For a long time, I believed I wouldn’t have to die. Not only would I not die, but also no one I loved would die: Instead, we’d collectively float along, minds and bodies intact, through this mortal life and into paradise, a place where nothing could wilt, fail, or end. Toward the end of high school, though, I stopped being able to believe the Christian faith in which I’d been raised. And just like that, my expected lifespan was cut down from eternity to maybe, at best, a brief 70- or 80-odd years; like that, I became preoccupied with the impossible project of trying not to die. In other words, though this wouldn't manifest itself for a little while, I became well primed to turn into what I now so fully am: a skin care obsessive.
You’ll have heard of it as 10-step skin care, or maybe 12-step skin care: n-step skin care. The exact number, to be determined based on what works for you, the individual. That’s how I think of it to myself, n steps, since I’m not sure how many different products I apply in a given day. It's a lot, enough that I don’t quite want to know.
First, there’s the oil. Every night, I rub it around my face, in circles, gently, until the last swirls of the day’s sunscreen and makeup lift off my skin. I splash water over it, emulsifying the oil. I squeeze out a dollop of a mild cleanser to remove the oil-makeup mix, and then it’s time, when possible, for a hydrating sheet mask. The instant that the cool, damp mask clings to my face, I sigh with pleasure, relief. I leave it on for 10–15 minutes, waiting, while I do other things.
I was raised Catholic, but then, starting in high school, I veered away from my family’s creed into off-brand, mostly Protestant varieties of still more ecstatic, joy-dazzled faith. As a result, the particulars of what I believed got jumbled, but I always subscribed to the promise of the resurrection of the flesh. My face, legs, hands — this swarm of cells was mine. Lifted to heaven, I would then be improved, made incorruptible. I thought I’d never have to give this body up.
When I try to explain this nowadays to my largely godless friends, they find it difficult to imagine. In turn, it’s hard for me to convey how good it felt, how long I lived in an idyll of being unafraid. How valued I imagined myself, and how beloved. People often think that Christianity teaches its adherents to despise their bodies, but the Lord had counted each of the hairs on our heads: Not one could fall without His divine noticing. We were shaped in His image, wonderfully made.
I’m not, though. I think I’m, in all likelihood, an agglutination of cells, assembled by time and chance. Which is a wonder on its own, of course. It’s a biological and aleatoric marvel, it is, but there isn’t the old sense of being created — loved — prized.
So, perhaps, I’m taking additional measures to prize myself, attempting to make up for His ongoing lack.
After 15 minutes with the hydrating face mask, I strip it off. I splash water on my face to remove the excessive sheet-mask liquid — most people keep it on, but I break out easily. I’ve found that I’m better off like this, with a quick, third cleanse. I then apply a toner, a thin liquid that balances my skin’s pH levels, preparing my face for the next step: a first treatment essence. It’s a second thin liquid, and it helps ensuing products absorb. Next up, a peptide-filled essence. Then, a retinol or vitamin C serum, or maybe lactic acid — depending on the day, I alternate between these three steps, as they all involve active ingredients, i.e., relatively powerful exfoliators and antioxidants. Some people wait 10–15 minutes, at this point, to let their actives absorb. I don’t. I’m impatient. I daub on an oil-rich serum. I tap it in, gently, with care.
The other day, I was comparing notes on our respective regimens with a friend whose approach to skin care is even more rigorous than my own. “But what’s the point of all this?” she said, abruptly. We’d been detailing each of our steps. “What’s the end goal? I mean, we’re aging by the minute. We’re all going to die.”
On the one hand, I have zero patience for those who criticize skin care aficionados for being self-indulgent, or patsies for capitalism — as Kristin Iversen has pointed out, any activities favored predominantly by women tend to be dubbed foolish, excessive, and I spend far less on, say, serums, than a hockey lover might on season tickets.
On the other hand, my friend’s right to ask what the point is. We’ll die; those we love will die; everyone’s dying; it’s an outrage. All children go through this, of course: At some point, usually while still very young, we all learn what death is and that we’ll die, ourselves. It’s just that it took me until I was almost an adult to attain this knowledge, a delay long enough that, on some level, I think I’m still holding out hope that the sentence will be reprieved. So, if I act as if I can keep myself intact, my face unchanged, maybe I won’t have to go. Never mind that we all have to give up our bodies, that it’s the most common alteration in the world. My rage and shock remain fresh. I haven’t stopped grieving the ineluctable loss, and I’ve just begun suspecting that I might grieve as long as I live. I’m hell-bent on retaining what I have, as long as I can.
I rub in the next step, an aloe vera gel. It’s so good: cheap, soothing. Then I start switching things up, depending on how my skin is feeling on a given day. There’s a gel-like cream my face finds calming, or there’s a ginseng-infused sleeping pack, which is a kind of midweight lotion. If my skin feels extra dehydrated, I might use something called a moisture veil. It’s a thick emollient, and my face loves it. In the end, I’ll always apply a rice-based sleeping pack, swirled with a ceramide-filled ointment. This last part’s occlusive: It seals in all the previous steps’ nutrients, and then I’m safe for about 12 hours, after which I’ll have to do it all over again.
“Does it actually do anything?” skin care skeptics ask, and, well, yes. With skin care, I take nothing on faith. I’ve never added a step to my regimen without reading about it at length. I get into the ingredients. I want details on the science. I patch-test, usually for a month, first trying out a new product on a quarter-sized portion of my face, then on increasingly larger sections, proceeding until I’m confident there’s a discernible, added benefit to my skin.
But it’s a lot of steps. Sometimes, especially if I’m tired or if I’ve had a few drinks, I fall asleep without washing my face. For skin care enthusiasts, this is a cardinal sin. It’s terrible for my face, leaving on the day’s filth. Inevitably, I then wake up in the middle of the night, knowing I need to get up, wash, be clean. This can take a while, though. I’ll lie awake, alone in the silence, trying to find the will to leave my bed. It’s dark and it’s silent. This is when I used to feel closest to God, but now there’s nothing there, so I get up. I return to the bathroom sink. I begin my ritual again, playing "as if," holding on to what I know I’ll lose. ●
R.O. Kwon is a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow. Her writing is published or forthcoming in the Guardian, Vice, BuzzFeed, Time, Noon, Electric Literature, Playboy, and elsewhere. She has received awards from Yaddo, MacDowell, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the Sewanee Writers' Conference, Omi International, the Steinbeck Center, and the Norman Mailer Writers Colony. Born in South Korea, she has lived most of her life in the United States.