The Politics of Self-Care

The other day my friend asked me, “why do you spend so much money on face stuff?” and I couldn’t answer her. It was said as such an offhand, casual question and yet I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Why do I spend so much money on skincare? It honestly doesn’t make sense. Skincare is just about the only thing I’m willing to spend money on. I have twenty-three total items of clothing, but 236 sheet masks. I balk at paying twenty dollars for a dress or something but I’m willing to pay triple that for a cream. I only have a job in the summer, and yet every time I have at least two hundred dollars in my bank account I find a way to spend about half of it on various bits and bobs filled with empty promises telling me after a month of daily use of so-and-so I’m gonna have skin like Song Hye-Kyo.

But why? After thinking about it for a day or two, I came to the conclusion that I buy it simply because it makes me happy. Having a twelve-step skincare routine makes me happy. It sounds like I’m being dramatic, but skincare gives me something to focus on besides my mental health and intrusive thoughts.

My mental illness story started in high school - as a freshman, I was bright, eager, and ready to take on the world. My sophomore year I attempted suicide for the first time. I took a handful of pills and waited to die. I was fourteen and kind of an idiot, so the “handful” I took was like six of the lowest mg generic Asprin Kroger had to offer. I took a nice nap and woke up a few hours later feeling very refreshed. Junior year was worse, and I think it was worse because I didn’t have anything to turn to. I was scared to go to my parents because I feel like they’d brush me off and call me dramatic. I didn’t go to any type of doctor because Tennessee will lock your ass right up if you tell a health official you’re suicidal. The one teacher I told gave me the same old “well you’ve got to snap out of it!” which is possibly the least helpful thing to say to a teenager possibly suffering from some kind of mental break. After a while of half-assed “I don’t really want to die but I sure as fuck don’t want to be on this planet”-type attempts, I started to search for some kind of escape.

In late 2014 I threw myself into the world of South Korean skincare. The first product I truly fell for was the ubiquitous Su:m37 Miracle Rose Cleansing Stick, which is basically a 30 dollar stick of rosy soap. It seems kind of ridiculous to place airs upon soap, but I’m going to do it anyway - it’s not just a soap, it’s an experience. It smells amazing, feels luxurious, and the two minutes in my night routine where I used it was the most peaceful part of my day. Thinking about going home and washing my face literally got me through my senior year of high school.

Now that I’ve gone to college my mental health has gone from bad to worse, but I feel like skincare gives me a momentary reprieve from The Thoughts™️. When I’m up in my bed at 2 am shaking and feeling self-destructive, I pick a random sheet mask and put it on my face. I intentionally complicate my routine - is there really any reason to have three serums? No, but now when one voice tells me to run out in traffic, another voice pops up and says “actually don’t do that you’ve got to finish Good Genes.” Do I need all them sheet masks? No, but I have something to look forward to at the end of the day.

Has skincare cured my depression? No. Hell no. But when I start to think about the full bottle of tiny Advil pills in my drawer that could have me dead in a matter of hours, it’s easier to pivot to a fancy new serum or gimmicky sheet mask and go about my night. Audre Lorde once said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” I don’t know if I take my skincare that seriously, but I do believe my lengthy routine is, in a way, radical. In a world where everything is telling me I’m garbage and my own brain is actively trying to sabotage me, the rejection of that is powerful.

Thumbnail by: Javais Adams