Soft Pharmakon

By Judy Thorne |


Skincare is fantasy, a dream of self-care. “Softening”, “dewy”, “like a baby”, “nourishing”, you will never grow old, forever the elastic blush of your skin will elicit the allowances and affections people shower on the young.

It is better that it is a lie, better that, as you google “is toner necessary”, “best moisturiser combination skin”, and flick through the pages of confessional articles written by women just like you about their blemishes and the wrinkles that creep around the corners of their mouths, and the terrible dryness of winter, and the creams that helped them, that we know that we ourselves will not be helped. We can buy a vial of acid to pat (not rub) into our faces, corroding our skin and thereby promoting a new start. We can buy richly emollient cream to mollify us through the night, and in the morning wake up and present the person we took to bed the previous night – or, failing that, our own questing fingers – with the skin of a child.

Perhaps we will notice a change in the frequency with which blemishes occur. Perhaps the critical investigations of our hands, when we stroke our cheeks, will be charmed into forbearance, and we will continue to stroke ourselves, pleased to caress a different skin. Or perhaps nothing will happen at all or the problems will worsen or things will change seemingly without reference to the products (“my skin has been so much dryer since I began to use this serum; but I think the dryness began the evening before I bought it…”).

Yet the mirage does not break, the fantasy continues, or is given fuel by these doubts and failures, because this is the way of spells, prophecies, and myths: it is through their glancing, recoiling relation with the dreary phenomena of empirical experience that they build their power. They are other than real, and it is to that place, that bower of dreams, at eleven thirty on a work night when we need to put ourselves to bed but instead are researching retinoids (“cause cancer?”) on the internet, that we wish to fall back.

It’s not like food. The google results for “soy bad”, “is gluten free a lie”, “best antioxidant fruits”, “anti inflammatory breakfast” are not comforting. The science is a little more peer-reviewed; the doubts are marginally more decidable. There is no package we can order; and if there is, it is obviously manufactured by quacks, the lies are more plain to see, nature is not real, everything is made of chemicals, you can glimpse the knife. The aura is more wispy, and more dangerous; everything is toxic, I am becoming fatter, my lunch is carcinogenic, I eat no iodine, seaweed is inaccessible to me in this city. One begins immediately to despair at the futility of health, the imminence (presence?) of illness and the nearness of death. Food is not like skincare. The scientific words skincare whispers are not intended to be investigated. They are runes which offer to cast a glamour, to tell a story, to salve.

The carcinogens, diseases and lies of commodity capitalism create and inhere in our bodies, our waking lives and our dreams, creating now a worker, now a commodity exchange, now a tumour, now a surplus, now a sustaining fantasy. We know that the air on the streets, our jobs and loves and food and toothpaste will sicken and kill us. In this inescapable context, at night, or in stolen moments on our mobile phones when our minds might otherwise wander, skincare offers emolliation.


Artwork by the author (@sanguinesquares).

Judy Thorne is a utopian communist from England. She is in Greece, drawing, writing poems and doing her PhD fieldwork.




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