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From Skin Care Doubter to Skin Care Witch: Learning to Love Myself Through My Shelves of Potions

May. 4, 2022 at 3:11PM

“I came pretty late to the party with skin care. I was 22 or 23 before I started to pay attention.”

When I read this quote from Anya Taylor Joy in a recent New York Times piece on how we can all look like the young starlet in all her doe-ish glory, I audibly laughed. Girl, I’ve got a decade on you. You’re not late; you’re early.

I’m 34 years old, and the first time I applied a moisturizer to my face at night was three months ago. It was a glorious experience that left me saying, “So that’s what hydration feels like!” and kicked off an intensive effort spanning months (and still going) to develop a skin care ritual. There I was in January, manically perusing listicles of THE BEST skin care products available and collecting an admittedly ridiculous amount of “potions,” as I like to call them. Yes, I created a spreadsheet where I track 10 variables, highlight products I’d like to repurchase, and create custom routines I can swap in and out depending on what my skin needs. And I get seriously upset if I’ve been writing so much that I haven’t had time to spreadsheet. Spreadsheet is life

A solid skin care routine promises hydration, brightening, softening, plumping, and other terms that have an air of mystery, but don’t those words just make you go, “I want THAT!”?

Skin care awoke something in me. You can find me cackling over my exposed bathroom shelves trying to decide which essence I will spritz on my face tonight. I howl at the moon. Dip my fingers into that jar of thick moisturizer and smear it on every square inch of my face with glee. My animal familiar (Finnely the pug) gets up close and personal with my face when I wear a banana-scented (his favorite) moisturizer. Yes, I’m a skin care witch.

Maybe one day I’ll share my routine with all of you (combination skin beebees unite). But until then, I’m going to tell you the story of how I came to terms with the fact that I’m getting older. 

It starts with a mystery package and tells you a lot about my family’s influence on me.

Brittany, I Have Your Ipsy

So, my partner bought our house in January of 2020. Yep. That year. We moved in a month before COVID-19 hit Wisconsin. Soon after we moved in, Ipsy packages started arriving on our porch every month addressed to somebody named Brittany (hey Brittany, if you’re out there, here’s your friendly reminder to update the address on your Ipsy subscription). Though, I admittedly take pleasure peeking into the skin care and makeup preferences of a woman I’ve never met and do not know.

I was a what’s what of all the biggest skin care sins before this year. Since my skin care routine started with the forbidden St. Ives apricot scrub when I was a teenager and has since included outright dismissal of sun protection, sleeping in my makeup overnight, and a face mask like, twice a year, opening an Ipsy bag was like learning a new language. I opened the package and found a small bottle of thick, creamy lotion, aqueous hyaluronic acid serum, and a turmeric-infused clay face mask.

I couldn’t just let it all go to waste. We Knudsens don’t waste things. Soft, mushy blueberries got you down? Freeze them and toss them in a smoothie! JNCO jeans? Ugly, yes, but Caitlin you can be as cool as your older brother if you don those bad boys. In fact, every time I visit my parents they, “redistribute” some kind of belonging into my possession. Do I need it? Not usually.

Recently (like earlier tonight) my dad admitted the family ethos he purported to be original—use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without—actually came from some World War II propaganda. Whoops.  

So, yes, I used the skin care samples. And this winter, I decided to go full throttle. I think it came shortly after I could no longer justify spending more money on candles. I think it was after I realized I had filled an entire side of my credenza with candles, which is, an excessive amount of candles. It’s also when I looked in the mirror and I didn’t like what I saw.

11 Scented Candles That Give You a Ride to Pleasureville

11 Scented Candles That Give You a Ride to Pleasureville

COVID-19 sucks, and we could all use more pleasure in our lives. Check out these 11 scented candles to embrace pleasure with reckless abandon and no apologies.

To Love or Hate Thyself

Disliking yourself is a familiar feeling as a woman. It was one of the thousands of times I looked into the mirror and didn’t like my face. Yet, when I was 14 I perceived all kinds of imperfections that were not there, and 34-year-old me could not deny the dull skin, forehead wrinkles, and crows feet flickering across my eyes every time I smiled. This distinct change in my skin texture and appearance I could not ignore. No longer, could I escape my inevitable trek toward the grave.

In many ways, being a woman is a delicate dance with escapism. You learn early to dissociate from yourself to survive, to both fixate on what isn’t right with you, and at the same time close your eyes and hope you open them to a world where your stretch marks and bacne are now a sign of beauty rather than a source of ire.

Like many women, I’ve vacillated between feeling like an absolute femme fatale, and seeing a frickin’ troll in my bloated physique post french fry bacchanalia. Often, it depends on the whims of my hormones. I’m ovulating? Pure sex coming through. About to get my period? Just banish me to the woods where I belong with my clawed and toothed brethren. I’m totally fine with becoming the crone I was meant to be. I’ll befriend a fox, scare the local children, and make poisonous forest berry muffins for disgruntled women to share with their husbands who have, of late, been getting way too handsy with the bar maid.

Once you reach a certain age as a woman, you’ve seen some shit. I naively decided to blow my trauma exposure out of the water by choosing to work as a nurse. And I can tell. Do you know those pictures of men before and after war? I watched a similar transition in myself over the course of three years working as a nurse. However, I’ve spent years in trauma recovery now and this winter, I realized that there was another player in the game. I was aging. I was actually fucking aging. College was over a decade ago. I’m now the person I would look at when I was in my teens and think, “That’s an adult.” 

There’s a mixture of, but wait, I wasn’t ready for this, and resignation—the fleeting consideration of whether Botox is something I could set aside, well, everything I am and stand for, to recapture my youth. You know how people older than you always say to appreciate your body for what it is because there comes a time when you’ll look back and realize how good you had it? Yeah, the bastards were right.

I spent too many years seeing the monster rather than myself in the mirror. Here’s a good one: in middle school, a female friend pointed out how hairy my arms were (they really aren’t that hairy at all) and I proceeded to shave my damn arms for years. Which absolutely backfired, because if a young gent came anywhere close to me and I wasn’t freshly shaven—well, I had more than a few inquiries into why I had stubble on my arms. Lose-lose.

As a woman you know that you should love yourself, to see the glacial blue of your eyes, your striking auburn locks, your full lips, the softness of your skin but there are so many forces you’re confronted with that provide evidence that your love is falsely placed. Social media. Plastic surgery. Porn. Hollywood. Social media influencers hitting the plastic surgery hard and trying to transition from their porn career to make it big in Hollywood. 

While I’m overjoyed to see pushback against the unreasonable standards thrust upon us without our consent, I ache for the young woman who did not see people who looked like her on the silver screen. Who didn’t wear shorts for years because she was terrified the collagen on the back of her thighs made her unlovable. The woman I am today who knows she will never look like a magazine, no matter how many potions she applies to her face.

Self-Care or Self-Sabotage

Question for the peanut gallery: Where is the boundary between conscious choice and unconscious obedience to systems not of our making?

And a question for myself: Are you applying bakuchiol because you care about yourself or because you’re trying to attain the unattainable?

How do I make sure I’m not falling into old patterns I’ve worked so hard to overcome? 

The years spent trying to fit into a size two (never happened). Restricting the food I ate. Bingeing when the pressure is built too high. Tracking my calories obsessively. Exercising until I was lightheaded. I ditched dieting a few years ago, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. I pledged to myself I would never count a calorie again. And I’ve never felt so free. But skin care. skin care was the final frontier, a facet of appearance politics I had yet to dabble in.

At the same time, I am a fierce advocate for self-care in every direction it stretches—mind, body, spirit. I eat nourishing food because my body needs it. I exercise because it relieves my stress. I meditate because it keeps me grounded and connected to myself. Why should skin care be any different?

Do I embrace the crone inside or apply potions to take the edge off my crow’s feet?

I Care for My Skin to Care for Myself

I’m aging. I cannot ignore it. Like a broken dam, I can’t stop the inevitable flow downstream. I will gain more wrinkles. My skin will become less elastic. I will have an increasing need for hydration as my skin weathers. My largest organ will become more vulnerable to insults, like pollution or pressure. Bumping your arm on the door can turn into a gnarly full-thickness skin tear.  

But my skin deserves love and care. I’m not trying to be 22 when I’m 34. That ship sailed a long time ago. And lately, I’m viewing myself with wonder I probably needed in my youth. I’m caring for my skin like I’ve learned to care for myself in my 30s–with intentionality, tenderness, joy, and magic. Seriously, if you have a buck, watch your skin absolutely shimmer.

After three months, I’ve watched my skin transform into the best version it can be for my three decades of wisdom and life experience. My potions? Vitamin C seriously brightens my skin and I cannot go more than 12 hours without applying a hyaluronic acid serum. My skin feels happy as a clam returned to water. I have mixed feelings about facial oil. And I’m purchasing products that contain friends of mine from the natural world, plants I feel an affinity towards—birch, stonecrop, willow bark, peppermint, lemon verbena, rose, maple sap, sea water, aloe.

Besides making my skin look and feel healthier, skin care has become another way I love myself the way I needed to be loved and cared for a long time ago. We can’t expect forces as big as the beauty industry to have our best interests at heart. And the realization I’ve had as I’ve reached baby crone status is that we always had a choice to what extent we engage with the systems in our world. We can choose to reject them or mold them in our image to practice a radical form of self-care. I’ve chosen the latter.

About the author

Caitlin Knudsen

Propagator of succulents, hobbyist baker, healthcare by day, pug wrangler always.