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Jessica DeFino crushes my dream that a beauty balm can make me a better mother
Because parenting is hard, no matter how glowy your skin is
For those of you who follow me on Instagram, you know I love beauty copy. Particularly the beauty copy of targeted ads, which tempt me to purchase “cult-favorite powerhouses” (because stuff with cult followings is obviously superior to stuff without cult followings). These ads promise me that clicking “purchase now” will result in UPS or Fedex dropping a package off in a few short days, the contents of which will give me “glowing skin in five seconds” (because we all know that to glow is to be good and we live in America so let’s get ‘er done ASAP). Yet another product will grant me “a warm summer glow that will hide your scars and blemishes” (because scars and blemishes are proof of my mortality, the reality of which should be avoided at all costs). The ads try to sell me oils that “are like food for your body,” because maybe the writers of that particular copy forgot about the whole food-as-sustenance thing. The ads assure me that my “dull legs will be a thing of the past” and THANK GOD FOR THAT because sure, we live in a country that doesn’t want women to make choices about their own uteruses, but very much does encourage women to spend their time and energy invested in eradicating LEG DULLNESS.
I would consider myself a 6 or 7 in terms of skincare and beauty geekiness, which probably stems from the hell of my adolescent acne, and my burning desire to move through the world as unselfconsciously as possible. I initially got into skincare because I wanted a face free from zits, and the first ad (and first product) that lodged itself into my sticky subconscious was probably Noxzema. I can still smell the zingy antiseptic minty scent; I can still recall how desperately I clung to the belief that if I followed the instructions (swirl gently in circular motions), my insecurities, my fears, my messy me-ness would melt away. I wanted so badly to believe in Noxzema’s transformational potential.
And as a mother, my pursuit of beauty is intrinsically wrapped up in wanting to believe that with the right lip balm, the right eye cream, the correct dewy glow, I can inhabit an easier version of motherhood. I realize it’s nonsense of course. I understand that a gel moisturizer will not imbue me with patience when my toddler refuses to stop flinging water at his sister from his sippy-cup like he’s been possessed by a Pinot Grigio swilling Real Housewife. I’ll be pissed either way. But the act of researching, reading about, purchasing, and (sometimes) applying beauty products momentarily tricks me into thinking I can be a different type of person, and so, a different type of mother. A calm mother, a serene mother, a glowing mother, a mother lit up from within (because of some holy grail product or because someone has taken a photo of me an hour or two before sunset).
To interrogate my fraught longing for beauty and skincare to soothe my maternal angst, I reached out to the writer of one of my absolute favorite newsletters, Jessica DeFino. The Unpublishable can best be described in Jessica’s own words straight from her Substack: “Basically, it’s what the beauty industry won’t tell you — from a reporter on a mission to reform it.” Her newsletter is so funny, so smart, so informative, and SO RELATABLE, and every time I see her name pop up in my inbox, I’m excited because whether the newsletter is a poem created from spliced PR emails, an exploration of the beauty industry’s selling of “inner beauty,” or a thread about using beauty as a coping mechanism (HI IT’S ME), I know it’ll be delicious and thought-provoking.
Here’s our conversation about the intersection of momfluencer culture and beauty culture! Enjoy!
In your research, have you seen many momfluencers hawking beauty and skincare products?
Oh yeah. I think there's a very natural flow between motherhood and beauty. And I also think a lot of beauty influencers with huge followings are now at the age where they're becoming mothers. And so they've been able to transition a lot of their beauty and skincare content into motherhood content into beauty-and-skincare-as-a-mother content. So I do see a lot of flow and overlap between the two categories (motherhood and beauty), especially in the MLM space.
Oh my god, yes. The oils!
Yeah, MLMS have always preyed on mothers and beauty is a huge, huge sector in the MLM industry.
Do any specific influencers come to mind?
Not so much. I mean, I have been pretty much off of Instagram for about six months.
Yeah, and three months before that, I started weaning myself off. So I do kind of feel disconnected from current influencer culture right now, which I’m seeing as a sign of success for myself!
The dream. One thing that I've talked to a lot of moms about is how motherhood can be an identity eraser. I mean, almost as soon as the baby vacates your body, the nurses and healthcare providers start calling you “mom” versus your actual name. And I feel like the beauty industry has really latched onto this identity shift, and is really good at convincing mothers that if they buy this fun pink lipstick or if they buy this, you know, fucking $60 eye cream, they are reclaiming their identity, their individuality, their autonomy, their womanhood. And so yeah, I just find that messaging really problematic.
I think it's hugely problematic. I think it really preys on women and mothers when their sense of identity is shaky. One thing I always hear from mothers especially is like, I don't feel like myself anymore. I don't look like myself anymore. And you want to go back. And my response to that is, you're not supposed to feel and look like yourself. You’re growing. The whole point of life is to continue evolving. And like yeah, sometimes those evolution points can be painful. And they're scary and they're weird because you don't know what's going on. But that's a sign that you are living your life. Because if everything is always the same, then something is not progressing. You're not learning, you're not growing, you're not evolving.
And I think it’s really dangerous to target women when they're at that sort of point of in-between stage, and tell them, you must revert back in order to be good. Reverting back is almost never going to be the best path forward for your own personal fulfillment. And I also think that this messaging is really dangerous because it props up beauty as this sort of radical alternative identity to motherhood. And it's really not. It's like one of the three default archetypes of woman. You are Mother, you are Wife, or you are Beauty Object. And deciding to feel less like a mother and more like a beauty object is not radical. You're just floating through these three societally conditioned archetypes that are not actually you or your identity.
Totally. And I think momfluencer culture in particular has done such a terrifyingly good job of marrying all three of those archetypal identities together. Like, you can have a kid but still be hot. And by hot, I mean conventionally or marketably attractive, which often also means thin and white and non-disabled.
Yes, yes. And I don’t know if this is unique to mothers at all, but I think the reason that beauty marketing gets to us so much is because I think real beauty (not standardized or industrialized beauty) is an inherently spiritual concept that every human craves. Like, we want to see beauty all around us. We want to be immersed in beauty, we want to be part of the beauty, but not all of us feel like we belong in standardized, industrialized ideals of beauty, right? The longing for beauty is very pure, but we’re given very limited tools to access or express it.
And the beauty industry makes it easy for us to recognize beauty within ourselves if it looks a certain way. Like if I put on whatever fucking highlighter and I see that my face is subsequently glowy then I can sort of internally check a box and say, okay, this is beauty. I'm doing beauty right.
I think it all comes back to this idea of goodness. Beauty has always been messaged as a moral imperative. An ethical ideal. Even in Disney films. The princess is always beautiful and has, you know, pale skin. And red lips and she’s thin. And then you have a villain like Ursula who is fat and “ugly.” And so from a very young age, we learn that beautiful is good and ugly is bad. And beautiful is this very narrow ideal and ugly is everything else. And I think that directly correlates to motherhood. Like, think of how much ethical, moral shit is tied up in what a good mother is and what a good mother does. So I think in both of these struggles, we just want to be good, and we’re given really bad models for what good is.
For Momfluenced, I did a bunch of research about the history of marketing to moms. And I wonder what you've come across in terms of how mothers specifically have been marketed to and how influencer marketing has just been super effective with moms in particular.
I think the first thing that comes to mind for me is skincare. Because all of a sudden, as soon as you get pregnant, there's a whole bunch of very mainstream ingredients that you’re no longer supposed to use. Suddenly you've been restricted on what you can use. And just like anytime you're restricted, that naturally makes a human being want to overindulge, you know, to sort of replace that thing. So yeah, I think skincare is a really natural gateway into the whole beauty and motherhood realm.
Is there an inherent danger in chasing the dopamine rush of perusing a momfluencer’s feed and clicking “purchase now?” What’s wrong with chasing that momentary little blip of hope that this beauty balm or whatever is going to make my experience of motherhood somehow less shitty?
It's so layered. Whatever you're hoping to get from the product, you will not get from the product. I think that most people would agree with that statement, which is why we keep buying the damn products. So it creates this cycle where like, you need to buy more products to get that dopamine rush because a prior product has let you down, or simply doesn’t work, or maybe it gave you a rash, or a new product came out that’s supposedly better. There’s always going to be something more. So if we don't interrupt that cycle within ourselves and within our minds, we're just setting ourselves up for future failure.
And then there’s the more widespread effect of what that constant cycle of consumerism does to the world. If you want to tie it back to motherhood, almost all beauty and skincare products contain palm oil or petrochemicals in some way. Mica and a lot of these ingredients are harvested by child labor all over the world. There's this very weird tension of wanting to take care of yourself and take care of your kids. But what about other people's children, who are being harmed by the process of harvesting these ingredients? And being harmed by the process of producing all of these plastic bottles? Or the effects of climate change, to which the beauty industry is a huge contributor.
Everyone deserves a little pick-me-up. Everyone deserves a little dopamine rush because life is fucking hard, but I just don't think all of the downstream effects of buying beauty products is a good way to get it. And in terms of wanting to feel beautiful or wanting to express ourselves, these larger concepts don't actually require products. But we've been trained by consumer culture to believe that they do. So when we buy ourselves something, we think we're doing something beautiful for ourselves in terms of like, empowering ourselves or believing it to be self-expression. And I think it all just causes more physical, psychological and environmental damage. We would be better off looking for dopamine hits and self expression and empowerment in concepts that don't require an external product. Maybe it’s art. Or writing, singing, gardening, getting your hands in the earth. There are so many ways to access beauty that don’t require products.
I do often wonder if the act of constantly pursuing (by way of purchasing) a better version of motherhood is a huge distraction from advocating for actual maternal rights and structural reforms for mothers.
100%. I'm sure there is a big parallel here between motherhood and beauty culture, but I always say beauty culture starts with the idea that you are bad. Your skin is bad. You're not beautiful enough. You need something else. And this is compelling because a lot of people are walking around not feeling good about themselves. And so we say, I deserve to feel good and so I'm going to participate in this beauty standard that is actually like an oppressive thing, but it's the only way for me to feel better. And when we funnel our time into chasing that standard, we don’t have the energy to actually fight the oppressive beauty standard. We're actually perpetuating the oppressive beauty standard, right? You could use that same time and energy that you funnel into trying to become a physically impossible ideal of beauty, into changing that physically impossible ideal.
Totally. Instead of buying the eye cream to make you look less tired, you could advocate for all people to have access to postpartum doulas so you (and all the other exhausted new moms) can get some fucking sleep.
I am seeing more and more products being peddled as the only product you'll ever need. And this is so tantalizing for moms. I’m currently getting assaulted by Jenni Kayne’s new beauty line, which does a lot of this. Like, I put it on my kids. I put it on my lips. I can put it on my elbows. And I'm throwing out all my makeup because my glow is incredible. Can you just talk about that because it's sort of making me crazy.
It's possible for them to use that one product for everything because of a lot of invisible and expensive labor on the back end. They have a lot of privileges that perhaps the average consumer doesn't have, in terms of money, in terms of staff, which frees up a lot of their time. Like you said before: being able to sleep; having health insurance; being able to go to the doctor for actual health issues instead of covering them up with a product. And when it comes to beauty—injectables, surgeries, cosmetic procedures, in-office treatments—all of this contributes to these people “only needing one product.” They only have to use one product because they've already outsourced 100 different things to 100 different people and the average consumer is not doing that.
I personally find myself mesmerized by quick little snippets of somebody rubbing a serum in on Instagram or whatever. I don't know if the act of seeing someone else apply cream psychologically makes me imagine myself doing it (and then pushes me harder to buy the product)? I don’t know. I'm just curious about the psychology of that type of imagery.
I do have some thoughts. It’s a big trend. Like, influencers doing their skincare routine or putting on makeup while speaking about something that's a little bit more serious. So they’ll be doing a skincare routine and being like, I'm in the middle of a mental health struggle right now and here's what I'm going through. Or they'll be putting on their eyeliner and being like, remember that you are worthy. You kick ass! So there's this really odd juxtaposition happening between basic beauty behavior and these larger, more important messages which subsequently get tangled up with the idea of beautifying your self. And I do think that's kind of a mindfuck. It sort of reminds me of pharmaceutical commercials, where there's happy music on and the person onscreen is like, frolicking through a field, and the voiceover basically says “this medication might cause you to drop dead.” And with the beauty videos, it feels like the making of your face is the making of yourself. I think we're in a beauty identity crisis. Like a mass crisis event of like, who am I? And we're just trying to like, claim our identities through the products we put on, and it doesn’t work that way.
Thank you Jessica!
If some of these ideas resonated with you, definitely, definitely, subscribe to The Unpublishable, and if you want to read an oldie but a goodie of mine about beauty copy and the promises of a shampoo bottle, click here, and if you want to read more about my desire to be perceived as a “hot mom,” click here.
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Have a wonderful weekend!