As a longtime resident of New York City, I’ve developed a little game I play when I’m alone in one of Manhattan’s especially ritzy neighborhoods: “Famous or Just Rich?”
To play, all you have to do is notice a person and try to decide if they’ve caught your eye because they’re famous. It will feel as if they’re famous. But more often than not, it’ll just be a regular person who looks like a celebrity, with that polished glow they always seem to have. If you play this game enough, you’ll eventually realize that it’s not just expensive-looking clothes or a striking resemblance to an actual celebrity that gives you pause. It’s the smooth, poreless look of their skin, even-toned and plump. The wealthy, both famous and not, tend to be visibly well moisturized.
The general folk wisdom of skin care has two simple steps. Step 1: Do healthy things. Wash your face, avoid the sun, stay hydrated, wear sunscreen, and get plenty of sleep. Step 2: Apply the right goop to your face, in the form of creams and serums. This advice is repeated time and again in women’s media, with an almost religious authority. If you find the right product and live the skin-care lifestyle (No alcohol! No dairy! Don’t enjoy anything!), then you will be rewarded with the glow of the youthful and righteous.
In this advice is a little sleight of hand. The guidance usually comes from the wealthy, who have all the access in the world to the best skin products and treatments, and it tends to overemphasize the importance of lifestyle while sweeping under the rug the actual cost of tinkering with your facial chemistry. Celebrities wouldn’t be as distractingly beautiful without dermatologists, estheticians, and the women behind the beauty counters at Bergdorf Goodman. You can drink as much water and wear as much sunscreen as you want, but the most effective skin-care trick is being rich.
The moral halo around “good skin” isn’t a coincidence. The behaviors associated with a clear, even-toned complexion require those who want it to reject hedonism in a way that is still deeply ingrained as virtuous in American culture; that the wealthy have mastered the look reinforces capitalistic notions of success and who achieves it (the ascetic, dedicated, and hardworking). The journalist Jaya Saxena found as much when she investigated the connections between skin and poverty earlier this year. “We assume those at the top are there because they’ve done something right. And if they have straight teeth, toned bodies, and smooth skin, that must be ‘right’ too,” she wrote. “It’s not that we think having bad skin is a moral failing. It’s that we think poverty is.”
Maybe that’s why the wealthy models and actresses and the media who exalts them are so dedicated to the idea that those results must be earned through actions, when in reality, they’re usually bought with money. Regular people are hungry for intel on how the rich and beautiful became that way, which means that almost all beauty media regularly publishes tips-and-tricks lists from models and actresses. It’s no mystery to beauty editors and writers, as well as the famous women surveyed, that the answer is a combination of youth, genetic luck, and access to expensive products, treatments, and cosmetic dermatology procedures that few people outside their world could ever hope to experience. But a dozen 20-somethings telling you about their expensive laser treatments would be too depressing for women to read about and too embarrassing for the professionally beautiful to admit.
For example, in a 2016 Elle magazine article surveying 17 Victoria’s Secret models, eight of them praised lifestyle habits such as drinking water and exercising, with several more crediting low-cost fixes such as drugstore pore strips. None of them mentioned Mzia Shiman, who tends to the skin-care needs of Victoria’s Secret models. The facials at her New York spa start at $200, and more advanced services offer tightening and plumping via LED light bed or electric micro-current.
Even if you forgo high-tech treatment and avoid skin problems such as cystic acne or dermatitis, which Saxena notes usually require intervention from an expensive dermatologist, a skin-care regimen itself can get very expensive, very quickly. Into The Gloss, a beauty website whose popular series The Top Shelf asks influential people to detail absolutely everything they do to their skin and hair, provides readers with a rare look at the litany of services and products required to keep the famous and wealthy looking that way. The most recent edition, from the veteran model Angela Lindvall, lists skin-care products that add up to $629, most of which come in small, quickly emptied packages. This price range is typical of The Top Shelf.
When affluent people name just one trick that supposedly works like magic, usually when prompted by a women’s publication, that elides hundreds of dollars’ worth of creams, serums, and peels. Even if you’re dedicated to low-cost alternatives, the trial and error of finding what works for your skin adds up, and you’ll probably go without some of the specialized ingredients that target problems such as wrinkles or hyperpigmentation. (And yes, many of those chemicals really do work.)
Which is not to say that a diet of fresh foods, plenty of water, and eight hours of sleep every night don’t affect how your skin looks; studies have demonstrated links between all three and physical appearance, and they’ll help most people achieve the modest goal of looking totally fine. Unless you’re very young and even more genetically gifted, though, self-denial won’t get the results it promises. What its constant recommendation in place of expensive beauty products belies is how closely tied those factors also are to wealth. Only some people have access to a diet of fresh fruits and vegetables. Only some people have the kinds of jobs with steady schedules that allow for a good night’s sleep. Only some people can drink the water that comes out of their faucet.
Sunscreen is another one of those beauty hacks whose accessibility is assumed, and it’s elemental to staving off visible signs of aging. Its actual accessibility is a bit more complicated, depending on who you are. In 2017, the YouTuber Jackie Aina posted a review of her favorite sunscreens, intended to help viewers navigate the ghostly cast that results when most SPF products are used on darker skin. All of the options cost more than $30, far more than lighter-skinned people have to pay for a functional sunscreen. Although darker skin is structurally less apt to show some of the most obvious signs of aging, people with it still encounter issues such as acne and uneven pigmentation, and they’re up against a global beauty industry that historically doesn’t prioritize their needs.
Skin tends to be the most visible proof of a person’s accumulated lifestyle, and that only becomes truer as people age. The past few years have been a boom time for skin care, as the oldest Millennials begin their late 30s and start to wrinkle around the eyes. Soon, they’ll need more than just a fancy cream to get results, because skin loses volume as the body ages, no matter how good your products are. That’s when fillers and Botox come in, and when the high prices of those treatments mean class differences are even more easily elucidated by the condition of a person’s skin.
Still, though, mainstream beauty media continues to aggregate the tips and tricks of the young and wealthy, usually without questioning the larger picture. If everyone admitted that skin care is primarily a function of wealth, then they’d have to grapple with who has money, and what we assume and expect of those who don’t.