How I deal with Keratosis Pilaris

Posted on April 07, 2018 under Thoughts

I am twenty-three years into a battle against Keratosis Pilaris. For those who don’t know, KP is a super common skin condition involving little bumps on the skin caused by a buildup of keratin. (This is really gross, but sometimes you can pop KP bumps just like zits – that’s how much keratin we’re talking.) Usually it’s on the arms and legs, but it can appear anywhere except the palms. Some people’s KP appears quite red and inflamed. Some people have it on only some parts of their arms and legs and some people get it only seasonally. I am one of the super lucky people who has it all over my arms and legs all year round. Mine usually isn’t particularly red – the bumps themselves are obviously pink, but the skin around them doesn’t get inflamed. During the winter when my skin is very dry it can be more noticeably red, but the above picture is a good representation of how it normally appears.

KP is not painful (just itchy sometimes, when it’s really dry) and it isn’t indicative of any sort of serious medical condition. It’s literally just my stupid skin producing too much keratin. It’s totally genetic – my mom has had it for her whole life and I’ve had it for as long as I can remember. Apparently it’s common for it to spontaneously improve by about age 30, but I’m not holding out much hope. Mine has pretty much stayed the same throughout my life, and since my mom has had hers forever I assume mine will be much the same. It’s actually kind of nice that I have her to look to, because it means I’m not wasting any time waiting for my KP to clear up in the next few years.

KP used to be something I was pretty self-conscious about – in a world that pushes absolute smoothness as the pinnacle of leg beauty, I will never achieve that. But when I was a teenager I looked into KP and realized how prevalent it is – it’s seen in approximately 30-50% of the adult population. You’d never know that, though, because the arms and legs we see in ads and on TV are always nice and smooth, blurred and Photoshopped to perfection. I’ve talked to so many people who are really self-conscious about their KP. It seems nonsensical to me that so many of us have insecurities about something that is incredibly prevalent. Gradually I began to notice just how many people have it, and I stopped caring as much. (Like, a few weeks ago I was with a group of eight people and I could see that at least three of them had it…) A good amount of people I pass on the street deal with the exact same thing, and those who don’t have definitely seen KP skin before and will not be shocked when confronted with my arms. I don’t really care about it from an aesthetic standpoint anymore; I wear shorts in the summer with absolutely zero thought about my KP. I mean, if I woke up with nice smooth legs I wouldn’t be mad, but I’ve long since accepted that I have visible bumps all over my arms and legs.

I could shave my legs ten times a day and they will still never look like this. Although she is most definitely receiving help from Sally Hansen and good old Photoshop…

Really the concern for me is managing how dry and itchy my KP can make my skin. I don’t think that having super dry skin is necessarily an inborn feature of KP – I’m just lucky enough to have year-round KP all over my arms and legs and the driest skin in the world. Like I cannot overstate how dry my arms and legs are at all times. The dryness totally exacerbates the KP and makes it uncomfortable instead of just a bit ugly.

Now, if you have KP you have no doubt furiously Googled cures for it. You have probably read many stories about people curing theirs. I don’t doubt that that’s possible – but I really think that some of us just have lifelong cases that can never be fully cured. However, it can be managed and mitigated. The frustrating thing is that not everything works for everybody. Care of KP-ravaged skin seems to be very much in the “your mileage may vary” category – so what works for me may not work for you. Regardless, here’s what helps keep mine at bay.

Moisture

No surprise – moisture is the most important factor for me. This is primarily about feeling (since dry skin is way more likely to feel itchy and scaly), but I do think it makes a visible difference as well. The added shine of body cream makes the skin look smoother and more uniform than it actually is.

I only used body cream on the right leg – you can see what a difference it makes!

So, I basically take moisture wherever I can get it. Thick body creams are obviously the primary moisture vehicle, but I’m also a big fan of using shower oils instead of shaving cream in order to really maintain the moisture of my skin. There are a lot of shaving creams on the market that claim to be moisturizing, but I’ve never found them to do anything for me. Oils are where it’s at! I really like the L’Occitane Almond Shower Oil, but La Roche-Posay and Bioderma both make more budget-friendly versions.

I absolutely love The Body Shop’s Coconut Body Butter – because of the coconut oil it has a semi-solid consistency that my skin responds to well. I’ve heard of a lot of people who found that coconut oil actually completely cleared up their KP. I can confidently say that is not true for me (and yes, I have tried pure coconut oil as well), but I do think it helps. Otherwise, I absolutely love the A-Derma Exomega Emollient Balm. It’s not a very thick cream at all, but it delivers so much rich hydration and I’m always amazed at how (relatively) smooth my skin feels after I use it. La Roche-Posay Lipikar Baume AP+ has a similar effect, but A-Derma edges it out just slightly for me.

Body oils work really well for me, too, and sometimes I’ll layer them. I’ve used argan and rosehip as well as squalane and they’ve all worked really nicely. They don’t have to be fancy or expensive: $6 bottles from The Ordinary work well, so do off-brand oils from Winners. I just recommend applying body oils in the bathroom and waiting a few minutes for them to sink in, because they can get a bit messy.

I will note for posterity that the best body cream I ever found for KP was by long-dead Canadian brand Dermaglow. Me and my mom were both obsessed with it because it actually seemed to make a huge difference in clearing up our skin. But the brand went under years ago and we just haven’t found anything as good. Part of me is still hoping for a resurrection even though it’s been the better part of a decade.

Exfoliation

Exfoliation is my second weapon against KP. This is another pretty obvious one – when you’ve got bumpy, textured skin, exfoliation is a good way to smooth things out. It helps to unclog the keratin-filled hair follicles and can slough off any flaky, dry patches. I use a body scrub every time I shower. Currently I’m using one from The Body Shop (obviously purchased during a promotion…), but usually I use whatever is cheap and cheerful from the drugstore since at the end of the day they’re all just sugar scrubs.

I also use chemical exfoliants about once a week. I’ve found that glycolic acid works best for me. There are a lot of body creams with 5% or 8% glycolic (and, indeed, the Dermaglow cream I mourn had 8%), but sometimes they don’t quite pack in the amount of moisture I want. I prefer to separate out those functions so I can get exactly what I want. I use glycolic acid on my face every day, so I just use whatever I have open at the time. Currently it’s by Vichy, but I’ve also used NeoStrata and The Ordinary with the same results.

I don’t overdo the chemical exfoliation because I really don’t want to dry out my arms and legs. It’s just a nice weekly treatment to help speed things along.

Sunlight

This is a bit of a controversial one, since some sources say that exposure to sunlight actually worsens KP. In general I would agree that sun exposure worsens most skin conditions, and it seems logical that sunlight would darken KP bumps. But my actual life experience begs to differ! I am all for sun protection and I don’t think anybody should be roasting out in the sun for hours a day to improve their KP. But my skin is never better than immediately after a cottage vacation where I’m outside all day. Look, I’m not the only one! This obviously isn’t a long-term fix or anything… but I had to mention it since it’s 100% the thing that makes the most difference. (My mom has had this experience too, so there are at least three of us!)

Things I haven’t tried

I’ve never used a steroid cream on my KP (though I’d be open to trying it). I’ve also never had laser treatment – that was something I used to long for, but the expense just doesn’t seem worth it to me anymore. If I’m going to get something lasered it’s going to be my eyeballs because I am too vain for glasses and too lazy for contacts (except for special occasions). And I haven’t tried making any dietary changes. It’s not that I don’t believe that might make a difference, it’s just that making noticeable lifestyle changes for the sake of something that I’m not even that insecure about anymore seems like an unbalanced tradeoff. Like, I can commit to three minutes a day putting on body lotion. Cutting out food I like eating long-term? Nah. It’s just not that important to me!

The unfortunate thing about all of these solutions is that progress is dependent on absolute rigid consistency. I can improve the look and feel of my KP as long as I’m vigilant about treating it. If I stop, I go right back to square one. I think that’s true for those who “cure” theirs, too – stop with the coconut oil or start eating dairy again and your perfectly smooth legs vanish. (Wait… you still have legs. They’re just not smooth.) I try to build these things into my regular routines, but sometimes it’s just not going to happen. When I’m travelling, stressed, or busy, these things fall by the wayside – it’s never a linear path. KP is never going to be my top priority, and that’s not only okay, it’s healthy. Some bumps on my skin should not be taking up that much mental energy when I can be focusing on school, my relationships with my friends and family, my hobbies, my health, learning new things, travelling… Obviously, when it comes to things we’re insecure about, that’s easier said than done. But it’s all about perspective, and some less-than-beautiful bumps on my arms and legs are so much less important than basically everything else going on in my life.

Does anyone in the beauty industry actually know what a cult classic is?

Posted on March 28, 2018 under Thoughts

These are not cult classics.

As with many concepts, the idea of the cult classic was birthed out of film studies. (My favourite film studies neologism is “the male gaze”, although the actual essay it comes from is primarily a bizarre psychoanalysis that I do not particularly enjoy despite having read it approximately ninety thousand times for professors who don’t realize that it’s a Film 101 staple.) Though the precise definition of a cult film is debated by film academics, definitions usually encompass subversive elements, a devoted following, and cultural longevity. Generally I agree with Mark Jancovich’s conception of the cult film as works of paracinema united in “subcultural ideology” rather than in any specific formal or thematic elements. (His book on the subject is really interesting!) The “cultness” of something (i.e. its base of niche, devoted fans) is as important as the “classicness” (i.e. its legacy and lasting influence).

I think The Room is probably the clearest example of a cult film, although it’s also pretty extreme given how it exists almost completely outside of film industry production, narrative, and aesthetic conventions. A more reasonable example is The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Another example in the field of television would be Freaks and Geeks, which was so commercially unsuccessful that it was cancelled before the end of the first season – yet it’s managed to remain culturally relevant to TV fans almost two decades after its last episode originally aired.

The concept of a cult classic has been integrated into mainstream vocabulary and obviously now applies to things outside of the realm of screen media. It’s a term that is thrown around a lot when talking about cosmetics… except the definition seems to have shifted entirely. “Cult classic”, when talking about beauty products, doesn’t seem to refer to marginal products with niche audiences. It seems to refer to, well, any product that’s has enjoyed wide popularity for a sustained period. This Reddit thread about cult classics namedrops products like NARS Orgasm blush, ABH Brow Wiz, and Smashbox Photo Finish Primer. These are really just popular, mainstream products. A recent Racked article on the “cult favourite” phenomenon bizarrely seems to imply that the term was birthed within the beauty community and uses MAC Ruby Woo as an example of a cult product.

But, as the article itself points out in its first paragraph, four tubes of Ruby Woo are sold every minute. How, then, is Ruby Woo a “cult classic”? It’s not – it’s one of the most absurdly popular lipstick shades in the world. That’s like saying Titanic is a cult classic. Ruby Woo is a classic, but cult implies nicheness, marginality, a feverish devotion that exists somewhere outside of mainstream sensibilities. Oh, sure, we all know someone who is practically evangelical in their love for Ruby Woo (or maybe Russian Red), but do you think the four people a minute purchasing a tube have a cult-like mentality? Isn’t the entire point of a cult that it goes against the norm? If the norm is that Ruby Woo is the red lipstick to own, that’s not really a cult at all. That’s just life as a human who wears lipstick.

Now, I know that language evolves, and you may think I should go with the flow, or that it doesn’t really matter anyway. And it doesn’t! But I do think that if you’re going to use a phrase made up of two words with very specific connotations (“cult” and “classic”), it doesn’t make sense to then use that phrase to describe something contrary to what the actual words imply. It’s curious how beauty rhetoric has appropriated the phrase in such a way that the original definition is subverted entirely. So, no, I don’t think we should induct Naked palettes into the pantheon of cult classics, because everyone and their mom owns at least one practically by default. I think Fairydrops mascara is a worthy contender for the title, however, because it’s a product known to and enjoyed by a relatively small subsection of those who use makeup in the Western world but which nonetheless enjoys endlessly positive reviews and sustained use.

It doesn’t really matter, but it’s interesting anyway. And that is pretty much the definition of my academic interests. (Just kidding, television does matter even if it’s not taken seriously as an art form.)

Recently watched on Netflix

Posted on February 27, 2018 under Thoughts

Despite the fact that I’m a film & TV grad student, those are topics which I pretty much never cover on my blog. Maybe it’s because it’s nice to keep my academic life and hobbies separate; after all, when I’m writing essays analyzing films I don’t necessarily want to do the same thing on my blog. As you may know, I don’t often watch films for fun. I sort of fell into film studies accidentally, and I’ve always been much more drawn to television narratives. So in that spirit, I thought I’d do a little roundup of some of the recent-ish Netflix content I’ve been consuming recently.

(There’s actually an ongoing academic debate regarding what TV even is anymore, when so much “television” is watched on non-television screens and consumed in a way that does not resemble traditional broadcast scheduling. Indeed, Netflix originals tend to be structured differently from conventional narrative television because the industry and streaming format is so different. But for lack of better terminology I consider Netflix content TV, though the specificity of Netflix as a medium is definitely worth exploring.)

Mindhunter

FBI agent Holden Ford meets serial killer Ed Kemper

Netflix originals are generally created with binge-viewing in mind. The Netflix model has certainly changed how we view television, and carving out an entire weekend to watch the new season of OITNB is standard now. But that’s not how I watched the David Fincher-produced Mindhunter. It actually took me about six weeks to get through all ten episodes, as I watched one at a time, with several days in between. Maybe it’s because of the brutal subject matter, but I think part of it is just the pacing of the series as a whole. The first episode especially is noticeably slow.

Mindhunter is a fictionalized look at the creation of the serial killer psychological profile in the late 1970s. It follows FBI agents Holden Ford and Bill Tench, as well as criminologist Wendy Carr, as they interview convicted serial killers and assemble a common psychological profile which they use to help solve open cases. Like many, I’m deeply interested in the world of serial killers; perhaps it’s the dark idea that such violence can lurk in the human psyche, and perhaps a little bit of it is a sick, voyeuristic desire to understand the tragic fates of other women. So I was surprised when this series failed to hold my attention for more than an hour at a time. Certainly the subject matter is interesting – and the interviews Holden and Bill conduct are actually taken word-for-word from interviews the real killers gave, which adds a layer of almost unbearably dark fascination. But the pacing is odd, the characterization weak. The attempts to give Holden a personal life fell flat; I simply didn’t care about his strained relationship with his two-dimensional girlfriend Debbie.

And therein lies the other essential problem I can identify with this series – the lack of female voices. Aside from Debbie, the only female character is Dr. Carr, whose presence simply doesn’t make up for the overwhelmingly male perspective. (It feels like they were overcompensating with her, too, giving her the storyline of “lesbian who must remain closeted for the sake of her career” for no real purpose other than diversity points, I guess.) This feels like an unforgivable gap considering the subject matter. This is a series about men who torture and kill women for sport – how is it made almost entirely in the absence of the female perspective? Of course I understand that it’s about the psychological profile of serial killers – and that aspect of the series was fascinating. But if they had time to devote to Holden’s boring personal life, they could have made space for robust female characters.

I was really disappointed that I didn’t enjoy Mindhunter more. I’m really interested in serial killers and I love the 70s, but the characterization and utter lack of consideration of the female perspective made the whole thing fall flat. Even though it ended with a bang, I can’t say I’m particularly excited for the second season.

The End of the F***ing World

James and Alyssa flee a crime scene after burning their clothes

If you like black comedies, you will probably love this one – and the good news is that it consists of eight very short episodes. If you have two spare hours, congrats, you can watch this series in full! It’s about self-diagnosed teenage psychopath James and his rebellious, angry friend Alyssa. Alyssa, who has a difficult home life, convinces James to run away from their southern England town – and James sees an opportunity to fulfil his psychopathic tendencies by murdering Alyssa.

The murder that eventually does occur is surprising and equal parts satisfying and disturbing. The ensuing events are funny, grim, and touching. Alyssa is a really compelling character; she’s so damaged, her anger masking her neediness and abandonment issues. James’ backstory is a little bit trite, to be honest, but his character arc is still interesting. Still, despite the premise I find that James ultimately becomes a supporting character to Alyssa, which is a delicious reversal of the usual gender dynamics we see! Anyway, I really hope this series doesn’t get renewed for a second season, because it ended perfectly – yes, there’s a bit of a cliffhanger, but I don’t really think there’s enough meat for the plot to be extended. Sometimes only a few episodes are needed to tell a story, and this is one of those times. Ambiguous endings don’t always necessitate another season to clarify what happened… sometimes they should just remain ambiguous.

Alias Grace

Grace Marks asks her master Thomas Kinnear a question about his painting

After really enjoying the Margaret Atwood novel of the same name, I took the plunge and watched the six-part Netflix series this month. For those who don’t know, this is a fictionalized version of the life of Grace Marks, an Irish-born maid in Toronto who was convicted of killing her master and his housekeeper. Not much is known about the real Grace, and the novel and Netflix series attempt to fill in the gaps, though the question of her guilt or innocence isn’t necessarily prioritized.

The series is a bit slow at first, but once it dives into the murder plot it’s delicious. It’s visually stunning; the costuming and set design are perfect, and I really love the dim lighting that’s used in many of the scenes. The footage often has a grainy, tactile quality that echoes analogue film. And some of the filming and framing techniques are really fascinating because they aren’t incredibly naturalistic. For example, there are a lot of quick shots from the murder punctuating present-day Grace’s conversation with psychiatrist Dr. Jordan, and there’s a sequence near the end of the series where the camera is positioned as spy, which feels overtly sinister. These shots are jarring because we’re watching historical fiction; the series is set in a time without video cameras, and so the reminder of the camera feels anachronistic. It’s very interesting!

Unfortunately, the acting is hit-or-miss; the actress who plays Grace is great (and, I think, does quite a good Irish accent for a Toronto native), but some of the supporting characters are a bit hammy. And Paul Gross, while a well-known Canadian actor whose inclusion in the series seems almost necessary by virtue of the gravitas he afforded himself with Passchendaele, has the worst Scottish accent I’ve ever heard. Seriously, I played a little clip from the show to my (Scottish) friends and they were like, “Is he supposed to be German?”

Despite Paul Gross borderline ruining the character of Kinnear with the godawful accent, I think it’s a very enjoyable series. It’s quick to get through – six 45-minute episodes are not a huge time commitment, and I think it’s pretty bingeable once you get past the slower first and second episodes. Onscreen Grace is as complex and well-developed as her novelistic counterpart, and the show is stylistically interesting. Worth a watch for fans of the book for sure!

It’s cool to see Netflix partnering with CBC for this series, since I doubt the chronically underfunded and threatened public broadcast institution could afford the production value the series clearly displays. I’m the first to say that the Canadian television landscape is pretty bleak (though shows like Schitt’s Creek and Letterkenny are slowly rehabilitating that image), and I think further partnerships like this would be amazing. It’d create jobs for Canadian talent and boost Canada’s cultural capital – worldwide release on Netflix is a far cry from local distribution on CTV. I see that there’s also a CBC-Netflix adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, which is great. More of this, please!

(By the way, a fun but irrelevant fact – Paul Gross is the father of Hannah Gross, who portrays the boring character Debbie in Mindhunter.)

Queer Eye

Antoni, Tan, Bobby, Karamo, and Jonathan watch footage of makeover subject AJ’s party

Representation of LGBTQ people on TV usually comes with some considerable caveats, and the Queer Eye reboot (and, indeed, its network television predecessor) is no exception. The ability of the Fab Five to represent themselves as gay men hinges on the value they bring to straight men and to the institution of heterosexuality in general. Seven of the eight episodes revolve around making over straight men (and their homes) to make them more attractive to women. Some of the men have obvious love interests (an ex-wife who appears receptive to getting back together, a wife who is unhappy with the way her wedding went), and some are chronically single men who are made over in order to increase their value on the dating market. The Fab Five basically act as proxies for straight women, giving their opinions on what women will find appealing with a sense of authority lended to them by their affluent homosexuality.

The best episode of the series by far involves making over a semi-closeted gay man, who uses the confidence boost from the makeover to come out to his stepmother. It’s the most genuine episode precisely because he shares something intrinsic with the Fab Five, who can relate to his struggles and insecurities in a deeply meaningful way. It’s not that the other seven men don’t get a lot out of the experience (they frequently give emotional, sometimes tear-filled speeches at the end of the process), but there is a lot more emotional depth to the narrative “These confident, successful gay men helped me become comfortable in my sexuality” versus “A group of gay guys made my wife think I’m more attractive.”

Be warned if you watch this show – the third episode is just one big “yikes” moment the whole way through. It’s disheartening that the Fab Five are forced to make over a proud Trump-supporting cop, even more uncomfortable when they have to jokingly play off his political affiliation as something a bit passé rather than a direct threat to their livelihood. And making Karamo – who is Black – speak to the cop and basically agree that “it goes both ways” with regards to police brutality… well, that’s unfortunate. I mean, that’s just not a thing – there’s no comparison between distrust of police and institutionalized racism. The episode sadly taints the rest of the series since it makes its neoliberal assimilationist politics all too clear, sacrificing the safety of gay men for the comfort of the heterosexual gaze.

That said, the show pretty successfully traffics in feel-good emotion, and it’s genuinely heartwarming. Whether or not the changes imposed by the Fab Five will be long-lasting, we can’t know – but it’s good, light fun. Each cast member has a compelling, attractive personality and over the course of the series we begin to see the complexities of their personalities. There is no cast member who I dislike, although I tend to enjoy Karamo – who’s in charge of the vaguely-defined “Culture” – and Tan – the “Fashion” guy – the most. It’s a series that has several downfalls when watched with an even slightly critical eye, but LGBTQ representation so often is one of those “take what you can get” things and there are a lot of good moments peppered throughout the series.