of time. Formulations that offer full coverage. Luminescence. Confidence. Youth.

Beauty and wellness have what you need to help you with all your skin needs. Eight-hour cream. Skin food. Retinol, or organic retinol alternatives. Sleeping masks. Clarifying lotion. Retro moisturiser (not cold cream slopped out of a vintage barrel, but state-of-the-art, clinically tested skin hydration recommended by dermatologists, presented in an Instagrammable retro tub).

But wait, there’s more! Super-nutrient face oil. Lactic acid treatment. Ceramide capsules. Cell energy creme. Multi-corrective cream. Beauty flash balm. Moisture surge hydrating lotion. Renew and reset serum. Youth-activating concentrate. Foaming cleanser. Satin milk cleanser. Dual-action cleanser. Deep hydrating moisturiser.

Stem-cell superfood. White lucent brightening cream. Glow peel pads. Korean sheet masks. Cracked heel souffle. Blue orchid face treatment. CBD eye cream. Lip balm with acai. Retexturing activator. Blue light defence hydro-mist. Antioxidant lip repair. Pore refining scrub. How could you live without all this?

These skincare products, all real, are but a pipette drop in an ocean of lotion. The variety of different makeup products could easily run for another fifty pages before eyeliner and mascara were ticked off so we could move on to lipstick. Skincare products are not new, but they are a long way from your grandmother’s single tub of Ponds cold cream. Is it all expensive bullshit in a bottle?

Is the main active ingredient hope? On the one hand, yes, maybe, but there must be exceptions. It can’t all be a giant scam. Would I buy these products? I do. I have quite the selection in my bathroom cabinet and drawers, a few in my handbag, some next to my bed. Have they made a difference? Who could say.

I see this obsessive beauty culture for what it is. It coopted me before I was born. It identifies my subjectivities, inadequacies and vulnerabilities, and makes me pay to make them go away, while simultaneously consolidating and augmenting them. Pure genius. But my scepticism doesn’t erase my concerns about puffy eyes and uneven skin tone. Can I mock the beauty-wellness-industrial complex, decry its existence and embrace it all at once?

I may not be an Instagram regular, but I live in the world. I am bombarded by nonstop images of beautiful people telling me their whole lives were remade by a certain product. Sultry billboard images, the miracle promises and scientific advances proclaimed in print advertising and advertorials, gorgeous faces popping up in my social media feed, blatant product placement in every form of moving picture.

There are more brand ambassadors in the world than there are diplomatic missions, and they’re all trying to get in my face, on my face. A celebrity becoming the new face of a perfume, mascara or lipstick, and thus becoming the product themselves, is reported as news. YouTube makeup tutorials, watched by millions, are proof that it’s possible to be fascinated and bored in equal measure. (AOC excepted.)

The word ‘influencer’ used to refer to someone such as former US Secretary of State and national security adviser Henry Kissinger. Now, influencers look much better as they rake in the cash. The hordes scrambling to reach the summit of Mount Influencer are directing their messages our way, all trying to sell something.

Skin Deep by Phillipa McGuinness ($34.99, Penguin Random House) is available now. Get yourself a copy here.

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