"Skincare Culture is Dewy Diet Culture"

On beauty standards, Kardashians, and the paradox of anti-aging with Jessica Defino.

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Because this is what we do to ourselves every day. We put in so much effort to just exist as basic people in the world. Like, we’re not like knockout celebrities. We’re not like stunning anybody. Like, we put in all of this work for a reward that doesn’t actually ever come.

You’re listening to Burnt Toast! This is the podcast where we talk about diet culture, fatphobia, parenting, and health.

Today I’m chatting with Jessica Defino. Jessica is a pro-skin, anti-product beauty reporter who is dismantling beauty standards, debunking marketing myths, and exploring how beauty culture impacts people. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Vogue, Allure, and more. She also writes the beauty-critical newsletter, The Unpublishable.

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Jessica Defino

Episode 47 Transcript

Virginia

I feel a weird compulsion to tell you that as I contemplated this conversation, my skin broke out very dramatically. And I was like, do I need to disclose this to her? And then I was like, No, it’s fine. It’s fine.

Jessica

It’s totally fine. You’re just a normal human being with skin.

Virginia

Yes, exactly. But it was very funny timing. Why don’t we start by having you tell listeners a little bit about yourself and your work?

Jessica

I describe myself as a pro-skin, anti-product beauty reporter. I report on beauty and skincare, mostly through the lens of skin first, and then what we put on the skin and the consumerism of it all second, which is pretty rare in the beauty space. It’s also really hard in the beauty space. I was finding all this information about skin and skincare culture and beauty culture and really wanting to report on it, and found that I had a hard time placing these more controversial pitches. My bread and butter is still freelancing. I write for places like the New York Times and Vogue and Allure, but mostly these days, I’m working on my own newsletter The Unpublishable where I can dive a little deeper and explore some of these not industry-friendly topics.

Virginia

You’re speaking to my soul. As my readers know, I started Burnt Toast so that I could write diet culture stories that I can’t write in the outlets that run diet ads next to my work. I spent a long time at women’s magazines and the ethical conundrum of the beauty department is fascinating. And I don’t think people understand the extent to which advertising and beauty content are interwoven. Sketch that out a little bit for us.

Jessica

It’s intense. I had no idea until I started reporting on the beauty industry, too. Beauty media is pretty much funded by beauty advertisers, which means it’s not within a publication’s best interest to publish anything that goes against advertisers’ interest—which means a lot of beauty content is very product focused. It’s very sort of light and airy, and not diving deep to question, like, how are these products affecting our skin, our health, our endocrine systems.

Beauty media makes money in one of two ways: Through advertising or through affiliate sales. So there’s a big internal incentive to push a lot of products on people, because the publication will get a cut of all those products that are sold online. It’s very interwoven. I have had so many stories killed or completely edited to remove brand names, softened, just really toned down in order to appease advertisers.

Virginia

I want to tell you my story of this, which is taking us all the way back to 2007,1 pre- social media. I did my first big investigative feature piece, which was a deep dive into working conditions in nail salons. I wrote it for Jane magazine, when Jane was the coolest women’s magazine, and also the sort of counterculture women’s magazine. I spent all this time with these nail salon workers, exploring every aspect of this, and they killed it right before we went to press because of nail polish advertisers. And because a big portion of subscribers were nail salons, and they thought they would lose subscribers.

That was such a transformative moment for me as a journalist. I was like, Oh, I have to figure out different ways to do this. Because that was a media outlet that I don’t think you would have expected to be as beholden to their advertisers as they were. I can talk about this all now because they folded a million years ago and the piece did end up finally running in The Nation, which obviously has no beauty advertisers. But it also was read by a much smaller audience, not all of whom understood what nail salons were. I mean, the overlap between nail salon customers and The Nation readers is probably not that big.

Jessica

That’s the thing! It is a little bit easier to get some harder hitting pieces published in more news-driven outlets, but that’s not where the majority of people who are interested in beauty are getting their beauty information. And so I try really hard to infiltrate those spaces. But it is hard and your story doesn’t surprise me at all. Still, every time I hear something like that, it hurts.

Virginia

And when you’re trying to publish in the other outlets, you have to convince them that these issues matter. Because now it’s a women’s issue. It’s fluffy. It’s beauty. There’s that whole piece of it.

Well, we could rant about that forever, but I feel like we also need to talk about Kim Kardashian. And I probably need to apologize for making you do this, because it’s maybe bringing up some trauma. But we are recording this, it’s a week after the Met Gala when Kim wore Marilyn Monroe’s dress and went on this crazy diet losing a stupid amount of weight in three weeks. You wrote an incredible piece for Vice about your experience working for the Kardashians’ app company. You draw so many smart parallels in that piece between underpaid media work and beauty work. So what is your take on the whole Met Gala thing?

Jessica

So Kim was boasting about spending three weeks basically starving herself working out twice a day in a sauna suit. She did an article for Vogue where she said she spent 14 hours the day before getting her hair bleached. Like, that’s so much effort. And my thought was: She looked fine. It was a pretty boring look. It wasn’t a standout moment at the Met Gala. And that makes it such a perfect parallel for mass beauty culture because this is what we do to ourselves every day. We put in so much effort to just exist as basic people in the world. We’re not knockout celebrities. We’re not stunning anybody. We put in all of this work for a reward that doesn’t actually ever come and I thought it was a pretty interesting parallel there.

Virginia

Yes, it’s an amazing metaphor of what we’re all doing. She just compressed it all into three weeks.

My other thought was, this is a woman for whom beauty work is so non-negotiable. If she wants to leave the house without makeup, this is something that’s going to be covered and talked about. So for me, it just kind of felt like why are we even surprised? She’s saying out loud what a lot of other people were also doing to get into their dresses, they just weren’t making a media stunt out of it. It’s not uncommon for a celebrity to spend three weeks before a big event doing insane things to fit into a dress.

Jessica

It’s not uncommon for anyone. I had tweeted something to that effect and someone was like, “Please, this is what women do before their wedding day all the time. It’s not that big of a deal.” And I was like, “Just because it happens all the time doesn’t mean it’s not that big of a deal.” That’s a huge deal. That’s a huge deal that so many people are doing it constantly. It’s not just celebrities.

Virginia

A line I loved from the Vice piece is: “Beauty standards have always been physical manifestations of systems of oppression.” This, of course, applies to the diet industry just as much as it does to beauty and skincare. So I really want to explore the intersections of these two cultures. How are skincare culture and diet culture really one and the same? 

Beauty standards have always been physical manifestations of systems of oppression.

Jessica

I always say that skincare culture is dewy diet culture. There are so many parallels. In both instances people have been made to believe that a certain aesthetic signifies health, when that’s not the case. We’re sold products to help us achieve that aesthetic at the expense of our health. We’re sent to doctors who reinforce beauty standards and call it medical care. There are all sorts of doctors who subscribe to BMI as a marker of health, and will tell a patient “just lose weight” when they actually have cancer—and dermatologists are really not that different.

I don’t mean this as a slight against dermatologists. This as an indictment of the entire western medical system where beauty standards have been subsumed into medical care. When you’re going to a dermatologist, very often, aside from skin cancer screenings, you are getting treatments to help you look a certain way without ever exploring the root cause of why your skin is reacting the way it’s reacting. The entire thing is “how do we get rid of this as quickly as possible?” And very often achieving that goal goes against your actual skin health.

Photo by Anna Efetova via Getty Images

Virginia

And they’re often treating things that aren’t even health problems, right? Wrinkles are not a health problem. Even breaking out is normal.

Jessica

Yes. I hate skin types. I hate this idea of “normal” skin because normal skin reacts to the world around it. That is actually the the job your skin is supposed to play. It’s supposed to alert you to any potential imbalances, any internal health issues, any issues in your external environment. So when your skin is reacting in that way, that’s health. That is exactly what it’s supposed to be doing.

It’s our job to figure out if is this actually a cue about my health, and if so, what’s going on? Or to say, this isn’t actually about my health. This is just a normal thing that happens to people as they age or as they go through pregnancy or as they go through menopause, whatever. So much of it has nothing to do with health.

I think the other parallel is that we’re told that subscribing to this certain standard of beauty, whether it’s your body size or your skin, will increase your confidence and make you feel good. But the data bears out a very different story. Feeling held to this impossible standard of beauty to have like skin like a doll or a model who has been through Photoshop and filters and FaceTune and plastic surgery, increases appearance anxiety, depression, body dysmorphia, facial dysmorphia, eating disorder, self harm and even suicide. We’re told that it’s going to be good for us and make us feel better and really makes us feel like shit.

Virginia

The thing about dermatologists gets me so fired up. We have a history of melanoma in my family so I do go in for my skin checks and one year, I couldn’t get my annual skin check appointment for 18 months. She was booked out that far for the annual cancer screenings, but they could get me in the next week to talk about acne. I just remember thinking, Isn’t making sure I don’t have cancerous moles like more pressing? It said a lot to me. There’s no product she can sell me related to cancerous moles, but there are many products to sell me related to breakouts.

Jessica

That’s horrible. And it’s also not surprising. I’ve had so many women tell me specifically that they have gone in for their annual skin cancer screenings and their dermatologist will start talking about Botox or filler and selling them during this health appointment. That messes with your mind because it’s coming from a medical doctor. They’re suggesting alongside a cancer screening, “Hey, maybe you should get your crow’s feet done. Maybe you should get your frown lines done. Maybe you should get your lips filled.” It starts to feel like these things are part of being a healthy human being when they’re not.

Virginia

I’m thinking about the intersections, too, with anti-fat bias. I think for a lot of us in bigger bodies, there’s often some added pressure around skincare. Like, if I’m not meeting the size beauty standard, I have to have good skin. There’s a tension between these two things. And we can also talk about the vulnerability of going into these appointments, to any medical appointment when you’re braced for medical weight stigma. Similarly, I think going to the dermatologist is often really anxiety provoking about appearance because you’re expecting to be dissected and told everything about your skin is wrong.

Jessica

I have a long history of being obsessed with dermatology and taking any pill or prescription that they would give me, starting from probably age 14. I started antibiotics for acne. I was put on birth control pills at 15 for acne. I was on retinoids, tretinoin, Accutane for too long. Then a topical steroid prescription that actually ended up causing something called skin atrophy. This is what kick-started my whole interest in beauty and skincare to begin with, because my skin just stopped working. It was peeling off of my face in chunks. It was a terrible experience at the hands of my dermatologist. I remember after I had pretty much healed my skin myself by learning about how the skin actually works and how unnecessary most products actually are and really paring back, I went to a dermatologist again for my skin cancer screening, and he was like, “Your skin is really dry,” in this very judgmental tone. I was like, “Yeah, it’s dry, because you and your colleagues put me on Accutane for years, which killed my sebaceous gland function and now my skin can’t moisturize itself. That’s not my fault. It’s actually your fault.”

It is really frustrating. Especially as somebody who has been through the wringer with dermatology to still get that judgment. Because I’ve actually tried everything you’ve suggested, and it doesn’t work.

Photo by Anna Efetova via Getty Images

Virginia

Oh, my gosh, that’s so infuriating. I loved the piece you wrote in the newsletter where you talked about Katie Sturino, who is a really great body positive fashion influencer. But she did this whole thing about Botox. It felt like a very weird left turn.

Jessica

Yeah, for sure. I actually see this a lot in the body positive community, especially on Instagram. When it gets to your face, when it gets above the neck, all of that rhetoric goes out the window. In Katie Sturino’s post,2 she celebrated Botox’s anniversary with a huge cake. So it was like, “eat the cake!” but “freeze your frown lines.” These things really are the same and I see them put together so often, as if they don’t stem from the same exact tenants of oppression. It’s harmful to position yourself as taking a stand against beauty standards, and then use that same platform to feed people another set of beauty standards. People trust you, so it’s really easy for them to internalize that as something that is good and healthy.

So what I like to tell people is: Take the beauty content that you consume and swap out certain phrases. For instance, if instead of “frown lines” this Instagram caption had said “fat rolls,” would it feel good to you? If they were like, “get rid of your fat rolls in five minutes?” No, that would obviously be problematic.3 But for some reason, when we put frown lines in there, it’s like, oh, yeah, no, I have to get rid of this. Or wrinkles and stretch marks, or acne and cellulite, or dull skin and that extra five pounds. It’s a good exercise to insert one for the other and see how empowering it feels to you. I think in the large majority of instances, you’ll see, oh, this is really harmful messaging coming from these these beauty influencers.

Virginia

I am so glad you are connecting these dots. I think that ageism hasn’t been touched by the body positive movement, at least not online. I don’t think it’s a conversation we’re having yet. Shout out to my mom, who will be listening to this and saying, “Yes, that’s why I text you every week and say write about ageism.” I’m on it! But she’s right. Even among friends of mine, or folks in this community who would no longer say “I feel fat” in a pejorative way, it’s still very normal and acceptable to say, “I’m so old” or to express remorse about your birthday and about any physical signs of aging.

Why do you think we’re still so locked into anti-aging as the goal? Especially since, as you put it in the newsletter piece, it is literally the most unattainable of all beauty standards.

Jessica

It’s physically impossible. Never gonna happen. Which is great for the beauty industry. The reason they can push this so hard is because it’s a never-ending goal. There is no point at which you will have bought the right product or gotten the right Botox shot, and think, “I’m done. I’ve anti-aged.” They get you forever once they sell you on anti aging.

I also think that this attraction to anti-aging has very spiritual roots. I think that it’s an extension of our fear of death, and our fear of facing our mortality. That’s a very human thing to fear, but we don’t live in a culture where we actually explore those feelings. And then, because we live in a society that also rvalues external appearance, it’s like, okay, well, if I can just look young forever, I won’t actually have to face any of these issues.

A big thing I hear from women who are telling me that they need to get Botox, they need to get filler, they need to get the facelift, is: “I look in the mirror, and I don’t look like myself anymore.” And that’s a really scary thing for a lot of people to face. And I get that. But also the point of life is not to look like yourself forever. The point of life is to grow and evolve and change and find a way to be comfortable with that change. If we keep reverting back to former versions of ourselves and calling that progress, that causes a lot of problems.

Virginia

People say the same thing about weight gain, and particularly postpartum weight gain: “I just don’t feel like myself anymore.” But why is your 16-year-old self or your 26-year-old self the only you that you’re allowed to be? Why did you have to freeze in time with that body? Why can you not change and grow in terms of your physical appearance?

Jessica

That’s such a beautiful way to put it. I think with anti-aging, too, there’s a lot of it tied up in productivity culture and also in the way that we treat our elderly community. If we really wanted to address our fear of aging, we would need to start investing in community care and advocating for human rights and health equity and economic security for the elderly and age diversity in the workplace. This idea that once you stop being able to produce output for the economy, that your value as a person diminishes—I think all of that is tied up in what we’re doing to our faces as well. 

Virginia

I’m thinking this also intersects so heavily with misogyny, right? Because women are held to very different aging standards than men. In the workplace, that plays out in terms of whether you can get a job and whether you can literally financially support yourself. I’ve talked to women who’ve said, “I don’t care about gray hair, but I can’t show up to work with gray hair.” How do you navigate that piece of it?

Jessica

It’s really tough. When I get the same question, I do tend to draw a line here between beauty culture and diet culture. Because we’ve gotten to the point in diet culture where we can all agree that life is easier for you in terms of how people treat you, when you’re thin. Is that a good justification to starve yourself and put yourself through these unhealthy practices in order to be thin? I think most people4 would agree that’s not a good justification. But when it comes to beauty, when it comes to wrinkles, when it comes to gray hair, we allow that. We say okay, yes, this is a good justification. I would like to see us get to the point as a culture where we can agree that giving into these beauty demands is similarly not a sustainable way to exist in the world. Sometimes we feel like we do have to alter our appearance in order to deal with these external judgments. And coping mechanisms aren’t always bad. But you have to understand what is a coping mechanism in your beauty routine and what is truly something you’re doing for your health. What is for “feeling good,” what is a self-expression lipstick and what is actually giving into a really harmful, ageist, sexist standard in order to exist in the world. And then: Where can we divest? Where can we invest in changing those standards instead?

Virginia

Maybe a first step is just being honest with yourself. If job security is on the line, you’re not going to stop dying your hair, and I don’t think either one of us is saying you should. You can only challenge what makes sense to challenge. But there’s probably some clarity that comes with being clear and honest with yourself about why you’re choosing these different standards. It can be so interrelated and hard to sort out for yourself why these different things matter.

Jessica

Right? There’s a great quote that I love to reference from Tressie McMillan Cottom’s book Thick: “‘I like what I like’ is always a capitalist lie.” Oh my gosh, when I first read that it hit me so hard. I repeat it constantly to people because just saying, “Oh, I like doing this,” or “I do this for me,” isn’t really a good enough answer, because there’s always something deeper that informs why you like it and why it makes you feel good. And it normally stems from something in the external culture making you feel really bad first, and that is the thing that we have to address.

Virginia

A reader question I answered recently that I think made people the most uncomfortable was someone saying but, what if I just don’t want to be fat? Like, what if that’s just my preference? It’s so hard for us to recognize we didn’t get there in a vacuum. 


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Jessica

I’m working on a post for my newsletter now and I’m trying to create a list of songs, movies, poems, art that reference ugly women—not necessarily ugly, but things you wouldn’t necessarily find attractive. Just to romanticize these features that are often neglected by mainstream beauty media. I was listening to “Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen the other day, and I love that line where he’s like, “You ain’t a beauty, but hey, you’re alright.” And then it’s just this like bleeding heart love song to this woman who’s like, fine, I guess. I just love that and I want more. I want more art about plain, ugly people.

Virginia

Yes! That’s a great recommendation. Mine is also music, we’re in sync there. This is actually a double recommendation. So novelist Emma Straub, who I recommend just as a human, as a fashion icon, as a writer, everything. I recommend her, and I recommend her new book This Time Tomorrow, which is the best novel I’ve read all year. So that’s your first recommendation.

But, a very cool thing Emma does, that she talked about in her newsletter, is she makes playlists for each of her novels, which you can find on Spotify. And they are so good. Particularly for my peers who were teenagers in the 90’s. The one for This Time Tomorrow was really great. It starts with the Kinks song, which is not a 90s song, but it’s a beautiful song. And the one for her novel Modern Lovers, I’m really obsessed with. It starts with Melissa Etheridge. This is the soundtrack that I’ve been putting on—I talked in a recent podcast about how I’m into puzzles now. So that’s my puzzle soundtrack when I’m working on a puzzle. And my eight-year-old really loves it, too. I was like, “do we need a different soundtrack because we’re starting a new puzzle?” And she was like, “No, we need Modern Lovers again.” So we’re really into it.

Jessica

I’m gonna go listen to it now.

Virginia

It’s so good. Jessica, thank you for being here! Tell us where we can find more of you and support your work.

Jessica

Thank you so much for having me! Pretty much all my work now is through my newsletter The Unpublishable.


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The Burnt Toast Podcast is produced and hosted by me, Virginia Sole-Smith. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Corinne Fay, who runs @SellTradePlus, an Instagram account where you can buy and sell plus size clothing.

The Burnt Toast logo is by Deanna Lowe.

Our theme music is by Jeff Bailey and Chris Maxwell.

Tommy Harron is our audio engineer.

Thanks for listening and for supporting independent anti-diet journalism.

1

The story finally ran in 2007, but I started reporting it in 2005.

2

Since taken down.

3

Quick acknowledgment that to plenty of people, removing fat rolls also feels like a completely reasonable goal. Jessica is speaking here to those of us who are firmly in the anti-diet space but haven’t reckoned with our ageism.

4

Again, “most people” refers to folks already questioning and divesting from diet culture (such as the listeners of this podcast!), not the world at large.