In a relatively equal society, the things we own don’t particularly matter all that much. People in more equal societies don’t obsess over “things” because pretty much everyone can afford the same ones.
Everything changes when societies become distinctly more unequal. In these societies, things become pivotal markers of social status. Your sense of self-worth comes to depend more on what you own than who, deep down, you happen to be.
The more unequal a society becomes, in short, the more our things matter. But the social toxicities, we’re learning, don’t stop there. In deeply unequal societies, everything about us becomes a marker of social status, not just the things we own. The latest prime example: the skin we all share.
The basic folk wisdom about skin, journalist Amanda Mull points out, assumes we get the skin we “deserve.” And this folk wisdom does have some predictive power. If you eat lots of fresh foods, get your sleep, and stay hydrated and out of the sun, you’ll be more likely to have “good” skin. Skin does, as a result, serve as “the most visible proof of a person’s accumulated lifestyle.”
And that, adds writer Jaya Saxena, can create some unfortunate complications for people with blemished “bad” skin. We tend, she explains, to “treat not just the skin as bad, but the person under it.”
“Moralizing” skin in this way, of course, makes no sense. You can be personally noble in all your daily habits and still suffer from seborrheic dermatitis. And you can be something less than noble in your habits and still have “good” skin, even as you age. To pull that off, you just need . . . money.
“Celebrities wouldn’t be as distractingly beautiful without dermatologists, estheticians, and the women behind the beauty counters at Bergdorf Goodman,” Amanda Mull reminds us. “You can drink as much water and wear as much sunscreen as you want, but the most effective skin-care trick is being rich.”
Rich enough for spa facials that start at $200, notes Mull, and much bigger ticket items like “tightening and plumping via LED light bed or electric micro-current.” These treatments work — check the faces in Vail — and today’s rich gladly pay the going rate. Their glowing “good” skin brands them as better people, and the rest of us, in deeply unequal societies, go along with that assessment.
“If wealth is our reward for a job well done and a life well lived, good skin becomes outward proof of goodness,” as Jaya Saxena relates. “Because we assume society is a meritocracy, 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.”
The rich, naturally, reinforce all these connections at every opportunity. Magazines overflow with articles that have them sharing “how-to-live-right” tips for achieving skin that sparkles. Never mind that this sparkle also requires a La Mer moisturizer at $450 a pop.
The rich aren’t behaving duplicitously here. They believe what they’re preaching. They’ve convinced themselves that their good skin reflects their good character, their noble lifestyles, their deservedness.
We have here, to mix our metaphors, another example of what the commentator Jim Hightower has delightfully dubbed the “born on third base” syndrome: The wealthy regularly find themselves standing on life’s third base and think they’ve hit a triple. They ascribe their wealth to their nobility, to their hard work or their intelligence or their courageous risk taking.
“We who are born on third base risk believing the illusion that the wind at our back is our own locomotion,” as egalitarian activist Chuck Collins puts it.
In reality, we only know one thing for sure about people who enjoy grand private fortunes: They have lots more money than the rest of us. This fact of fortune says nothing about a person’s character or courage. The financially favored could be rich because they stole from others or simply exploited them. They could be rich because they had the incredible luck to find themselves in the right place at the right time, or simply because they had the foresight to choose rich parents.
So let’s not let the rich put a “pretty face” on the ugly realities of our staggeringly unequal times. Let’s not let the glow “good skin” gives blind us. Let’s try shining instead more skeptical light on the assumptions that drive the $445-billion beauty industry.
The payoff would be well worth the effort. If we all saw skin care as “primarily a function of wealth,” as Amanda Mull writes, “then they’d have to grapple with who has money, and what we assume and expect of those who don’t.”
Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. His latest book, The Case for a Maximum Wage, has just been published. Among his other books on maldistributed income and wealth: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.