An Untenable History of Beauty and Pain
sorry i mention derrida
Hey. It’s been a while because I was at a writer’s residency. Thanks for sticking around. Here’s what I’ve been reading lately:
My friend Whitney wrote a Dr. Bronners piece! I’ve always meant to write about the brand eventually and it’s a great contextual piece on the framework of business they use. The brand is truly buckwild and I’ll still write my version one day, but in the meantime: What Does Dr. Bronner’s Know That Other Brands Don’t?
A Map to the Door of No Return, Dionne Brand (I re-read this regularly, it rules)
Time is A Mother, Ocean Vuoung
Dream of the Divided Field, Yanyi
On Archives and Legacies:
Handle with Care: On invisible ink and archival imagination, Jewish Currents
Untenable History, a review of the David Graeber & David Wengrow’s tome "The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity" that questions whether they depart from colonial constructions of time and history. I thought this review was incredible and the reviewer was also one of the people they cited in the book. I keep returning to this piece because it has so much of what I’ve been thinking about lately - histories as imperial storytelling, time as a concept that changes within diasporic frameworks. Here’s one key quote: Human-centered history reckoned by imperial time marks a threshold between being in and out of animal life, and perhaps this is the rotten core of the matter: the conceit that humans, their doings and imaginings, can ever really be separated from nature, from the world, from each other.
I’ve been thinking about this idea - interconnectedness as the antithesis of imperial time, a restructuring of relationships, as a way of undoing how people often tell stories and metabolize pain.
I’ve been analyzing how the beauty industry is a machine of terror and state power (this piece on spas and statecraft comes to mind) for a long time, and doing so has been a clarifying, necessary vortex of myth-breaking for me. That I wasn’t insane for feeling suspicious about beauty and in fact the whole industry gaslights product as promise: use me, buy me, and all will be well. I can list a litany of ways beauty brands have broken people, how founders have prioritized profits over community care, how bodies have been policed and punished through different laws and policies disguised as codes of conduct or professional uniforms, across all time.
Positioning beauty history as a series of reactionary pain resulting from white supremacy is true, but it’s not the only truth, and it still centers the primacy of white experience in narrative. Put another way, history doesn’t begin with when whiteness decided someone else was useful enough to use. Where pain is found was not where the story starts or where it ends. It is a juncture, but it’s not the whole journey. Knowing the other parts - it’s important! And not just because it illuminates the injustice of pain but because we are more than what hurt us. We’re more than wounds.
I’m interested, really, in what comes after acknowledging the historical burden of grief and all the ways it shapes us and our bodies. Researching the violence of beauty as a political mechanism has been - unsurprisingly! - very traumatizing work for me as a non-binary person of color. So now I’m trying to find more joyful ways of commemorating the people who have been harmed in the relationship between beauty and empire, and how to help foster futures that carry their resilience at heart. I’m going to try to be led by hope and curiosity about what is still possible and not operate based on fear, suspicion, or that any one person knows how to fix the structural problems in the beauty industry or at large. There isn’t one.
There are no heroes. No whistleblowers who will guide us out of the dark without eventually making a mistake that they get crucified for or become warped by the power of the authority they’ve claimed by disrupting the very space they entered. I’ve been more and more reluctant to share beauty news because sometimes it feels like the only way to get traction is to police, to shame, to wail in synchronicity, and my god, I have enough pain already. Don’t you?
In the end, we are everything we’ve got. I am trying to entertain the idea that perhaps it might be enough. And if the idea that we are enough isn’t enough - that means I have to find more of my people. Who is doing work to plug in to? Who is inviting others into the work? How do we help?
You’re probably going, ‘Arabelle, what does all this have to do with imperial time. What does interconnectedness have to do with covering the beauty industry?’ And listen - I get that! The short answer is that the industry is built on interconnection between supply and consumer, story and lesson, and the materials of this industry were built out of imperial concerns. Just one example: eyelid surgery was a product of the Korean War. (Cue shock, betrayal, outrage, clarity, concern, acceptance, resentment, judgement, curiosity, and so forth. It is a fact, that compels feelings, and also many stories, too.) But I can always give you dark histories. And I will, in my book! But I’ve only been doing that, exclusively that, it feels like, for years. And while it’s made me a knife of a brain, in a world that is perpetually collapsing, I want to be able to be soft. I think that softness, that refusal to only speak from pain - that is so important, too. (That softness is also in the book, don’t worry. I tried.)
I operated for a long time at a place of weaponized vulnerability and that helped me survive my circumstances. But I’m not actually in that place now, and I know that. I have experienced growth in my emotional landscape and in my material existence, and that has changed how I want to interact with histories, with other people dead and alive, and what I even want out of those connections. Thinking a lot about this especially as yesterday was Trans Day of Visibility, and because of that, I do want to highlight Jules Gill-Peterson’s thoughts and their newsletter:
None of this is to say I’m not going to share beauty news in the future, or be critical of what I share, and what it might mean. But I am trying to reshape my relationship to my the knowledge I find and share. I’ve been quiet because I’m rethinking what modes of storytelling I want to perpetuate. How to tell a story that doesn’t focus only on pain and what caused it but what comes after, what came before, what has always existed in spite of pain, and will remain when it has left us. And that takes time, really. I’m trying to exist specifically at the grey space of Pheng Cheah’s definition of deconstruction and Derrida:
Deconstruction is not a skepticism or a nihilism. It is a form of critical intimacy–a kind of love rather than an act of destruction–for an enemy inside already. In deconstruction, the line between friend and enemy shifts.
What does love and curiosity look like after grief? What can critique mean beyond policing? I’ve been watching a lot of movies to try to figure out how to answer these questions for myself. A lot of them are dealing with these issues, too! I’ve already seen Everything Everywhere All At Once, twice, and will probably see it like, five times more. It is incredible and all about these things. Time and possibility. Being changed and reformed by pain and embracing the mess that comes with it. I cried so hard my eyeballs hurt afterwards. 500000/5!!! Go see it!
I also watched this last night and it was very good:
I am curious about what stories of beauty keep you up at night. In a GOOD WAY!
Would you share favorite pieces with me this time around? They don’t have to exist yet - they can be what you want to see. I’m curious about how we build right now. This missive is mostly a status update on my heart chest, as I call it. Where my brain is at right now is in the middle of my heart. I realize this is a perhaps rambling newsletter. This is fine with me. Ask me if you are confused about stuff. I’m here! In your inbox. Just hanging out.
Hope you’re well. Hope you’re feeling cared for. Hope you feel love right now. If none of those things, then I hope you know - really know - it’s still possible. Ok?