“So Tired Lately” Beauty as Artifice, Intimacy, and Power
Aiden Arata, Amanda Choo Quan, and Leah Clancy on the intimacy of cosmetic rituals, mall temporality, and the absence of beauty culture from academia.
When people ask what it’s like to write for beauty websites, I tell them it’s like cosplaying a hot girl. I love working myself into a palimpsest of moisture and powder; I love a violent smudge of lipstick on the edge of a glass. The femme body can be an intersection of magic, capital, politics, and performance.
But I also sometimes feel disembodied, or like, when I modify myself into desirability, I lose grasp on what I’m hiding. I feel slightly haunted by the sensation that legislature, ethics, and identity play out across my flesh whenever I moisturize. I have questions: Is it ethical to want to be hot? To be “well”? Where does my body fit into the self-erasing practice of beauty?
These are important and complicated questions that deserve to be teased out, challenged, and explored in ways that are neither pat nor convenient. So I enlisted the help of a few articulate, artistic, sick, and beauty-obsessed writers – Amanda Choo Quan and Leah Clancy – to hash out the ways that young femme artists make art about, against, and on the ever-inflating and -collapsing economy of the body. We took to my preferred platform for discourse, the internet; what follows is our conversation (edited for length and clarity) about adaptogens, forgiveness, face gloss, and more.
Aiden Arata Hello, here’s a self-care meme I made because I Photoshop when I’m sad. Honestly, I just want to know off the bat about your skincare routines.
Leah Clancy My routine is always impacted by the fact that I am running behind. Sometimes I’m so tired and can’t get myself to wash my face, so then I break out. Then I get mad at myself and try to belatedly make up for it with like a mud mask or something, but the damage is already done.
Amanda Choo Quan Me too, I definitely have an ideal versus reality. Recently I’ve been so tired. I’ve just been skipping makeup completely so I don’t have to take it off when I get home. Before bed I use either this argan or evening primrose sea buckthorn stick I got from this Etsy store, and the Ordinary’s squalane and hyaluronic acid.
AA I love the idea of buying these things and never using them. Like we’re old enough to need the shit, but not old enough to stay in all night and roll on serums.
LC That is 90 percent of my habits as a consumer.
ACQ I sometimes wonder if the high of buying something trumps the high of actually using it... and whether it’s the act of buying that causes “wellness.”
AA Yes – I love the idea of looking hot later.
ACQ It took me a long time to admit to my friends how much being in a mall soothes me and is completely a part of my identity. Huge malls were my first American cultural touchpoint.
They’re weirdly nostalgic. My mall was pretty much me and my mother’s sanctuary.
LC I feel very judged when I admit that pleasure! That space is so important to relationships, especially for mothers and daughters. Shopping can become such an important way of connecting ... or clashing. Specifically outside the dressing rooms in Hollister.
AA We don’t really have or use malls the same way anymore. I feel like I don’t even really see hordes of teens there when I go.
ACQ Yes, thinking about the place they hold in the US’ cultural imagination is weird.
AA They’re these geographical non-places.
LC Completely atemporal! It’s so hard to discern how much time you are spending there. There is no set amount of time to be in or out of there, you can really indulge all of your senses.
AA They are so anonymous and everything in them that would define them is transient, because everything in malls is a product – it’s designed to move.
ACQ That’s why I love them, they’re pockets of time.
AA But then suddenly there’s a switch and I get super stressed.
LC Similar to museum fatigue! That wall you hit when you’ve gone to like three out of four wings of a place and suddenly cannot fathom seeing another goddamn Madonna and Child.
ACQ I feel like spending time in malls can be a really good mental exercise, in this way of trying to be an academic that thinks a lot and has all the ideas all the time but still needs to navigate the world.
AA I love that idea of mall as exercise. We should email Sephora and apply to their as-yet-nonexistent writing residency. “Sephora’s Lil’ Beauty Blenders Fellowship 2018.”
LC I am preemptively very jealous of the Sephora employee who is on the receiving end of that residency application. Once accepted, we could sit at the makeover stations.
AA I’m always too afraid to sit in them. I can’t apply fake eyelashes for shit.
LC There are so many beauty/cosmetic things that are really hard to do on your own. I mean, from a young age, we look for help to paint the nails on our dominant hand or have our hair French-braided.
ACQ Beauty is collaborative by necessity.
LC There’s a dependency there, but also relationship-building.
AA Like, the relationships we have with estheticians, friends, et cetera, is so intimate.
LC I had a really beautiful experience with my best friend last night where she was able to just come hang out before we went to a another friend’s birthday party together. In the moment it felt very commonplace; I sat cross-legged doing my makeup while she leafed through my closet. It was something that I realized I don’t have in my life as much – getting ready with someone else in a way that it’s a recreational thing. It was so pleasurable in a nostalgic way, and just generally comforting.
AA Do you have important people in your life who beautify you?
ACQ I actually have one I just met. I went to this Queer Fair at that gym Everybody during Pride, and there were a bunch of people there – an acupuncturist, a masseuse, some readers. I got – no lie – the best massage I’ve ever had in my life. They were so amazing and I left feeling less stressed and more connected, which definitely equals beauty to me. Also, my hair braider, who I consider a spiritual counsellor. We went through this exercise of [clarifying] what I want in a partner a while back when she did my hair, and she gave me this freshly dug rose quartz. And then I actually met someone and was seeing them. We stopped abruptly after a couple weeks, and I went back to her all sad and she was like, “We never told the Universe how long!”
AA I am deep into crystals, tarot, and astrology. I feel less sure of adaptogens and vitamins.
LC What are adaptogens?
AA I honestly do not know. They’re like... powders that correct your body? It’s unclear.
LC Like Moon Juice shit?
LC Amanda Chantal Bacon, founder of Moon Juice, is such an incredibly excellent example of how classist so much of this Neo-New Age movement is. When I first read this Elle article about her I wanted to burn down buildings. It’s so fucking oblivious to most peoples’ reality, it almost seems... purposeful? Like, how can you be so out of touch?
AA I feel like that sort of wellness movement comes from a shift in advertising. Like when we were growing up, it was okay to just be like, “You’re ugly, buy this.” But that’s not cool or effective anymore, so now the rhetoric is, “You’re unhappy, buy this.” It’s like spiritual negging.
ACQ I think all the time about how the DIY movement became co-opted by the beauty industry. I grew up on all of these DIY beauty and crafting forums, and supported tiny companies selling stuff in the early days of Etsy and making shit for places like Renegade Craft Fair. But thefair was in LA recently and everything is incredibly expensive and sleek-looking.
AA It’s all, like, white-glazed succulent holders.
ACQ I really wanted to buy handmade beauty stuff because that’s my jam, but all of the retailers there are like, “real brands” now.
LC It’s interesting to consider how that DIY marketing aesthetic has been adapted, even if the products themselves have nothing to do with being handmade or all-natural or whatever. The packaging is always that really vertical, warbled, thin font, with lots of simple symbols like moons and stars reminiscent of alchemy.
AA It’s funny because that’s what I like about cosmetics – how artificial a look can be. On the spectrum of representative makeup, across from DIY aesthetics is hyper-contouring, cherry red lips, super long lashes, the sort of look that undermines femininity as it performs it. I love a look that’s very transparent and self-aware of its function as a fuck-me face. It makes people really uncomfortable with how honest it is about wanting to be desired, and I see that as power.
ACQ The aesthetic of our time is this strange natural/artificial hybrid. Like we want to use a lot of makeup and augmentation, but we want it to seem like we were born that way.
AA I actually hate those “love your natural self with our super light foundation” campaigns, where the girls all have perfect skin anyway. There’s a Carl Dreyer line I love, “using artifice to strip artifice of artifice.” Like sometimes the only way to authentically connect to my “feminine” side is to fake it with an elaborate mask of makeup. I especially love bright lipstick because to keep it beautiful and un-smudged, no one can kiss you. It’s a way of creating a sort of wanting, but actually you’re creating a barrier.
LC No, I think this goes back to the lack of talking about the actual process of beauty within academia. It’s important to bring substantial critical works into these conversations. We of course have the Audre Lorde line from Sister Outsider: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” But this was so specifically posited within the context of Lorde living as a queer, black, radical feminist woman – an exhausting existence where it’s a struggle just to survive. Now, it’s been hugely co-opted by corporate sub-cultures à la Chantal Bacon to target upper- and middle-class white women. I don’t think it’s surprising, but I have not encountered much canonized critical theory on beauty in my academic experience. I think the New Journalism of Didion and Sontag brings in a few elements, but I have a really difficult time conjuring examples of complex, contemporary beauty culture analysis. There is so much to discuss. There is some really excellent work that a lot of women are doing online, but I don’t feel it’s gained as much traction or legitimacy as it deserves in a more formal regard. I know it’s in the process. But I feel impatient!
AA Especially because representation via the male gaze has always been permitted into intellectual spaces. I think about the tradition of men painting our bodies and putting them behind glass and up for sale, and then considering turning the brush around, editing and enhancing ourselves on our own terms – I find that empowering. We’re natural experts at being both artist and object in that way.
ACQ Hm, yes. That makes me think about who the beauty industry is actually owned by. It’s kind of tricky, because what does ownership mean? I’m not entirely sure.
AA I worry that most of the people who actually profit in a major way are men – as CEOs, advertisers, and such. On a smaller scale, there are so many roles for femmes in the beauty and wellness industry. That’s the capitalistic side of ownership. And then there’s personal ownership: reclaiming and celebrating your body by editing or adorning it for your own pleasure or interest. Though so much of these two planes of power and ownership overlap – like I’m not always sure who I’m trying to be hot for, whether I’m actually seeking empowerment or just the comfort of objectification when I try to look hot.
LC In regards to looking hot for someone else versus taking care of myself, I feel I struggle most with my body image/size/weight and my disordered eating habits. I know I am no more or less of a person depending on my dress size, but I am hyper-aware of how my upper arm might look chubby in a photo someone posts on Instagram, or how I am supposed to describe my body type on OkCupid (which I have long since ditched and recommend that others do the same!). I don’t want to be with a partner who wouldn’t want to be with me if I am out of shape or overweight. But I would still be devastated if I were rejected based on my body type.
AA I’m noticing that what we all keep butting up against is, none of us seems to know how cynical to be.
ACQ I don’t want to be cynical at all, actually. There are so many things I hate about the industry, don’t get me wrong, so many things to be done. But time is too short.
LC Yeah, my wrinkles are setting in. I gotta moisturize!
ACQ Oh my god, though ... I say I have so much hope in beauty and the industry, and I am thinking about ordering secret lasagna and immediately became anxious about my body and face.
AA Right? Like the macro is so serene and powerful and the micro is I’m worried about my arm hair.
LC I am going late-night ice cream shopping after this. And I’m going to feel so bad about it.
But also, I love this new palatable “healthy” ice cream situation that’s happening.
AA I’m honestly kind of here for food trends. I get bored and hate making choices! Be my assertive boyfriend, Late Capitalism, tell me what to eat Daddy.
LC Have either of you read Melissa Broder’s book So Sad Today?
AA No but I love her Twitter.
LC She has this amazing essay in it where she describes her bad habits and attraction to Diet Coke and how she pours like five packets of Splenda all over diet ice cream. She’s just straight up like, “I am trying to sate my empty self and confront the abyss that is reality. Also, I want to be fucking thin.”
AA That’s amazing. Also, yes to Diet Coke. I tastes like metal and I don’t even care. I think it’s telling that Diet Coke is the #1 sober person drink, it has a dark appeal to it that I associate with my druggier days.
ACQ I love food trends in the same way I love beauty trends – I love the alchemy of them both.
AA I love some beauty trends, not all. I hate the idea of commodifying natural beauty traits – I just wrote about this for Byrdie because I hate glossy eyelids, because I have spent my whole life mattifying my greasy face.
ACQ I think I have a similar issue with huge eyebrows, because I’ve been shamed for my eyebrows for so long. I love them now but back in the horror of the early 2000s, when everyone super plucked eyebrows...
LC Oh my god, the terror! I think there is a certain amount of privilege that is going unspoken here, though – unspoken in that we are all aware of it – in having the luxury of being able to even engage in a conversation that connects to beauty, no matter how critical or engaged it may be.
AA Absolutely, which brings me to a thing I’ve been thinking about: I feel like (obviously) classist Moon Juice wellness deserves to be criticized, but I don’t think necessarily that the main tenets of the wellness movement are petty or dumb. For example, I’m a little uncomfortable thinking about how (older, white) women are sort of criticized or mocked for having petty illnesses, like chemical sensitivity, or chronic exhaustion. I think that chemical sensitivity is real, because we live in a polluted world. And I think chronic exhaustion is real, because we exploit our workforce by demanding robot hours of people, not to mention undervalued interpersonal and emotional labor. And it’s just that old rich white ladies are the only people who can afford it, or who are even allowed to ask for care. So, like, I don’t want to attack wellness for believing these women – I want everyone to have wellness. I just think that capitalism makes people sick.
LC Oh, there’s an amazing article by Laurie Penny on this in The Baffler. It so bitingly lays out how our late-capitalist society is gas-lighting us, suggesting that we deserve to indulge in these forms of consumption that are not only conspicuous, but also deserved. We’re able to construct identities of self-love, but only as long as we continue to toil hard enough to afford the products and services. These efforts, like getting a manicure or a Brazilian wax, are much to the detriment of the already-exploited lower class workforce, especially women of color. And while it’s worth noting the oft-referred to statistic that women in the workforce make $0.77 to every dollar a man makes, that’s the average, bolstered by Asian women’s $0.87 and white women’s $0.82. Black women make only $0.64, and Latina women $0.56 (via Pew Research Center). I am not condemning everyone who gets their nails done, but it’s so important to consider. In reality, these efforts to heal and love the individual would be much better spent to address the overarching, systemic issues which makes it so difficult for us to feel healthy and fulfilled in the first place – capitalism, racism, heteronormativity, the patriarchy.
ACQ I think the wellness issue is so complicated. I want to be healthy, I want to feel healthy, I want to engage in self-care, but it frustrates me how much these words have been commodified and co-opted by people who probably have no black friends. It annoys me how much wellness costs. In a small way I feel as though skepticism towards this kind of talk is something intrinsic to my Caribbeanness and my blackness. We are naturally distrustful, I think, of things other people tell us are good for us – for obvious reasons, from everything from slavery to colonialism to Tuskegee. A small part of me wonders if I’m unworthy of wellness rituals, too. I do want to attack those women, because I am petty (but in an imaginary way, like pretend throwing something at them).
AA I accept that as a form of self-care.
ACQ I wonder what lines we can draw between the attention placed on a particular ingredient, or herb, or superfood – especially one sourced in another country – and the supply available to the people for whom the ingredient is local. I can’t separate it, you know? I don’t hate those consumers’ desire to be well at all...
AA Do you have any recommendations for self-care that doesn’t feel personally overwhelming, or generally exploitative?
ACQ I bathe a lot. Just really hot baths, and I talk to myself in the shower. I’ve been doing a lot of Korean spas. I mean, again, I do wonder about employees and work conditions and just the idea of this Korean staff serving us. It’s tricky, though, because all of that is assumption.
LC I am having this very scary realization right now that my choice self-care acts are very basic and normal things. My impulse was to say brush your teeth. But like, I love when my mouth feels clean.
AA To be honest, my cheap self-care is praying to my angels, ancestors, and spiritual guides, which is weird from an ex-Catholic angle but it works. Bathe, brush your teeth, pray – we’re so fun. To wrap up: What’s the relationship between your art and your physical/emotional abilities? Like, how is your process (and/or your final “product”) affected by how you look and feel?
LC One thing that I do love is presenting my work. I love taking on the role of the host or the reader or perform. It’s wild to consider all the physical/visual components and complexities that come with public speaking, or publically representing yourself as a poet or artist or whatever, and how you have to meet different layers of expectations – in how you carry yourself when presenting your work, what you’re wearing, how you prepare yourself, how you reconsider your visual identity in relation to your work and ideologies. You don’t want to be an outright walking contradiction! Or is that bold and cool?! And isn’t poetry so vain in so many ways? So it’s only natural I am really self-conscious and narcissistic. It’s sort of hilarious.
AA I’m so interested in how we embody our work, especially since social media has really broken the isolated artist trope. I honestly sort of delight in cultivating an aggressive, dull, slutty aesthetic that in my head I call dumbcore. That’s what I go for in social settings. At home, though, I strive to care for myself like an adult – showering, sleeping enough, serums. And writing has always been a part of that self care for me. It’s one of the only spaces I have where I can feel authentically ugly. I need that space to consider and explore ugliness without the kneejerk reaction of “No! Love yourself! Otherwise capitalism has won!” Writing is so soothing in that way, even when I’m deep in my own abjection; sometimes I’m just so tired of feeling watched.
LC To bring back Audre Lorde from “Poetry Is Not A Luxury” in Sister Outsider – “For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.”
ACQ Oh god, my final product is always affected by how I look and feel because my work directly engages with how I look and feel. I write about intimacy and attraction all the time, especially between races, and about who truly has the power in those kinds of situations. Basically I talk about myself and white men a lot, and about myself as a brown immigrant, which means I have to directly discuss how I feel about my appearance.
LC I have no trouble in reading deeply personal details about myself – my body, my health, my sex life, my history – to a crowd of people. But God forbid if I have a pimple on my chin while I’m doing it.
ACQ If I hate how I look, will I produce shitty work? Probably not, because my work is about my self-hatred – which is complicated.
LC Because my writing is very personal, a lot of it naturally ends up being a lot about my mental and physical health problems – physically, a lot of body image issues, anxiety about my skin and hair. But sometimes that can be communicated very differently, depending on where I am at with my mood, hypomanic fluctuations and tendencies, menstrual cycle, et cetera. Sometimes I realize that my writing communicates a sort of confidence, not in that I love every part of my body, but more a confidence in that it ultimately doesn’t matter, or that all bodies are so flawed and that I am lucky to have the one I have. A bit of nihilism, a bit of gratitude, a whole lot of confusion.
Amanda Choo Quan is a Trinidadian-Jamaican writer currently based in Los Angeles. She’s a CalArts MFA and a Truman Capote, Callaloo, Cropper Foundation, and Scottish Universities International Summer School Fellow. She’s the winner of the Brodber-Pollard prize and was most recently awarded a VSC Fellowship. Her work has appeared in Callaloo and on various stages around Los Angeles. Her favourite colour is blurple. Find her on Twitter.
Leah Clancy is a native Buffalonian, a redhead, a Los Angeles transplant, a cofounding editor of Potluck Mag, and the future poet laureate of your heart. She writes about being a woman with mental and physical illness, unrequited love, nostalgia, and wanting a dog. You can find her work in Peach Mag, Funhouse Mag, Calamity Mag, and a smattering of other print and digital publications. Find her on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.