Did you hear? We're Making Global Friends!
Net-A-Porter just named our Retinol+Bakuchiol Serum among the best new beauty products to try and we are so excited to get the word out overseas, especially since our Net-A-Porter launch was earlier this month! So what’s next? We want to get to know every new global friend just as we’ve gotten to know our US family over the past few years!
Writing about skincare and working in the beauty industry has made me obsess over questions that often leave me running in circles -- who do we learn beauty from, and if our individual skincare journeys are so intertwined with societal trends and standards how can we find agency in it? To satisfy my curiosity, I decided to investigate the meaning of beauty on a personal and global level with two insightful and global women.
Both women are prime examples of how beauty shines from the inside out. Their confidence and mindfulness radiate throughout their whole being and I am immensely grateful to both of them for this interview.
CC: What is your name, where do you live, and where are you from?
SP: I’m Shannon. I live in Washington, DC, grew up in Switzerland but my family’s from various parts of the Caribbean.
MC: I’m Lufeng May Chen. I moved back to Shanghai last June, after studying in the US for ten years.
CC: How did you grow up thinking about skincare and beauty?
SP: My mother spent years convincing me that Black people needed to wear sunscreen too, so growing up, my skincare routine consisted of sunscreen and twice-daily lotion. While I wasn’t especially focused on skincare, I was very aware that beautiful was something to strive for. In middle school, I had a secret eyeliner and mascara that I would put on in the bathroom. That was also the age I began begging my mother to let me relax my hair.
MC: I used face wash for the first time at the age of 12. Early-teenage acne had just started its invasion. My mother demonstrated, squeezing out a bean-sized foam and rubbing it between her palms. I remember feeling somewhat embarrassed by the fact that I was becoming a teenage girl. But a year later in my American boarding school, I had become a confident skincare aficionado, knowing my way around Sephora and the beauty section in Walmart. I learned “American beauty” by watching my peers put on makeup before breakfast. I learned “Asian beauty” by watching K-beauty videos.
CC: Why is skincare important to you?
SP: I used to have an afro and as any Black person with natural hair could tell you, that took up a lot of time. Once I shaved my head, I found myself missing the half-hour before bed that was entirely my own where I got to wind down and lull myself to sleep with a routine. Skincare is how I’ve been able to recapture that quiet period of self-love. I think what is most important about it is that it forces me to care for myself in a way that most people likely don’t notice.
MC: Our skin reflects our health. I see skincare as the same as caring for my own health. Noticing if I am drinking enough water, eating too much oily or spicy food is all a part of my responsibility for myself. If I don’t take care of myself, I don’t get to complain!
CC: What observations did you notice about different beauty standards around the world?
SP: In my travels, I noticed how some regions don’t place so much stock on body size. While the US has its problems with fatphobia, in Europe, it was rampant and mundane. I’ve noticed that places with less diversity have stricter beauty standards that few can meet. Here, I’ve found that standards of beauty depend on a number of factors, and even within the same community, class group, and background, there tends to be more than one way you can be considered beautiful.
I’m fortunate to have had a number of opportunities to travel and the saddest observation I made was that there doesn’t seem to be a region that doesn’t prefer lighter skin over darker. Across ethnicities, classes, and religions, this seems to be the most shared beauty standard.
MC: It’s always interesting to compare commentaries (compliments or critiques) when I am at home or on the road. From the eye of some Chinese parents, my not-that-thin, a-bit-muscular, and pretty-dark traits are telling of my “westernization”. They would say “foreigners must like how you look”. I never know how to take it because it sounds like a compliment but what are they really saying?
Overall, the idea of beauty in Asian countries is more homogeneous, thinner, and snow-white skin oriented. Those who do not follow the expectation that comes with femininity stand out and stand out strongly. My experiences in the US tell me that people challenge the idea of beauty more and on a daily basis (perhaps this is because I hang out with more people of color in general).
CC: What did you learn about beauty when living in different countries?
SP: In India, I learned about oiling my hair to promote growth. In Switzerland, I learned about Bio-Oil for stretch marks and apricot oil for lightening the appearance of scars. In the US, I learned about the dangers of mechanical exfoliation and the importance of locking in moisture at night with a heavy cream. I think these have all been educational but the biggest lesson has been that most people’s skin needs far more moisture than they think.
MC: If we are talking about skin, I find American girls spend more time on makeup than skin-care. Most girls I knew back in boarding school didn’t even wash off their makeup at night! There’s more emphasis on lashes and lips. In East Asia, I figure we spend a lot of time on both (with an emphasis on a natural look). If we are talking about beauty, I don’t even know where to begin.
CC: What trends did you pick up on and which ones did you try?
SP: I was a big believer in “natural skincare” for ages. So, I tried all the usual “products”: ACV, rosewater, banana peel, yogurt, etc. I do still love rosewater. In Jordan, one beauty experience that I fell in love with was the hammam (hammams are thousands of years old so not a trend!). There’s something meditative about moving from steam rooms to cold water and the mind going blank as the body goes through the shock of changing temperatures. One hammam experience, in particular, was incredible. There was a young mother who was openly and comfortably breastfeeding her small child, while her mother gave my friends and I advice on how to make the most of our experience. Then, being scrubbed by a woman until what feels like years of dead skin peel off, it’s such an embodied experience and really centered me in my body.
In India, I was working with low-income communities so I didn’t expect to spend much time thinking about beauty at all. I overlooked how much beauty can be a way for people to connect. I found women in India to be bold in their use of makeup and found myself emulating them, turning to my brightest lipsticks.
MC: I learned to beautify my appearance before taking care of it, which meant that I followed “more is more” when it came to makeup. Jenny Humphrey from Gossip Girl had the look I wanted, but her smokey eye couldn’t sit right on my eyes and it was certainly too much for a 14-year-old girl. I looked to K-pop stars instead. Sharing similar facial features as my own, their light and colorful touch on the cheek, emphasis on eyeliner instead of lashes helped me achieve the teenage edge I wanted but it also made me feel comfortable in my own skin.
The more I grew, the less I beautified myself and the more I took care of my skin and now I continue to follow the “less is more” approach!
CC: Why do you think there are different beauty trends in different places?
SP: I think beauty trends are based on the cultural perception of women. In Switzerland, nude nail polishes are often more popular. The standard of beauty rests on the presumption of women as polished and flawless. In the US, beauty standards are less about flawlessness and polish and more about authenticity and self-expression. So, women in the US will wear acrylics with bold designs or even just bold colors. I think some of these differences can be attributed to the differences between the feminist movement in Switzerland and in the US. In Switzerland, women only gained the right to vote in 1971 and there remains a culture that assumes women will stay at home once they’ve had children. Antiquated gender norms are still quite strictly reinforced and moving from that to the US was a revelation. While binary gender norms are still present in the US, I think because women’s rights have gone through so many iterations, that has resulted in a culture that is more open to alternative forms of gender expression. Then, I think once you have an environment where women have more spending freedom and where they are less likely to be judged for not performing a stereotype of femininity, people can experiment more, and that allows for more interesting trends.
MC: This could be a sociology paper! I think “time” would add another dimension to this question. I’m thinking about art history and how it is essentially the history of evolution and styles. So if we look at the 1920s, their idea of beauty, especially in the western hemisphere like Paris and America, was slim, chic, and feminine. And when you fast forward to the 70s in America it was a totally different look-- Natural beauty, unshaved, long hair, wildness. And in China, elegance was more of a look women tried to achieve around the beginning of the 20th century, and in Tang Dynasty, that’s a time when women were fat and round and that was the highest level of beauty. Beauty trends are always changing no matter the place and time.
CC: How do you think your international perspective has affected your perspective of beauty?
SP: I have a number of friends from Nigeria and Kenya and listening to their stories, I often wonder how my conceptualization of beauty would’ve been different had I grown up somewhere where the population is predominantly Black. I think that had I not been a visible minority, I might have been more willing to experiment with my appearance, especially my hair because I wouldn’t have felt like I was representing all Black women but simply myself. Also, it would have been easier to get into makeup because I would have been able to find products tailored to my skin tone! Finally, I probably would have looked into cosmetic procedures like how to laser on darker skin tones which few aestheticians in White-majority countries are comfortable with.
MC: I think if I was American, my perspective of beauty would be different than how I perceive it now. I do think the advantage I had growing up is that I grew up in two different cultures simultaneously. In China, I have seen that we promote a sense of fragility and femininity in a more traditional way and in America there is a sense of beauty in strength and athleticism. I think there is more of an emphasis on being sexy in America which I never really felt in China. I’m really grateful for my international perspective because it reminds me that beauty is subjective and culture and relative. So when I’m in America if people find me attractive then fine, great, and if they don’t then fine, great. I’m not going to be everyone’s dish.
CC: What does beauty mean to you?
SP: Beauty means tenderness. It is every Friday afternoon I sat between my mother’s legs so she could braid my hair and every time a friend rested their head on my thigh so I could pluck their eyebrows. I have always known beauty to be a unifying force that brings women together and the context in which we care for one another.
MC: Let me ask you a question: “Do you know you are beautiful?” Observe your own reaction to this question. Are you taken aback? Are you uncomfortable at the thought of trusting or even thinking that you are beautiful? Are you thinking about your facial features, your body, your personality, your heart? To me, beauty energizes, both to the self and to the outside world. Of course, when I come across a beautiful figure, I easily swoon, but it is when I discover the oneness of interior and exterior beauty that I smile.
CC: Who are your beauty role models?
SP: Naomi Campbell, Dolly Parton, and Alok Menon.
MC: I might not have one?
CC: Who are your fav non-American influencers to follow!
SP: Aaron Philip, Marielle Elizabeth, Stephanie Yeboah, Freddie Harrel, and Scheena Donia!
MC: Margaret Zhang and Emili Sindlev.
CC: What is your favorite beauty hack or style?
SP: A beauty trick that my grandmother taught me was how to use Jamaican black castor oil on my eyelashes and on my scalp to promote hair growth. It really works!
MC: I use plum lipstick as blush and pearl purple eyeshadow as my highlighter. Both have become my signature and you are welcome to steal them.
CC: Lastly, which Dr. Devgan Scientific Beauty products are you most excited about purchasing!?
SP: I need to get my hands on the serums!
MC: Going to be buying the Long Lash ASAP.
I hope whoever reads this finds value in the fact that beauty comes in many different forms. Be mindful. Be patient. Take care of your internal and external selves and rejoice in everything you are.
By Caroline Campos