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Beauty Disruptor Series: Jessica DeFino on Creating a New Beauty Narrative

March 31, 2022
March 31, 2022
Jessica DeFino

In the Beauty Disruptors series, BeautyMatter speaks to those breaking the mold of the traditional beauty industry, from shining a light on controversial issues to paving an alternative discourse of its themes.

Any avid reader of Jessica DeFino’s newsletter The Unpublishable will know that this beauty journalist pulls no punches. From renaming Black Friday to Don’t Buy Day with the subheading “consumerism kills,” to her weekly roundup of product-free beauty content, Defino is steadfastly determined to open her audience’s eyes to the problematic underpinnings permeating not just the beauty industry, but society at large. Aside from her own writing and an upcoming book, she writes for the likes of WWD, Vogue, The New York Times, Allure, and The Cut.

BeautyMatter sat down with DeFino to discuss her proposal for dismantling toxic beauty standards, self-expression versus self-rejection, and effecting change from the inside out.

How do you balance the split between The Unpublishable and your freelancing writing?

Part of the motivation for starting the newsletter is I am currently writing my first book, and it was a lot to balance with freelancing. Splitting my time between my own newsletter and book, I am not beholden to other people's timelines. That has been a big help. In a couple of months when the book is done, I'm going to have to retool how I think about things. But in general, my goal overall is to impact people, to bring some of the issues with the beauty industry to light. I want to change how people think about themselves, their beauty, and their inherent worth, and the best way to do that is through getting pieces placed in larger publications. It was never my plan to step away from that and freelancing. Depending on the publication, editor, and advertisers, there are some things that you can't say, places you can't go, and critiques you can't make in a mainstream publication. When I have an idea that I think is impactful, my first step is always going to be: will somebody with a bigger reach than me, and a bigger potential to change the industry, take it? If not, then I'll publish it myself.

Are you able to disclose what the book is about?

It's primarily a skincare book, basically starting from the point of everything you think you know about skincare is wrong. Let's wipe that slate clean, here's why it's wrong,  here's why you've been taught the wrong things. Here's how your skin actually works and how to take care of it, with skincare products being the smallest piece of that skincare pie. How do you take care of it by leaving it alone? How do you take care of it through diet, exercise, massage, all these body techniques, more spiritual things? Also emotional and mental health aspects, how all of that is interconnected with the skin. It’s aiming to change the way we think about our skin, and how we care for it in a more holistic way.

You mentioned that skinimalism is a cutesy term; it risks becoming a trendy thing as opposed to having long-lasting impact. What would enable it to stick?

It has to be a complete overhaul of the understanding of health versus skin aesthetic. That's a big part of what I'm aiming to do with this book and with my work in general. One of the larger issues with the skincare industry, even with skinimalism, is that it equates these arbitrary aesthetic ideals that come and go with the times with health. Those two are not the same. For instance, something like glass skin or dolphin skin that's very popular right now, there's this overarching tone in skincare coverage that healthy skin looks like that. That's actually not the truth. Your skin is not supposed to look like glass, and that's why it's so hard to achieve that effect. If your skin was supposed to look that way, it'd be pretty easy to do. You wouldn't need a 10-step routine. Once we can drive it into the collective consciousness that aesthetic is not the same as health, things can start changing. We can start seeing how these products are actually not helping us in any way. They're just keeping us stuck in this system of adhering to ever-changing but always impossible beauty standards.

"It's no secret that women are judged for their perceived beauty, and that their perceived beauty impacts their social capital, political standing, economic opportunities."
By Jessica DeFino, Founder, The Unpublished

Listening to a recent podcast you did, I thought it was interesting this concept of “Do you want to have power within the patriarchy, or do you want to have a new system?” This idea of being sold a product on the basis of self-empowerment is conflicting to say the least. Of course there's personal responsibility in regards to making those changes, but it's so tricky in terms of what it would take to overhaul that system. The conglomerates aren't going to want to change things because they're making money.

That's why there's such a conflict and it's so hard to place some of these stories that I really want to tell because it goes against the system. It's no secret that women are judged for their perceived beauty, and that their perceived beauty impacts their social capital, political standing, economic opportunities. There's all these studied, concrete benefits of “pretty privilege,” so it's hard to just divest from beauty because it does have real-world impacts. There are two ways to address this issue of being judged by our beauty. One, we can make it easier to adhere to these standards, and that's what the beauty industry largely does: use better products, longer-lasting products, safer products, more effective products. That's addressing the problem of women being judged for their looks by making it easier to attain the ideal. The route that I want to go, which is arguably the harder, potentially impossible route to take, is by changing that fucking system. I don't want women to be judged by their beauty. I don't want us to judge ourselves by what we look like. I don't want our worth to be determined in any way, shape, or form by our adherence to these arbitrary standards. I can see the value in both sides of that argument, I just have no interest in the former myself.

I'm thinking along the lines of the internalized male gaze. We've been fed these messages so much and so strongly that almost without realizing, a lot of people, myself included, think it's coming from a place of self-empowerment and self-improvement, but actually it's just external ideals that have been internalized.

That's the thing that always bugged me about this empowerment angle in beauty. Yes, looking a certain way does give the individual this burst of confidence in the large majority of cases, so you feel good and think, “I'm doing it for me, this is empowering.” But to stop questioning there and just accept “this makes me feel good” is not enough. You have to wonder, why does this make me feel good? It's because this beauty culture has stolen that confidence from the get-go and you have been conditioned to internalize this gaze, to self-objectify from such a young age that these urges feel like they're your own. But they're not. When adhering to a certain beauty standard makes you feel good, then the answer is not: it's empowering, it must be a good thing. The answer is: oh shit, what made me feel so bad in the first place that putting on mascara or getting a shot of Botox makes me feel like I'm a better person?

It's funny, on a personal anecdote, I remember when I was in my early 20s thinking I'll never get Botox, and I'm 31 now and it's interesting to me how over time that strong inner core belief can become eroded away by peer pressure or societal standards.

I'm in a similar boat. I'm 32 and notice the increased pressure and anti-aging messaging, the normalization of procedures and surgery. It's interesting that this pressure comes to us at a time when most women who are in their 30s and 40s say that this is the most powerful time for them internally and personally. It's not a coincidence that we see this increased pressure at those ages to spend more time, money, energy, and mental space into changing what we look like. Pretty much like any other thing in the beauty industry, the point is to steal our power. When you're consumed with what you look like, you can't exercise that sudden burst of personal power that comes with aging.

Also if my headspace is taken up by appearing wrinkles or loss of firmness, it leaves me preoccupied to not be asking other questions about what's beneath the surface. Speaking of aging, there has been a development about turning the term anti-aging into pro-aging or well aging, removing terms like nontoxic. This idea of a consciousness around a negativity bias within beauty language, what are your thoughts on that?

Those terms all mean the exact same thing. It's just a positive spin on it. Pro-aging and aging gracefully mean the same thing as anti-aging. When you get down to it, it's this pursuit of not looking like you're aging as much as you do. It's all filling that same gap in the capitalist market urging you to buy these anti-aging products, but with a nice positive name so that you don't feel bad about it. I don't think there's any difference among those terms ideologically. The other thing that I think about aging is that it's a scam. If you study what we consider to be signs of aging, it's not about aging biologically at all. Something like 15% of “signs of aging” are from biological aging. Most of them are from exposure, so environmental pollutants, sun, high-inflammatory diet, processed foods, skincare products are a big one, things that wear away your skin barrier, which is your inherent protective layer. The only way to revolutionize this anti-aging industry is to be honest about what aging actually is. It's not aging, it's exposure.

I got an email the other day that stated “fight the signs of aging with the anti-inflammatory diet.” If you can fight the signs of aging with your diet, what does that have to do with aging? Or getting the right amount of sleep as an anti-aging tool. If it's about sleep, it's not about aging. Once you start analyzing the language that's used in all of these different products, the whole thing is a lie. 

A perpetual attempt to market something as new.

We have such a societal fear of aging, which is not just about beauty. Our elderly population, particularly in the US, is cast aside, not taken care of, and disrespected. It's very hard to grow older in America for lots of reasons that have nothing to do with what you look like. That fear is already there, and of course the fear of mortality, it's all wrapped up in this pre-existing fear for the beauty industry to capitalize on. It's made all of these things that are not actually about aging appear to be about it, because it's easy to get our money that way.

Aging is human biology.

Aging is living. If you replace the word aging in your beauty marketing with living, you start to realize how ridiculous this marketing is.

Whether you're a consumer or a brand, how can you exist within that ecosystem of beauty in a way that's conscious while not feeding into those things? 

Perhaps there are two paths, but for skincare the only way is to unlearn what you know and relearn everything about the functioning of the skin. Support the skin’s inherent functions rather than manipulate them. Start to get conscious about what is a function of the skin and contributing to skin health, and what is purely aesthetic. Once you start to look at that, you realize most of this industry is just aesthetic, and actually hurting the health of the skin. For skincare brands, if your goal is to support the health of the skin and empower its inherent functions to self-cleanse, self-moisturize, self-exfoliate, self-heal, self-protect, then you're good. Of course that doesn't leave much opportunity in the skincare market. There's so many skincare brands right now that should not exist and have no reason to exist because they do nothing for the skin or skin health. As a consumer, make your goal understanding how your skin works on its own, pare everything back, and only use what supports your skin's inherent function and unique body needs. 

In terms of makeup, there is a lot to be said about the human instinct and drive towards adornment. The reason that the beauty industry has been able to capitalize on this is because there is a strong inherent human urge to put on makeup and express yourself to others. It's been part of human history, like in the ancient Egyptian times. The modern beauty industry has made this claim that all forms of makeup, beauty, surgery, and aesthetic manipulation are self-expression. That's not true. If makeup was about that, would all of our unique, individual soul, deep selves choose to express ourselves with a red lip and a cat eye? No, it's not self-expression. We're just using these very limited human tools that the beauty industry has given us. If we could get back to the true instinctual roots of beauty and makeup, separated from this capitalist idea of everything is self-expression, we would all have a much healthier relationship to ourselves and beauty.

I found that self-expression versus self-rejection argument fascinating. Is it self-expression through beauty, or is that concept a capitalist motive?

There is a true pure form of that that exists. It's been so clouded over by marketing that it does take a lot of inner work and self-introspection to get to a place where you understand what expressing yourself through your makeup really looks and feels like.

It’s that more considered approach. Something wonderfully ironic that you'd recently brought up was the launch of yet another sustainable skincare brand, and how it would be sustainable to maybe not launch a brand because it's such an oversaturated market. But then that also begs the question as to who or what would be the authority on helping to lessen that oversaturation. There's Darwinism where brands can fall by the wayside, become irrelevant, or fade away into oblivion, but for the most part, for every brand that disappears, five new ones pop up. Could there be a system in terms of making sure that the brands or products that are being produced play a significant role and aren't just a repetition?

It's a tough question and there is no perfect path forward there. Government regulation for materials and ingredients would be huge: regulation of the fossil fuel industry, petrochemicals, plastics, cosmetic ingredients, testing for contamination. There have been a lot of reports recently of PFAS found in makeup and benzene, a carcinogen, found in sunscreen. We're finding a lot of contaminants, and they're coming from ingredients that are terrible for the environment. If we had government regulation of these industries, a lot of this oversaturation would have to self-correct. Part of why there is an influx of beauty brands is because it's really fucking easy to start a beauty brand. There's little-to-no regulation or oversight, and these materials that people are using are so widespread and cheap. Many of them are derived from fossil fuels, fossil fuel byproducts, and petrochemicals. Right off the bat, government regulation would affect a lot of the beauty industry in a positive way for the environment. 

There has also been this move lately of: what can one person do, we need government interference, and it doesn't actually matter what people's individual actions are because these industries are so huge. To a degree that is correct, but we are really underestimating the power of individual collective action. That's why I direct so much of my content toward consumers because I do think we and our dollars have power to change the industry, through education on beauty standards, how products affect your skin, your skin being fully self-sufficient. How capitalism has created this wholly unnecessary industry that's not only hurting our skin and psyches, but our planet and wallet. The more education we have on that, the less likely consumers are to buy this stuff and indulge brands that launch unnecessary products.

Voting with your dollar so to speak. Is the best way to effect change from within the industry outwards?

That is the question of my life. I have a lot of conflicting thoughts on the harm that these major beauty publications have caused over the years, the standards that they have enforced. I have a lot of conflict about writing for them, and at the same time, if I really want to change things and reach the people who are most affected by the dangers of beauty standards, beauty products, and the dangers of equating our self-worth with what we look, I have to go to the source. I have to reach them where they're getting their information. It's a debate I still have with myself, but for now where I've landed is that desire for change trumps the ethical dilemma for me personally, because my goal is to help people.

"We have such a societal fear of aging, which is not just about beauty. Our elderly population, particularly in the US, is cast aside, not taken care of, and disrespected."
By Jessica DeFino, Founder, The Unpublished

What can the industry be doing to improve, and what initiatives should people support if they're wanting to create positive change?

Over the past decade, we've seen this framework of clean beauty and people being concerned about the potential dangerous effects of these ingredients in our beauty products. While the clean beauty movement definitely has its flaws, it would be a great framework for starting to call attention to the actual toxic thing about beauty. That is its emotional, mental, psychological impact on consumers. If you look at the beauty industry and beauty culture in general that tells us our beauty determines our worth and we have to look a certain way in order to succeed in life, it is a public mental and physical health issue. Beauty standards contribute to anxiety, depression, body dysmorphia, eating disorders, self-harm, even suicide. There are so many studies and statistics on this. If we chilled out on worrying about whether parabens are doing whatever we think they're doing, and we focus on the toxicity of beauty standards, took action to counteract the mental and physical health effects of promoting beauty standards, what a difference that would make. If brands were as concerned with not promoting the beauty standards as they are about being paraben- or sulfate-free, damn, the industry would transform. Getting that framework out into the collective consciousness would be an amazing first step.

If improving mental health is one of the pillars of your brand, the importance of doing that in a considered and authentic way, and not using it as a marketing gimmick, is really important.

You can't fix the problem with the tools that created the problem. Or like Audre Lorde would say, the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. We see beauty brands wading into wellness and mental health, but the problem is that they're using this capitalist exploitative framework to promote their products. Self-care and mental health is largely not something you can buy. It requires large, sweeping structural changes to how our society is running. 

Rare Beauty is an example of why and how this doesn't work. On one hand you have the brand making a big push toward mental health, donating proceeds towards the Rare Impact Fund. It talks about the anxiety and depression that people experienced because of beauty standards, and then on the other side of the business they're selling foundation and concealer. If you want to sell a lipstick, an eyeliner, something that's self-expression and a tool for a more positive type of beauty, maybe I can understand that. But when you're selling foundation and concealer, which are products that are telling your customers you have to cover up and hide your flaws, it doesn't work. You're using the tools that created the problem to try and solve the problem. We're never going to get anywhere that way because you're contradicting your own messaging with the products that you sell. 

It’s the same as any skincare brand that's focused on self-care and it's promoting anti-aging products. The anxiety and stigma around aging completely counteracts whatever self-care aspect you're trying to push on your product. We are easily tricked into buying the thing when that kind of marketing is there, but we're not getting any satisfaction out of it. That's why we keep buying, because we have this idea in our heads that if I buy something, eventually I'll find the product to solve my problems. I'll find the adaptogen that fixes my stress, but it's not about products, it's about deep structural change.

Trying to find a material solution to an emotional problem. I had also seen you do a post on colonialism and anti-Asian messaging through the beauty industry. How can the beauty industry evolve to become a more authentically inclusive space?

We have to wrap our heads around the idea that it has to go beyond representation. Representation is wonderful and necessary, but it's ultimately not going to solve the foundational problems that are at the center of the beauty industry, which is based on this foundation of patriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism, and capitalism. If you just continue to build on that foundation with a more diverse set of people, it doesn't solve any of those inherent problems. So yes to representation, inclusivity, diversity, but also let’s dismantle that awful foundation. 

For instance, lately I'm seeing this push for access to beauty products and procedures, destigmatizing certain things for certain racial groups. There was an article about Black women getting Botox, pushing to end the stigma about them getting Botox, fillers, or surgery. Of course there should be no stigma around that, but part of that feels like we're just fighting to be oppressed in all of the same ways. If we truly wanted to liberate ourselves, it would be to challenge the idea that anybody needs Botox or filler, to explore the motivations that make us think we need them. Author and professor Tressie McMillan Cottom says, “I like what I like is always a capitalist lie.” I love that, because it's true. The conditioning is so deep that we don't know, on the surface level, what we truly like and want to look like, and what counts as self-expression. This fight for access to oppression is the wrong framework. We should be liberating ourselves equally from these oppressive beauty standards.

Who do you find the most inspiring voices shaping beauty’s future?

Tressie McMillan Cottom. Her book Thick is incredible. She's not primarily in the beauty industry, and very often I find that the best critiques of the beauty industry come from those who are outside of it, because you're not subject to the same conditioning and brainwashing as those of us who are inside of it, and more regularly dealing with brands and marketing, take on. Tressie's book was a game-changer for me. Her work dives into the racism, classism, colonialism, and capitalism at the root of the beauty industry.  If we can incorporate more of her deeply researched ideas into beauty coverage it would be huge.

Another voice that I think is really important is Dr. James Hamblin. He's a coronavirus reporter for The Atlantic, and recently wrote a book called Clean: The New Science of Skin, all about the skin microbiome and how skincare products are working against it, creating these problems that we then try and fix with products, which creates more problems and keeps us stuck in this cycle. 

The microbiome has definitely been emerging. We've seen a few microbiome-focused enterprises enter the space and there's an interesting aspect in terms of working with your body instead of against it. But even with that, will it become another “trend”?

I see the microbiome becoming a trendy topic, but in my experience, in all the beauty coverage I have read, it always turns into product placement. So all of this information about the microbiome comes out and then it's like, here is a prebiotic, a probiotic, and a postbiotic to buy, which are the foundation of your skin microbiome. You don't need those products. The whole point of the skin microbiome is that your skin is a self-sufficient ecosystem. Your dead skin cells are a prebiotic, the bacteria on your skin are the probiotic, the ceramides are the postbiotic. You have them already. It's exciting to see this research come out, and then it's equally depressing to see it being manipulated into here's what to buy.

What are your future perspectives, what's coming up?

The big focus for me right now is my book. I'm already dreaming of a second book that's more about beauty standards and beauty culture in general, how it envelopes and conditions us, and how we can liberate ourselves from that on an individual and collective level. That's what’s most interesting to me right now. For the next couple of months I’ll be focused mainly on my newsletter content. Once I hand this book in, I'm going to start freelancing more, and hopefully getting back out there into the real world, and out of my little author bubble.

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