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  • Published: 16 March 2022
  • ISBN: 9781760898731
  • Imprint: Vintage Australia
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 336
  • RRP: $34.99

Skin Deep

The inside story of our outer selves


‘Hello, Vogue! ¡Buenos días! This is Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and I am here to walk you through my skincare and red lip routine.’    

This is how the youngest woman ever to serve in the United States Congress – a millennial Puerto Rican Democratic Social­ist with close to 13 million Twitter followers (almost as many as President Joe Biden) – opens a video she recorded for Vogue in the middle of 2020. Her eloquence and charisma provided a brief distraction from the news cycles of a global pandemic, climate change, Trumpism and the US presidential election, perhaps even offering some respite from the simmering anxiety that was fast becoming the new normal for many. Equally true to the times, the video’s eighteen minutes, which have since been watched by millions, project their behind-the-scenes intimacy via YouTube, a highly public platform designed around share­able content.

As a makeup tutorial first-timer but a long-time wearer of the stuff, I was struck by the congresswoman’s complexion. As they say in the classics, it is flawless. Viewers bearing their own dermatological challenges probably needed AOC (as she is known) more than she needed them, given most of those pressing ‘play’ would not have been her constituents. As one writer puts it, ‘AOC is perhaps the only member of Congress who moonlights as a beauty influencer.’

In online makeup tutorials, the watcher is the mirror. We gaze back unseen, but the instructor knows we’re there, or soon will be. Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s self-possession, her perfor­mative genius, and her armoury of products absorbed me so completely that had Sydney collapsed around me as I watched, I’m sure I would not have blinked enough to smudge my own poorly applied mascara. This was the weaponisation of beauty in action.

Other devoted viewers no doubt added to the techniques, hacks and product knowledge they had previously accumulated from AOC’s Instagram stories, as well as countless other makeup and skincare tutorials by various TikTokers and YouTubers. Some perhaps tuned in out of malevolence, to replenish their internal reservoir of animosity towards this Latina woman, ‘melanated’ as she describes herself in the video. Those with purer intentions could use the expanse of hours forced upon them by COVID lockdowns to find out whether vitamin C serum really does make a difference, or to experiment with contouring. If one can’t get done up to go out in public, why not live vicariously through AOC by glamorising at home?

Tutorial, the act of instruction to help students master a particular task, aptly described what I was watching. A pedagogy, borne of experience, directed viewers to techniques of application and blending beyond anything I had ever attempted. I recognised the gap between an amateur doing just enough to get by (me) and an expert (AOC). Makeup professionals aren’t called ‘artists’ for nothing.

Skin cancer patients and dermatologists surely cheered when AOC delivered upfront a public health message about sunscreen. At step four (after toner, vitamin C and moisturiser) she said, ‘Don’t play games with sunscreen! You’d always rather put too much than too little.’ This exhortation was followed by an eye-opening revelation, literally, for this devoted sunscreen applier who had never before contemplated putting SPF-anything on her eyelids.

The best teachers seek to expand their students’ world view. So, the analytic part of my brain lit up when our instructor made explicit the doubleness of her stated task. On the surface, this video was about makeup. Underneath, however, it was schooling us in the workings of power. She may be standing in front of a towel rail in a nondescript bathroom, but we soon realise that AOC is in Washington, DC, on the job as elected representative of New York’s 14th congressional district.

‘I have not gotten much sleep at all last night, at all. Welcome to life in politics. We are trying to get people health care, making sure that they are taken care of in a pandemic. People are fighting too much and so I have bags under my eyes. And so I always start with a toner.’ Here, things are starting to get real.

It’s clear that our AOC-led journey through skincare and makeup routines will be one with a difference, informed by the working life of an idealistic politician, cum laude university graduate and former bartender who wants to change the world. She also happens to have makeup application skills that inten­sify her aura. A young revolutionary–celebrity–politician from the left may be a paradoxical quadruple-threat, but such are the times in which we live.

Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez comments that she thinks it’s important for her – as a much-scrutinised politician and woman – to be transparent about how she comes to present the way she does. She makes special reference to her signature red lip because, she says, ‘Femininity has power.’ This is not news. Nevertheless, we can’t begrudge her this observation because we need to be reminded of the relentless nitpicking criticism of all women in the public eye, not to mention women and femme people of colour. Without bothering to signal the understatement, she says, ‘Just being a woman is quite politicised here in Washington.’ Anyone with the foggiest idea of gender and politics, where women must be qualified, relatable and appealing to be electable, not always in that order, can only agree.

She describes commuting every week between her constitu­ency in New York City and the seat of power in Washington, DC, giving us an insight into her working life. Then she returns to the stated topic of the video, acknowledging that this travel takes ‘a huge toll on your skin’. Skin care can’t always take place in the privacy of one’s home: ‘I oftentimes will put on a clear moisturising mask when I’m in the train,’ she says. I probably would too were I being photographed in close-up, appearing on television and being examined by millions every single day.

But why devote so much time, effort and expense to your appearance? If your actual stated job is to fight the power, why lug about a makeup case that we know – with fresh insider knowledge – contains at least twenty products for putting on and presumably a corresponding number for taking it all off and the requisite moisturising afterwards?2 Does it undermine a credible woman’s status and legitimacy to be so transparent about some­thing allies and enemies alike might see as frivolous? (I mean, glitter eyeshadow, really?)

The video shifts into motivational-inspirational mode as Ocasio-Cortez pre-empts the haters. ‘So, it’s quite a radical, in my opinion, it’s quite a radical act – it’s almost like a mini protest – to love yourself. In a society that’s always trying to tell you you’re not the right weight, you’re not the right colour . . . When you stand up and you say, you know what, you don’t make that decision, I make that decision. It’s very powerful. But,’ she adds, ‘that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun.’

Any lofty insights into structures of power and inequality I might have had were pushed to one side as I mulled over the reality that were this my skin and makeup routine, I’d never get out the door. But AOC reassures us that she’s doing more than usual for the purposes of this video. She admits, ‘The more time I have, the more steps I add.’ Then, introducing a welcome ration of perspective, she says, ‘If waking up in the morning and doing your makeup gives you life, then that is amazing and you should do it.’ But the ‘pink tax’ on women’s products (that women’s shaving paraphernalia costs more than men’s being one of count­less examples) applies to all aspects of life. She refers to studies showing that women who regularly wear a decent amount of makeup at work get paid more. ‘At that point,’ she says, ‘these calculations and decisions stop being about choice, and they start being about patriarchy. Where, if we look attractive to men then we will be compensated more. And that, to me, is the complete antithesis of what beauty should be about . . . Beauty should be about the person who is applying it.’

Let’s all agree that it’s complicated. AOC negotiates the surfaces of beauty and politics, sharing their gloss and toil to her millions of followers. Combining pragmatism and panache, she uses her skin to build social capital and leverage it into political capital. Skin is not just skin: it’s content, it’s an idea, it’s a force. Yet she remains authentically herself through it all.

The grand finale, the pièce de résistance, is the application of the red lip. AOC’s signature colour is Stila’s Beso, which means ‘kiss’ in Spanish. A kiss may be just a kiss, but lipstick can project who we are, how we want to be seen and how we want to feel. It can be war paint for going into political battle. She says, ‘One of the things that I had realised is that when you’re always kind of running around, sometimes the best way to really look put together is a bold lip. And of course, being Latina, this is like very much our culture, where we come from. I will wear a red lip when I want confidence; when I need a boost of confidence.’

Eighteen minutes and twenty steps later, this already photo­genic woman looks even more gorgeous than she did at the start, very much ready for her close-up. She winds up with her version of that old chestnut about it being what’s on the inside that counts . . . Every human being on the planet, man and woman, queer and straight, binary and non-binary, the people of colour and the lily-white, the plain and the comely, the diseased and the cured, the child and the adult, the scarred and the smooth-skinned, struggles with this divide between our exterior and our interior selves. Skin can form a barrier to how the world sees us, rather than it being the receptor we want it to be. Given this brutal reality, I am compelled to note that AOC’s tone is breezy when she says, ‘The key to beauty is the inside job. The key to beauty is feeling beautiful. No amount of money or makeup can really compensate for loving yourself.’

I begin by dissecting Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s beauty video because it got under my skin, embodying as it does so many of the threads and ideas that shape this book, one that seeks to get under the skin of skin.

I use the word ‘embodying’ deliberately here, for we are embodied creatures. And what covers those bodies – our organs, our flesh and bones, while regulating the temperature of the whole – is our largest organ: skin. What a wonder it is, facing inwards and outwards. Protecting us from the world’s threats and exposing us to its wonders. The contact zone, a site for touch that may be contaminating or loving, welcome or not. Conceal­ing and revealing. Our surface and our depths, too. A mostly perfect unity of function and form.

Our skin recreates itself, on a cellular level, monthly. An index of health and wellbeing, our skin reflects what is going on around us and what is going on within us, in ways we can’t always control, however hard we might try. When we say inner glow, we really mean outer glow. If our skin gets damaged by the sun it can become cancerous. A skin infection can be deadly. If we are cut with a knife or pummelled with blows, our skin will transmit pain signals and work to heal our wounds and bruises. Should we be stricken with acne, eczema, psoriasis, vitiligo or countless other afflictions, it can demoralise our soul, damaging our very sense of self. If we suffer shock or trauma, our nerve endings can inflame with the painful virus that is shingles. Skin mostly stops us from scalding ourselves, will break out in hives to remind us never again to eat a food we are allergic to, can craze us with itching if we’re attacked by mosquitos or brush past poison ivy. We literally cannot live without it.

Skin is fundamental to how we see ourselves and how we are seen by others. It is both a canvas on which to project our identity, from red lips to sleeve tattoos, and a weapon that might preordain, curtail and crush our sense of self. That weapon can be skin colour, what we blithely call race.

In the Vogue clip, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez describes herself as ‘melanated’. In fact, she has the same number of melano­cytes (pigment-producing cells) as, say, Boris Johnson, but hers produce more melanin, which makes her skin darker. Her ethnic background, and thus her skin, is the result of great currents of global history, including mass movements of people, both forced and unforced. The same can be said for most of us living in settler societies with histories that are repressed or untold.

Referring to Puerto Rican people, like her parents and grand­parents, she said to the New York Times that ‘. . . we are a people that are an amalgamation. We are no one thing. We are black; we are indigenous; we are Spanish; we are European.’3 Far from being Boricua like AOC, my own origins are Celtic. I am White, a blow-in, living in Australia, the continent that is home to the oldest continuous civilisation on Earth. A place where the ratio of pale people to high-intensity ultraviolet light is skewed in the wrong direction.

You don’t have to be a qualified dermatologist to know that our skin has layers. We can see them when we examine skin through a medical lens with a device called a dermatoscope. But a microscopic view of moles and keratoses is only skin deep.

To go beyond the surface, we must examine skin through a cultural lens as well. Skin’s metaphorical possibilities are expan­sive, as you will find should you have to scratch that itch. AOC’s beauty tutorial goes deeper, drawing out skin’s cultural, aesthetic, social, literary and historic meanings. The quest to make sense of skin can be a moral one, touching as it does on how we treat each other and spotlighting the enduring legacy of structural racism and ableism.

Skin Deep may be a misnomer, for I want to take you beyond the surface. Unifying body and self, culture and science, past and present, we’ll think and feel our way through all that skin can tell us.

Skin Deep Phillipa McGuinness

A book about skin, that wonderful thing that covers our body, acting as both barrier and receptor to life.

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