Once upon a time, in a decade called the ’90s, you were either hot or deep. Rarely both. If you were one, people would doubt your capacity to be the other. Especially if you were a woman. You’re pretty, you must be dumb. Probably rotten too. You’re smart? Then you’re a sexless nerd and one wants to go out with you.
Luke Perry’s death got me thinking about the shifting relationship between ethics and aesthetics. That this man was an icon of my youth, and why, is not up for debate. Nobody didn’t like the guy. And everyone agrees it was because he had an extremely rare combination of grab-your-ankles good looks and hot-woke sensitivity. An inner life as rich as his outer one. In the late 2010s, that’s just goals. But it wasn’t always that way.
In the Dylan McKay era, there were two kinds of self-improvement: real and superficial. Education and health pursuits were virtuous, admirable. Working on your appearance made you a terrible person. Self-love, that wasn’t a thing. Unless you were a rapper, you weren’t supposed to be obsessed with yourself and your story. You weren’t supposed to try to get attention for your talent, even. People who made it clear they were after fame risked looking corny and dated, like a desperate, dorky girl trying to be head cheerleader in 1988. Popularity was passé. Fame was lame. That Luke Perry disavowed its benefits made him even hotter.
Well into the 2000s, self-improvement was a tricky, performative dance. If you cared about being hot, you had to act like you didn’t. You had to be low key. Then came social media. And digital cameras. And selfies. Everyone was trying to look hot. And cool. And deep. Look good, feel good, do good, all became the same thing. The Internet, for all its pitfalls, was showing us how interconnected everything is. Your selfie is vain, but it’s also you putting yourself out there and throwing down a vibe. Your visual energy is a reflection of your soul, your innermost desires manifesting on the outside, a lure for attracting what you want as you move through the world.
Once beauty brands saw this happening, it was all over. Over meaning it was just getting started. As soon as looking your best became an authentic expression of the struggle to be your best, the entire mechanism of marketing beauty and cosmetics shifted.
Remember when Peggy Olson pitched Pond’s Cold Cream as a “ritual” on Mad Men? She got shouted down by a roomful of men who wanted to tie the skin care product’s campaign to the anxiety around getting an engagement ring. Now that word is everywhere, ritual. In skin and hair care especially, the idea of tying outer beauty to inner soul searching is the emotional benefit touted by nearly every brand hawking radiance-inducing vanity voodoo. There’s another one, radiance. The concept of a beauty product nurturing your soul and coaxing your unique inner beauty onto the surface for all to see, that’s a thing.
Now, people are asking a freshman congresswoman about her skin care rituals. No woman in politics in the Clinton era would’ve talked about this, for fear of sounding frivolous. But beauty and power are now inextricable. There’s no separation between the church of hotness and the state of kicking ass in your career. “I can. So I did” screams Revlon’s home page, where there’s a click-through to a story about how the brand’s new PhotoReady Candid line of complexion perfectors helps their global brand ambassadors “live boldly.”
Skin care is self-care now. It is wellness and happiness too. Herbivore’s jade rolling is a form of mediation. Four Sigmatic is telling you to “unlock inner beauty” by putting adaptogenic mushrooms on your face. Josie Maran’s Skin Dope gives you 100mg of full-spectrum CBD to pat into your cheeks, with the dual headlines Look Good and Feel Good. Remember when weed was for burnouts under the bleachers? Not anymore. Now it’s a sexy panacea, a soul-cleansing vitamin. You can take all the different parts of the plant and put it on your skin, in your lungs, mouth and vagina and be open and woke and inflammation-free. It’s “the true recipe for happiness” says The CBD Skincare Company.
It’s hard to think of a ’90s woman who walked the line between hotness and deepness as well as Luke Perry. Maybe it wasn’t possible then. But it sure is now. Now, it’s the norm to take your beauty as seriously as you take your life. A lot changes in a generation. If you’d told middle school me that at some point in my life I wouldn’t have to choose between being hot and being cool, I would’ve been happier than Brenda Walsh losing her virginity to Dylan McKay on the night of the spring dance.
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