Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Activism isn’t skin-deep

Illustration by Kellyn Taylor.

I am sitting with the wettest elbows. 

My forearms are slick with water from this morning when I was bent over the sink, washing my face. They will dry soon, but knowing this doesn’t make the feeling any more enjoyable. I hate getting wet. I started seriously washing my face only a week ago, so maybe the water is a sign of my inexperience—and not the fact that I’m still breaking out. 

Skincare is an extreme sport. For me, it was one of those things that I had no prior interest in and only picked up to impress some girl, but, soon enough, I was impressing myself and that was more important.

I’d like to think that I wake up featureless—my face is pliable, smooth, and blank. I pop in a new set of eyes to fill those sockets, and change the batteries. With my fingers, I pry the wound over my mouth into red lips and screw in my teeth one by one. My smile creases canyons into cheekbones. I pinch my nose into peaks and blow the holes out. I can still breathe.

I apply, peel off, and swallow an edible exfoliating face mask, scrub my face with a foaming cleanser, then massage in toner, various serums, moisturizers, and sunscreen. Now I can be known. 

I’m not Patrick Bateman, but he is as much a beauty influencer as he is a psycho killer—as if looks could kill. For many, Patrick’s mid-skincare monologue in, “American Psycho,” is the greatest, and only, portrayal of men’s self-care in pop culture. But Patrick’s ten step daily skincare routine is what puts the “psycho” in American masculinity—because any male-presenting yuppie who washes their face with anything more than just water must be a serial killer. 

It’s not masculine to slather creamy loads of cosmetic butter all over your face—especially not if you’re swallowing it too. But it should be. I do it every day. 

Long before Old Spice declared “Men Have Skin Too,” women had skin first. And they were paying for it. Since the advent of patriarchy, self-care has been a form of protest. In 1988, professor Audre Lorde wrote, “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”

Still, there is a difference between self-care and skincare—they are not the same. In the 60s, the Black Panther Party first radicalized the appreciation of one’s mind and body—politicizing self-care as a way for Black Americans and other marginalized communities to reclaim their identities from a nation that didn’t care about them. 

If America can’t be proud of me, I’ll do it myself. And we can’t expect to take care of others if we don’t take care for ourselves first.

But somewhere in the hazy digital grid of selfies and feel-good quotes, the idea of taking time for yourself in order to reverse systemic issues was lost in translation. The glaring whiteness of the wellness industry is indicative of Gwenyth Paltrow’s Goop-approved, must-have self-care routine that include $110 moisturizer and $75 candles that smell like her vagina.

Humorist Mara Y. McPartland jokes that instead of rallying for abortion bans, police shootings, climate change, or immigration policy, one can revolt from home by maintaining their complexion with only the most exclusive of exfoliants, cleansers, and serums.

The skincare industry has turned self-care into a status symbol—which is what it is when you’re literally rubbing money into your face. And self-care cannot be an “act of political warfare” if the only war you’re waging is against your frown lines. 

This new age of self-care emphasizes spending copious amounts of money to feel marginally better, as if “treating yourself” is the only way we can learn to appreciate ourselves. But self-care doesn’t have to cost a thing.

The skincare industry has made it seem like self-care is about spending money, which isolates communities that actually need the most care. Because new age self-care focuses on the individual instead of the collective, it reinforces the very structures activists like Audre Lorde devoted their lives to dismantling.  

I’m not saying stop taking care of your skin—don’t, it’s good for you. I’m saying self-care isn’t skin-deep. 

I was always suspicious of self-care because it felt selfish to me, like it was something I didn’t deserve to be doing. Back then, I measured my worth by how burnt out I felt. The more exhausted I got, the more it felt like only then was I allowed to take care of myself. I was never treated for workaholism; I just treated myself by working. 

Eventually, cigarettes and coffee for breakfast became cigarettes and coffee for lunch and, later, dinner too. I was sleeping only five nights a week. I showered when I could smell myself slowly dying. I was working three jobs. I felt like shit. And I loved it. 

At least my skin looked good. 

I don’t know how to feel good without feeling bad first. I never wanted to let anyone help me, care about me. And that’s the point of radical self-care: how can we ever uplift each other if we don’t care enough about ourselves?

Old habits die hard. And just because I do skincare doesn’t mean I’m all better now. I still burn out. I thought staying up made me cool—but I already was. Even though I am taking care of my body, it doesn’t mean I appreciate it yet. Real self-care is accepting that “enough” can be a face like mine. 

I’m glad I chose water over midnight oil. And I don’t think Patrick Bateman ever did that.

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About the Contributor
Bryan Liu
Bryan Liu, Assistant Opinion Editor
Bryan Liu (they/them) is a sophomore journalist from Jersey who micro-doses on pop culture one social commentary at a time. With a background in living arts, Bryan's feature writing also explores the greater Boston area and Emersonian culture. Outside of the Beacon, they climb big rocks and can play every musical instrument.

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