After a day of slogging through my inbox (new launches I NEED to try, reasons to get Botox or stop getting Botox, how to perfect my routine, smooth my skin, prevent hair loss, etcetera etcetera ad nauseum), I always shut off my computer convinced that I need to change careers. Keeping up with the beauty industry is exhausting. And if you stay skin deep, which all the newness makes easy to do, beauty can feel so frivolous. But consider this: what if every new product or “Here’s What X Celebrity Is Wearing On Their Face” story is actually a red herring? Because they are. Beauty is such fertile ground for critical academic dissection—historically, politically, ethnographically. And any time I find something that offers a new perspective towards understanding beauty, it inspires my love of and interest in it all over again. Here are a few books that did it for me:
Self Care by Leigh Stein
The one to throw in your beach bag
Self Care is a work of fiction. And yet… Richual, a women’s-only social and content platform devoted to wellness, sounds so believable that you forget it’s made up. The story follows Maren and Devin, co-founders with completely different definitions of what it means to be “well.” What they have in common, however, is that they’re both terrible! Stein lays out all the ingredients for disaster: an overworked team, a lack of boundaries, a weird racial dynamic, an ill-advised slogan, a dollop of privilege, and a bunch of VC dudes with dollar signs for eyeballs. New York Mag’s approval matrix has it classified as “highbrow, brilliant”, but it reads like a beach read—save the lingering sting of good satire.
How To Murder Your Life by Cat Marnell
The instant entree to industry insiderdom
The career arc of wayward former beauty editor turned NYT bestseller Cat Marnell, a buttery blonde with Courtney Love eyeshadow, glistening, self-tanned limbs, and a gnarly addiction. What starts with a teenage Adderall prescription morphs, before your very eyes, into a series of chaotic, slimy amphetamine binges. The way Marnell tells it is unflinching, but… delightful? It’s hard not to fall for the narrator. And there’s also an element of salacious juiciness, aside from the dirty details of nightlife and casual sex: most of the people she meets along her drug-fueled journey are either still in the beauty industry (like Goop editor Jean Godfrey-June) or famous (“Catfish” star Nev Schulman, “Love” creator Leslie Arfin, and meme-maker The Fat Jewish are all central players).
Negroland by Margo Jefferson
The recent history book
Jefferson’s memoir is not about beauty, but beauty does play a supporting role. She paints a portrait of Black bourgeoisie in Chicago when Chicago was still segregated. They’re wealthy, beautifully dressed, highly educated, and feel compelled to maintain an image of perfectionism as a shield against the everyday racism that surrounds them. The community held incredibly strict beauty standards: a young Margo pines for “good” hair, and the kind of nose and body shape that populated magazines and TV. As writer Doreen St. Felix gushed in her Top Shelf, Jefferson “comes to the idea of beauty in an oblique way—[it’s] a really good example of how you can take a couple decades of American history, and then produce a compelling psychological portrait as to why Black women do the things they do to look the way that they look.”
The one that’ll blow up the group chat
This is a book of nine essays that you’ll find yourself quoting to friends constantly. Each is bite sized (so, perfect for a long commute) but meaty, and pulls normal things out of context so you can really look at them in the light. Always Be Optimizing is probably my favorite, or at least the one I think about most after reading—it addresses the phenomenon of the beauty lifestyle, where every endeavor is aimed at making day-to-day life frictionless. Tolentino gets at the conflicts of third wave feminism, pointing to $12 chopped salads, athleisure, and eyelash extensions as traps “at the intersection of capitalism and patriarchy.” Every modern oddity she casts her critical eye on turns to gold, so obviously I love this book.
Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell
For when you’ve finished all the cult docs on Netflix
This is a book about cults. You know the big ones: The People’s Temple, Manson Family, Heaven’s Gate, Rajneeshpuram, Branch Dividians. But, in line with Montell’s definition of the word, there’s also the cults of CrossFit, Mary Kay, and Trader Joe’s—which you probably interact with on a daily basis. Montell calls upon her background in linguistics and experience as a beauty editor (she still contributes to Byrdie from time to time) to make the case for why these companies are, well, cultish. She also breaks down exactly how groups use language to draw people in and convert them to believers, working slowly from Scientology to Soulcycle so you follow the thread. If you’ve ever bought a “cult favorite” product like Biologique Recherche P50, or at least wondered about the hoopla surrounding it, you need to read this.
The Secret Lives of Colour by Kassia St. Clair
A treat for makeup and art history buffs
There’s a Tiktok about Scheele’s green making the rounds: the emerald dye was popular in the 1800s, and gained its hue from arsenic dust. Scheele’s green was used to color everything from clothing to wallpaper to faux flowers, and obviously, it was incredibly poisonous! Best case scenario, wearing the color left you with a rash… worst case, it killed you. And if that kind of anecdote gives you goosebumps, you’ll love this whole book. You don’t have to read it all at once—flip through at leisure, choosing a color and diving deep into the histories of all its variations. You’ll learn about Baker-Miller pink (a Pepto Bismol hue found to reduce aggression), the color of an Apple computer, the color of a smiley face emoji, and how every shade of brown in your eyeshadow got its name. Color is a fun thing to nerd out about, because once you put down the book, you start seeing it everywhere.
Photo via ITG