Sabrina Smofsky

Social and Cultural Anthropology MA
Concordia University

My research explores facial skin and its linkage to cultural notions of beauty. This work seeks to investigate the dichotomy between ideas of “good” skin and “problematic” skin, which skincare and cosmetic industries continue to nurture and reaffirm. By closely studying these industries across different cultures, this research seeks to uncover the similarities and differences of skin ideals.
Through the use of digitally enhanced advertisements, many of these industries have elevated the standards of “good skin” to unattainable expectations. In many different cultures, smooth, touchable, supple, glowing, even-toned, pore-less facial skin has become communicated as detrimental to beauty, and thus aspired for. It is therefore seemingly ironic that the often financially draining and time consuming process of attaining and maintaining “good skin,” is “rarely seen with the fingers and generally only touched with the eyes” (Classen, The Deepest Sense). Thus the glorified smoothness of one’s facial skin is generally left to one’s vision. One is often left to imagine how smooth a fleshy facade must feel. Likewise, acne and wrinkles are generally visually imagined as an undesirable rugged terrain, filled with traitorous slopes and crevasses. Redness and discoloration are often envisioned, mainly in advertisements for skincare and cosmetic brands, as angry and discontented skin. Through the promise to correct these undesirable facial predispositions, one is made aware of their unique facial “problems,” and that these “problems” require immediate interventions.
Although heavily marketed and widely distributed, Western skin ideals don’t necessarily dominate in different cultures. This is especially true of skin tone ideals. The multitude of whitening and bleaching agents available in Asian-brand cosmetics and skincare, and their aversion in American-brands, reveals the Asian cultural preference for those with alabaster complexions. This is in contrast to Western cultures, which tend to idealize sun-kissed or tanned looking complexions. Curiously, a deeper look into Western cosmetic ranges reveals that there is such a thing as “too dark.” In fact most African-Americans struggle with finding products to match their skin. Often ranges don’t make foundations dark enough, or realistic enough to include deeper skin tones. Perhaps this exclusion is a matter of lack of demand, or perhaps a subtle, or maybe not-so-subtle, racist message is being made. Either way, various cosmetic brands at least reaffirm the Caucasian-beauty status quo.
This research then will explore how one’s facial skin, more so than any other surface of the body, can influence the way people are judged and treated by others, and how this can in turn affect individual identity.