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21 February 2024

We’ve forgotten what skin looks like

Something is wrong when ten-year-olds are seeking out anti-ageing products.

By Amelia Tait

I am ashamed to admit that I was shocked. On a dead, grey January day spent scrolling, I came across a video of the pop star Ariana Grande applying her make-up. I could see the creases under her eyes, the baby hairs between her eyebrows and the powder sitting on her pores – in short, her skin looked like skin. This was shocking not just to me but to 13,000 TikTok commenters. Some voiced their “respect” that Grande hadn’t used a skin-smoothing filter for the video; others said she looked “chalky” and “old” and didn’t “even look like Ariana Grande”.

No one knows what skin looks like any more. This is a bold statement: of course you know what skin looks like, you see it every day. You know that skin is wrinkled and pitted, scarred and blemished, hairy and flaky and bumpy. You have long studied the topography of your face in the mirror, and you have bought a cream that has reinforced what the glass told you: skin is fundamentally imperfect.

Yet knowing what your own skin looks like does not shield you from the obfuscating power of the internet. Subtle skin-enhancing filters are commonplace on TikTok and Instagram; everyone has the power to edit themselves as though they were a celebrity on the cover of a magazine. There is only so much you can do to abstain from this – many Android phones have beauty filters turned on by default, while some iPhone models have been found to automatically smooth selfies. Technology has warped our perspective of reality. Online, normal skin is not just anomalous – it is shocking.

Around the same time I saw Grande’s video, the German fashion photographer Juergen Teller debuted his latest set of deliberately unvarnished celebrity portraiture. Teller often shoots his subjects with direct flash and refuses to retouch his images. A meme spread across the internet declaring that a celebrity has to be truly attractive to look good in a Juergen Teller shoot. But what makes them look “bad” in these pictures? The wrinkles, blemishes and bumps we have collectively convinced ourselves don’t exist on famous faces.

As a result, not only are we sold uncountable lies – this serum will make you look like Margot Robbie! – but normality has been reframed as ugliness. I will never forget the day, a month or so into starting a new job, that I walked in without make-up for the first time. A male colleague immediately messaged me on Slack. I can’t remember his exact words, but they were akin to: “Are you OK? Is something wrong?” He was concerned – something terrible must’ve happened for my face to look like that.

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Skin amnesia doesn’t just leave us judging others. It also makes us view ourselves through a dysmorphic lens. Our mirrors could never possibly match our screens, yet we drive ourselves to despair believing the opposite. We are told it’s possible to “erase” our pores (which are necessary for our survival). We believe textureless skin is not only desirable but achievable. We pluck, shave, scrub, rub and pour acid on to our faces in pursuit of something that doesn’t exist.

Dermatologists say that children as young as ten are now seeking out anti-ageing skincare thanks to the intoxicating power of influencer marketing. Not only is this dangerous – children do not need retinol, a derivative of vitamin A, which can damage young skin – it is psychologically disastrous. In early January, the influencer Courtney Ball posted a video captioned “Here is a reminder what the raw face of a 28-year-old girl who hasn’t had any ‘work’ done looks like”; it accumulated 7.3 million views. Commenters told her she looked old and needed to “stay out of the sun”, and one claimed to have cried with relief upon seeing someone else with crow’s feet.

Anyone aged 28 or older can see that Ball does not look “old” or sun-damaged. Those who are younger appear to be blind to these facts. What will happen when their own skin ages with them? Will they be horrified to look biologically normal?

Over the years, I have spent far too much on creams, oils and serums for different bits of my face. Many have not only failed to make things better but actively made them worse. A couple of years ago, I noticed my cheeks looked redder and the blood vessels on them seemed more prominent; I tried countless rosacea treatments that aggravated the problem. Now I only use moisturiser, and my skin is significantly less inflamed.

My cheeks aren’t perfect. No doubt a child on TikTok would tell me they’re bumpy and red. The only reason I no longer care is because after emptying my wallet and countless bottles, I know the truth: there is not a product in the world that can stop skin from having texture. There is no way that a human – celebrity or not – could ever look like a TikTok filter.

It’s easy to scoff and act as if it’s only kids-these-days that are fooled by the appearance of real skin, or have oddly distorted perspectives. But when I noticed my own shock at Ariana Grande’s unfiltered face I realised how insidious this all is, and how much these attitudes can affect us without our realising.

How can we begin to undo the damage? Though some are brave enough to use social media to show their “real” skin, that this behaviour is somehow considered courageous shows the extent of our delusion. Perhaps all we can do is admit the truth. I, an adult woman, forgot what human skin looks like. I’ll do my best not to forget something so fundamental again.

[See also: I never experienced jealousy – until now]

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This article appears in the 21 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Fractured Nation