“What’s the easiest way for you to be good to yourself everyday?”, I ask Kelly. “Something simple, not buying yourself a new handbag”.

She wrinkles her brow for two seconds, then says, “I could wear mascara. They make my eyes pop”. But her face clouds over, as she hesitates. “I feel vapid for taking care of my looks.”

My clients like Kelly and I resonate deeply. I remember the daily struggle where wearing that dress or swiping on blush made me feel as though I was magically depleting my IQ and expertise.

Kelly doesn’t spend much time or money on her beauty routine. She’s an intelligent woman with savings and assets.

“If wearing mascara makes you feel happier when you look yourself in the mirror, and it’s simple enough to be built into your daily routine that you’ll commit to it, doesn’t it make it worthwhile?”

Her brows unfurrow, as her lips crease into a smile. She said that was her Eureka! moment.

#MeToo may have taken off and women are standing up against sexual assault and abuse. As a survivor of domestic violence, I couldn’t champion it more.

However, my friend Dr Rachel Ho (Anti-Aging Medicine Expert & Aesthetic Doctor) and I note that the power imbalance thrives within an ideological hegemony that demonises beauty.

If embraced, beauty is seen as furthering consumerism or crass sex. Otherwise, it is laced with the arsenic of shame. We echo the stigma, turn it inwards and self-cannibalise with judgment. It’s time to wise up about the Why behind this. And do something different this year.

Strip away the extreme, autopilot ideas

Too often, we get absolutist about ideas of beauty.

Admittedly, the extreme examples glare at us, forming stereotypes.

The woman with a pillow face from using too much fillers. The girl who haemorrhages money to look like Angelina Jolie or Barbie.

But tarring our realities with these extreme examples paints a distorted picture.

And here’s the problem. Weaved with this is an overwhelming deluge of distorted news.

To Rachel, the most disturbing ones are:—

1. “Be natural”. She says that whilst it is natural to develop wrinkles, jowl lines and pigmentation as a result of tissue changes, there is nothing un-natural about seeking help to correct or slow down these signs of ageing.

Indeed “natural” is the bugbear of many women I speak to, who are told that it is unnecessary and shallow to look good.

Yet, where do we draw the line with “natural”. Is going to the dentist for a filling arising “naturally” from my dietary choices or taking supplements for my cardiac health stemming from my Type A personality, unnatural?

2. Myths peddled by self-crowned experts on GOOP like wearing bras are a risk factor for breast cancer or that walking around with a jade egg in your vagina will lead to better sex.

To Rachel, some of these can be downright dangerous and irresponsible. She says that “Sticking jade eggs up your vagina can cause infections. It is a foreign object. Bacterial vaginosis can cause toxic shock syndrome. This can be life-threatening when bacteria enters your blood stream.”

As for the bit on bras, “Bras do not cause breast cancer. There is no proof. That’s all.”

Instead, information like these prey on existing insecurities and general ignorance about research and science. They make beauty and taking care of your skin feel shallow and vapid.

Moreover, fake news fuels excessive anxiety; we have enough of our busy minds to deal with in modern living.

3. Unnecessarily tedious 14-step skincare programs. In my early 20s, I learned about the 7-step skincare regiment, popularised by the Korean skincare craze in Singapore. As someone who spends five minutes on her skin every morning, 7 steps is a little too long for my liking. Imagine my horror when I learned about the 14-step program.

Rachel categorically states that such a skincare regiment is excessive. With every single “miracle” ingredient piled up, your skin cannot absorb all the nutrients promised. Instead “it’s more important to identify your skin type and concerns, targeting them intelligently rather than following trends.”

As a simple rule-of-thumb, Rachel advocates retinol for fine lines, and hyaluronic acid for hydration.

Do not get hoodwinked by the idea that you need to use a serum, ampoule and essence all at once. There is a saturation point to which skincare reaches its maximum efficacy. “It’s logical. Layer by layer, you block the skin”, she says. So even if it creates a temporary effect by gently calming your skin and exfoliating your epidermis, in the long run, it can cause whiteheads, blackheads and milia— things you do not want on your face.

For me, it’s simple. The beauty industry thrives on marketing new products with fancy names and beautiful branding. The paradox of choice can create analysis-paralysis, so inventing a long skincare procedure solves that problem and boosts the bottomline.

But for the consumer, taking care of ourselves evolves into a laborious Sisyphean task fuelled by fear. And the finishing posts keep moving.

From a mind-body perspective, constantly living in fear might be the biggest culprit for ageing.

Historically, too, the woman has been demonised as the weaker sex.

From Lilith who was co-opted from Sumerian mythology by the Abrahamic faiths and painted as a man-stealing and baby-devouring demoness, to Eve who succumbed to the serpent’s temptation to eat of the Tree of Wisdom, to Delilah who seduced Samson so she could cut off his hair and steal his strength, the examples stretch beyond lore.

Philosophers from Confucius to Aristotle have echoed this, where the former equated petty people and women in the Analects, and the latter declared women as “mutilated men”, “more shameless and false. . than the male”.

Protract this to current times, beyond the obvious instances of the glass ceiling and gendered pay differences.

Think the double standards where Amber Heard was continuously harangued for evidence of domestic violence, whilst Johnny Depp was defended instead. As this article on The Atlantic summarises elegantly, “The woman says, This happened. The world says, If true.”

Then think Dame Angela Lansbury declaring women should sometimes take blame for sexual harassment because of the way they dress.

Or in my best friend’s case, where she was rejected for a job for being “too glamorous”. She was asked point-blank, “Do you want to be catcalled by your colleagues?”.

Is it surprising we hear “You wear too much makeup to be smart”, amongst other snarky remarks, from men, women and eventually from ourselves?

At the heart of it all is a dilemma Rachel and I have identified.

Evolutionary psychologists and biologists have long declared attractiveness to signal health and fertility, an important factor in the unconscious decision matrix we undertake when selecting our partners. It’s also been linked with more promotion opportunities, higher self-esteem levels and greater happiness.

Or, as this recent theory argues, our love for beauty may have evolved out of pure aesthetics.

Either way, we are wired to like beauty. If financial assets, social networks and skills are forms of capital, then beauty is arguably capital too.

But we also judge beauty harshly.

And it is this judgment about beauty and shame that tars the whole experience.

In 2018, let’s have candid conversations about beauty.

Just as we don’t think that upskilling and reading is ‘unnatural’, but rather an upgrade to our brainpower, let’s see taking care of ourselves as being Version 2.0.

Let’s make beauty work for us, rather than be dragged down by guilt and feeling apologetic.

Let’s make beauty streamlined, intelligently informed, and in a way that elevates how we feel.

Here’s more about Dr Perpetua Neo’s and Dr Rachel Ho’s work.

Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com


  • Dr Perpetua Neo (DClinPsy, UCL; MPhil, Cambridge)

    Psychologist & Executive Coach For Type A Leaders

    Dr Perpetua Neo (DClinPsy, UCL; MPhil, Cambridge) coaches Type A leaders to master their time, head and relationships quickly and deeply, so they enjoy sustained performance, peace of mind and sleep like a cat. Instead of managing problems via fads or yielding to burnout, DrP tailors strategies to her clients’ personalities and lifestyles, building lasting systems and structures. DrP specialises in The Big 3 that we mistakenly tolerate— anxiety, toxic relationships and panic attacks-- so her clients achieve multiple personal and professional goals concurrently, feeling confident and in-control of the rest of their lives.

    DrP is consulted on Forbes, Business Insider and Vogue, and her work  is in 36 languages. She writes for The Huffington Post, MindBodyGreen and Thrive Global. DrP works in English and Mandarin-Chinese, blending cutting-edge neuroscience, psychology and ancient wisdom. She flies globally or works via Facetime/Skype, for 1-1 work, workshops and speaking gigs. She also consults for media agencies on campaigns.